Sunday, May 3, 2009

Calculating the Composition

I had a great idea for an extreme vertical painting a couple of months ago. After working out the composition in my sketchbook, I prepped a 24 x 12" panel, and got underway. As the painting progressed, I became increasingly aware that my enthusiasm for the idea didn't compensate for a flawed composition. I wanted strong vertical shapes heavily weighted on one side of the painting, but the other shapes were not providing the needed balance. Almost finished, the painting spent the next 2 months staring back at me from the studio shelf. This week, I decided to take another stab at my idea, but this time I was going to slow down, and think about constructing this with my calculator, a piece of graph paper, and the Golden Section. Try a different approach this time--it couldn't hurt.

Using my original sketch as the resource, I plotted out the dimensions of my panel (24 x 12), and began creating a grid that represented intersections and spacing based on the Golden Section, and that also related to the horizon line, major shapes, etc. in my sketch. By tweaking a bit, relocating slightly, and exaggerating some of the shapes, I was able to recreate the scene I wanted--but this time the composition was solid.

This isn't rocket science, and the Golden Section has been in use by artists for hundreds of years. What surprised me most was how calm and logical the solution was. With a refined composition, the work at the easel was a joy. I'm posting here the original sketch, and the G.S. sketch on grid, and the first blocking in of color/value.
This experience has reinforced the need to think smart, using cognitative problem-solving logic. Relying solely on inspiration and "feeling" doesn't work for me. Using all of my conscious and intuitive skills will insure the control that's needed to bring ideas to life.
I'll probably still work from an intuitive (internally KNOWN) process with composition, but it's great to have a reliable and objective silent partner in the studio.
I'll include the completed painting in my next post. It will take a couple of days to finish, so stay tuned...


  1. Susan,
    Thanks for reinforcing the cognitive aspect of painting. Studio artists often forget what art historians have running in their blood - the numbers, diagrams, and formulae associated with great works of art. We work from our heart, and, like you said, from what feels right. Perhaps we would end up with a greater number of paintings about which we can feel good if we were to use out heart AND our head. My next piece is going to be big - probably 36 x 48 (and probably in oil) - and so will require several studies and preliminary sketches, which I hope to record on my blog. Perhaps I shall start with the Golden Section as you suggest.

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  3. Susan,
    I just wanted to say how much I appreciate and enjoyed reading your blog about the Golden Rectangle. My husband is a furniture maker/designer and is always talking about design and rules and feeling the design. In fact, he's been writing about it lately.

    Your post got me to thinkin' I should take a step back to the basics on my next upcoming project and use the Golden Rectangle as a jumping off point. Same as PastelGuy above, I'm about to start a large canvas and haven't completely worked out my composition. So back to the Golden Rectangle for me!
    Thank you,