There are various views about how to crop a subject and a lot that can and has been said on this topic. I've tried to touch on just a few of the issues to do with cropping below and have then suggested some tips at the end. I hope you find it food for thought!
Where to start
First base for most people learning about art tends always to focus on learning about how to use media - and consequently there's a huge tendency to focus on the more conventional and safe options for composition before contemplating how this might change as confidence in handling the medium grows. Sometimes people never ever get round to contemplating that there may be scope to change how they compose a picture!
Our thoughts about how and where to place those four lines is something which then often seem to change as we make progress with our art and mature in our experience, knowedge, perspective and practice.
It's also one of those topic areas which is often rewarding to revisit from time to time no matter how experienced or knowledgeable an artist is.
There is no right answer per se - but looking at how others have tackled this topic can often be very stimulating to our practice as individual artists.
Art History - containment versus creative tension
Although there is no right answer but there have always been different views as to how those four edges can be placed and this has varied over time and between different places.
You can read a useful overview of the history of pictorial composition and design by Nancy Doyle.
Questions and answers about where to place the four lines and what choices are available for how to crop the image also seem to depend in part on what sort of artwork people are used to seeing and how much they have experimented with different sorts of crops. Which is why visiting art galleries and museums - in real life or online - often opens our eyes to different ways of seeing.
One very obvious example is the way in which Japanese art had a huge impact on western art as Japan opened up and its artwork became available to a wider audience in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The style of composition, picture format and crop associated with Japanese wood block prints became a significant influence on many notable artists at the end of the nineteenth century. Van Gogh, Whistler and Degas were all hugely influenced by the work of Japanese artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. (More about this in a later post)
While reading "how to read paintings", I also came across something which was new to me.
The majority of paintings up to the end of the nineteenth century......correspond to the ideal of the closed composition. The main elements of the subject are placed in the centre of the picture. In particular, all the human figures are contained within this sector and are surrounded by space - an empty zone in which the motifs are less dense - between them and the edges of the canvas. This was very often exactly the case in Classical style paintings of the seventeenth century.....
From the end of the 19th century artists started becoming far more interested in opening composition up, leading to its almost systematic decentralisation.
extract from "How to read paintings" - Composition - The Interior of a Painting
oil on canvas
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (United States)
He then goes on to comment on how Degas compositions engage the viewer by unusual angles and crops which systematically cut figures off at top, bottom or sides. It struck me that much of what is taught as conventional 'rules' relates more to the classical style of painting and less to what Degas was up to!
Marion Boddy-Evans (the Guide for about.com:painting) also comments about placing subjects in the centre in the top 5 ways to ruin a painting
Fried Egg Composition: It can be done successfully, but only rarely. When it's done badly, it's from the Fried Egg School of Composition (also known as the Bull's Eye School). Putting the subject or focal point of a painting right in the center of the painting, vertically and horizontally, is dull, boring, hideous, horrible. A viewer's eye goes straight into the center of the painting, takes in what's there (but not what's around it, towards the edges), and moves on to the next painting.Filling the frame
Marion Boddy-Evans Top 5 ways to ruin a painting
I find it interesting to look at the work of professional photographers to see how they employ composition as the elements and principles used are intrinsically the same. Here's one example.
One approach widely advocated in photography is "fill the frame". Here's the results of a photography challenge to 'fill the frame'.
Fill the frame with as much of the subject as you can. This can be done by getting in extremely close, or simply changing your angle or perspective. Any distracting background is eliminated, and the image is much more intimate, viewed at an eye-to-eye level.
Composition Refresher by Theresa A. Husarik
I'd love to do all my work from objects in front of me but the reality is I can't always stay long enough in one place or get hold of what I want from flower shops so it's an approach I use a lot when producing my small works for flowers and other botanical subjects. There are various photography websites which show you how to 'fill the frame' and what sort of impact it can have on your images as a result.
Figures in Paintings
The implication of 'containment' for figures means that you tend to see all of the figure - which makes the figures smaller (or the painting larger). It brings a setting into play and places more emphasis on the context in which the figures are set. It also means that things like perspective of natural forms or the built environment become more important. Portraits by people who are proud of their homes often involves the home in some way in the background.
Alternatively the crop can portray only part of the figure and the background can disappear or become altogether less important. A neutral background helps to focus on the faces and what people are doing.
The key question is probably to ask yourself what role the figures play in a composition and hence which treatment might suit them best.
The picture format and ratio
- the picture format - either 'portrait' (longest side is vertical) or 'landscape' (longest side is the width). Conventionally images of individuals are cropped in a portrait format - but they don't have to be. Landscapes too are conventionally constructed in a 'landscape' format - but they don't have to be.
- The picture ratio - which is is the ratio of height to width. Whether viewing an image plein air and using a one form or other of viewfinder to find the most pleasing image or whether you are looking at a reference photograph or sketch check what the picture ratio is. Do this before starting to translate the image to paper or canvas and you can avoid a lot of wasted time while you puzzle out why the picture doesn't look right!
Crop around or Cross through?
Think about the scope for containing subject matter or cropping right across it. Here are some different ways of experimenting with different crops.
- Use a viewfinder when working plein air. Remember to walk around and try and find alternative viewpoints with different sets of four lines. Walk backwards and forwards ie zoom in and back up!
- Do consider cropping across your subject matter but try and avoid creating a candidate for the 'funny amputations' album
- Use sketching to try out different compositional formats and different ways of cropping an image. I find that
- the more I sketch, the more I feel able to try out different ways of 'seeing' and 'representing' an image on a piece of paper.
- if it's not going to be a finished piece, people are often feel more able to experiment.
- if you don't want to "spoil a sketchbook", you have to get one that you don't mind spoiling!
- Try out alternative options in a 'working drawings' sketchbook before starting. This is intended to be for experiments - it doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense to anybody else!
- Back in the studio use your computer. Try using a digi photo and/or a scan of a sketch and then try using the crop tool in Photoshop (or other sofware) with different picture ratios at different sizes.
- Take one photo and see how many acceptable alternatives you can produce. Repeat with another photo - and then remember to keep trying different alternatives every single time you use reference material.
- switch to greyscale before using the crop tool if you want to work in value thumbnails.
Think about how the image format relates to the format of your support. They must be the same format otherwise your drawing will become distorted as you try to fit the image to the paper.
In other words it's no good looking through a 6:4 ratio viewfinder if you are then trying to work according to a 10:8 piece of paper!
Here are a few tips:
- work out what the ratio is on your camera's viewfinder. Tthe large screens on digital cameras are now very useful for trying out different crops before starting work.
- check to see if you can change the format of your photography on your camera
- if using a photo as a reference then check its format first
- take out homemade viewfinders with you which have a different format. Common ones are 6:4, 7:5, 10:8. These can multiply up to working in common formats eg 12:8, 14:10 and 20x16.
- use the rule of thirds as a guide (coming soon - in a post later this week)
- How to Read Paintings by Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen Paperback: 272 pages; Publisher: Chambers (June 21, 2004); ISBN-10:0550101225; ISBN-13: 978-0550101228
- Composition and Design - Resources for Artists
- Composition and Design - finding and creating a focal point
- Composition and Design - A Digest #1
- Greg Albert - The Simple Secret to Better Painting
- Composition - Principles of Design
- Composition - The Elements of Design
- Composition and Design - An Introduction