Lesson 3: The Structures of Beauty

Elements of Composition

Reduced to its primary elements composition is the harmonious compilation of Line, Notan and Color within a defined pictorial space. In this lesson I'll continue to focus on the Notan honing in on the basic armatures of pictorial design.

Whether your genre is figural, landscape, still-life or non-objective abstraction painting is about Shape. Even down to the smallest accent and detail a painting's success is defined by the concordant arrangement of shapes.

The primary shape, the four critical lines, are the edges of your canvas. The canvas you choose must have a sympathetic correspondence to your subject and narrative. We'll approach this particular facet of composition in a later lesson: The Harmonious Divisions of Space.

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The design and arrangements of shape of even a small painting should be effective to carry at a distance of ten feet, and more. If your idea for a painting gets bogged down in details and finicky brush work in a small study (the pochade) then the composition requires a radical re-thinking.

Clarity is of utmost importance. This cannot be stressed enough -- your painting needs to grab the viewer by the lapels immediately

Michael Britton Indian Bunker
Michael Britton, Bunker - Kashmir, 2014,
Oil on Paper, 6.5 x 13"

Shape | Spacing

Whereas Shape defines the subject of a painting, Spacing (Proportion) is the grounding of Design. There are five principles of Composition in the arrangement of Shapes and Spacing:


Good design very often incorporates all of these five principles.

Underlying these five principles are four basic armatures upon which good pictorial design is established.

The Serpentine S

A very useful, and common, armature in landscape painting whether it be a road or river or creek bed. Just be careful not to whisk the view out of the painting.

Serpentine shapes are best broken either by line or color as they tend to accelerate.

A well-placed brush stroke, as in this plein air by Scott Whitcombe, effectively puts the brakes to the serpentine gesture of the roadway. Without a discrete braking stroke the viewer's eye will accelerate and the evocation of a languid afternoon stroll in the country-side would be lost.

Painting Composition 1

The L

Another very useful armature is the 'L'. The thrust of the Vertical shape (the tree trunk) is arrested by Horizontal shapes of the shed.

Whether one's mode is high realism, abstract and everything in between the fundamentals of composition remain constant.

To paraphrase Herman Melville, 'Verily, nothing is new under the sun.'

Painting Compositiion 2
Michael Britton Hayloft

The Triangle

In the Louvre's great hall of 19th Century French painting is Theordore Gericault's imposing Raft of the Medusa, 1818-20. Based on a true story this twisting mass of forlorn and cannibalizing humanity is deliberately constructed upon the armature of the triange. Particular attention must be paid to maintaining a singular clarity in a complex tableau.

Incidentally, the right-side standing figure signaling for help is well-placed on the Rabatement. I alluded to the Rabatement in Lesson 2 of this series.

And another thing! The walls of the Louvre's Great Hall are painted a terracotta red which render all of the flesh tones of these marvelous paintings a ghastly, corpse-like green. This is a color effect known as Simultaneous Contrast. A small digression, I know ... but no-one ever listens to me.

Gericault Raft of the Medusa
Painting Composition 3

The Fulcrum

The Fulcrum is a balancing act wherein a large shape is countered by a small shape. That small shape could even be a stroke of color ... a stroke that will impress the viewer as an inspired act.

If two masses are too similar in size they risk becoming static and leaden. Of course this can be a powerful composition in the hands of a master but more often it is perceived as unengaging and uninspired.

Painting Composition 4

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