looking at non traditional composition and quiet vs busy areas in paintings

Paul Klee

I thought I'd look at non-traditional composition - where the rule of thirds isn't the key but the painting relies on different compositional methods. in response to an excellent series of posts on the various ways of looking at composition by Katherine (link at end). These alternative considerations or breaking of rules - but making it work - appeal to me more than too heavy a reliance on the rule of thirds.

The painting above, by Paul Klee is a 'field' painting' - the composition is overall, the eye travels around enjoying the glowing colour that he creates by juxtaposing complementary colours, subtle greyed greens enhancing the oranges/reds/pinks. Most of the image is composed of the various greens, greeny browns and khakis, with accents of the warm colours. When working this way it's important that the balance is unequal and that the accent colours are placed carefully to keep the eye moving in the way the artist wants. A couple of the brighter colours could be said to be on the 'sweet spots' but there are sweeps of warmth or bright colours, guiding your eye through the work and these are more important in this case.

Another issue is quiet vs busy areas - a painting needs a mixture of areas of intense activity (colour/detail/tone/marks) and quiet areas to offset these, enhancing their importance and giving them a 'setting'. There are quiet areas even in the Klee, where similar colours harmonise and allow those warm colours to glow in trails and spots of warmth.

Jackson Pollock and Therese Oulton are other 'field' painters.

Azurete. Vivien Blackburn approx 5in square
(The 'e' in the title should have an acute accent, it's French for the Blues) This is a very small abstract that's also about balance, harmony and moving your eye throught the painting. The imbalance is deliberate - part of the feeling of the blues and a field painting.
Again there are quiet areas to offset the busy/darker/lighter areas


This Degas compostion does have head, jug, hairbrush, almost her hand, at 'sweet points' - but he's daringly made that shelf take up a third of the picture, the model faces outwards close to the edge - but he makes it work. The 'weight' of the objects and the shelf keep you in the painting and balance the figure. Following traditional advice she would have been further to the right, with room to 'look into' - but when you know the rules and can apply them you can progress to breaking them as long as you break them well - like this :>)

Objects, the direction of the objects or marks and the colour and tone used can all add weight that balances a seemingly unbalanced or 'wrong' composition.

Again look at the quiet areas - see how important they are.


Many of the paintings by Degas have a very unusual composition, like the ones above. There is a strong upward diagonal working her and the downward movement of the dancer on the left is the gesture that balances this and keeps it working - it creates a dynamic movement that balances and counteracts the upward diagonal of the right hand figures

- rather like balancing a seesaw where you need to move the weight (child) if the two children aren't equally sized - in painting this can be done with position, colour, tone to increase or decrease emphasis and tip the balance.

Gauguin. Vision after the Sermon

Gauguin uses a similar device to the Degas bather - there is a strong diagonal division between the women leaving church and the vision of an angel that they are seeing. The tree cuts the painting in two dramatically. The white headresses make a repeating pattern across. Again elements are placed on 'sweet spots' but it's that diagonal tree and separation of the elements that creates the drama.

The rule of thirds or Golden Mean tends to create a calm composition - for drama it's necessary to direct the eye around the painting in other ways, such as this.

Roger Hilton . Oi Yoi Yoi

Roger Hilton had had an argument with his wife who was jumping up and down in temper and waving her arms - he did this painting in response. The bright colours, dramatic flowing bold lines and positioning of the figure almost bursting out of the picture, arms windmilling, really capture this - you can almost hear her shouting :>)

Again look at the lively lines, echoed to give a sense of bouncing movement and then the quiet of the blocks of colour that enhance the liveliness of the marks and add to the energy of the figure in the use of colour.


The hare races down the track ahead of the speeding train in this Turner painting (you won't see it here but it is there honestly! it just isn't good enough resolution). The horizon is in the centre - oh dear you 'shouldn't do that!!!!' (normally very true) - but - Turner has made the land and sky similar colours, dissolving in light and so it works.

Generally speaking horizons do work better 1/3 of the way up or down the painting but when you know how, you can make it work even though you break the 'rules'. :>)

Windblown, Vivien Blackburn

This one of mine is about movement, marks that swoosh your eye up through the abstracted petals. Again there are quiet areas and areas with lots of detail - marks/colour/tone.

Barbara Rae

Barbara Rae's work is based on landscape but very much abstracted to colour and mark, with colours heightened dramatically. The swooshing lines move your eye through the work and your eye roams around - these are lovely in real life, the paint surface is full of marks, scumbled paint showing underlying colours, glazed colour, bold marks put down and left and colour used with drama.

Frequently in my own work it's the directional lines and marks and the way colour pulls your eye through that are the most important elements in composition. These are crucial from the very beginning - as you'll see in the work-in-progress seascapes that are ongoing - those go down at the beginning and I work around them, maybe adapting, moving, losing bits and enhancing bits but that movement is there in the final painting.

link to Katherine's excellent articles http://makingamark.blogspot.com/

http://vivienb.blogspot.com/search/label/beach beaches paintings

How about you? how do you consider the compostion of a painting/drawing when planning?



Katherine said…
Thanks Vivien - this a really excellent post - great analysis!

You've even used a couple of the paintings (the Turner and The Degas woan washing) I had planned to use in a later post for illustrating similar points along the lines of "it shouldn't work but it does"

I've always loved that Degas and have seen it in person. It's just amazing the way that shelf just sits there - it MAKES me look at the painting. I feel as I'm stood looing into a room.
vivien said…
sorry for getting to the images first!!!!

and thanks :)

yes, Degas like Rembrandt often really gets into the personal space of the sitter and you are right THERE.
Lindsay said…
Great post. I especially like the discussion of lively vs calm parts to the compositions. I've started a composition idea book to help me sort things out.

You have chosen really strong works to illustrate your points. Makes it easy to understand!
Suzanne said…
Thank you for this excellent and thorough post. As I mentioned yesterday (?), I'm working on some large pieces and am reversing some compositional "shoulds". Was just studying today's yet unfinished piece to see what is working and not. I love the way that you've shown your own work amidst the others. I thought of Clyfford Still paintings as additional examples of your quiet and busy notes on field work.

Suzanne said…
PS I just posted a video of Richard Diebenkorn paintings on My Great Day. He's got some GREAT examples of field composition, quiet/busy areas.
vivien said…
thanks Suzanne and Lindsay - great examples Suzanne - so thanks again :)
Sue Smith said…
beautiful post, Vivien. I re-learned alot!
vivien said…
thanks Sue :D
Rose Welty said…
You've heard this before, but just to emphasize, this is a really great post. Thanks for taking the time to write it - it is very helpful and thought-provoking!
vivien said…
Hi Rose and thank you :)

I enjoy the feedback from people so I'm really happy to hear from you :)

such a tiny proportion of those who read the blog actually leave comments or subscribe, so I've no idea what they are thinking!
Lindsay said…
Vivien, that's so true about the ratio of comments to readers. Puzzling! But I assume if they are reading, something must be important.
vivien said…
Yes Lindsay - true :)..... hopefully!

It's funny but as the figures go up the ratio of new to revisitors stays at 2:1
Kim said…
This is a really good post, Vivien! I was just talking to a friend this morning about how important it is to understand the elements and principles of art/design, because we have to understand them completely in order to break them apart. Artist break the rules! As someone who has been educated in design and worked in the field for many years, I feel designers follow the rules (often because they have to in order to comply with legal regulations, and because the client will demand it in some form), but artist break them!

Keep up the wonderful work!

Thanks for visiting my blog. I look forward to seeing you there more and visiting you a lot more!
Kim said…
PS Vivien! I really like Windblown! Great colors and, obviously, great movement!
vivien said…
thanks Kim :) and I think you are absolutely right re: designers - I think it's a left brain vs right brain thing as well.

I had an accountant in my class once who after a few lessons suddenly said 'I'm beginning to understand - I thought you'd just be able to show me 'how' to draw before'

- he'd thought I would be able to show him 'THE' way to draw :D and was amazed to find there were few rules, lots of ways of working and no 'the' way as in accountancy!
Becky Vigor said…
Really interesting and thoughtful post, thanks. It's so helpful to have the "rules" and their breaking illustrated by the examples you've chosen of such strong paintings. I've never been taught much about composition, just picked things up intuitively and through things I've read. It's so good to read such a clear and succinct explanation.
vivien said…
thanks Becky :)
Casey Klahn said…
vivien said…
thank you Casey :)

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