Monday, January 28, 2008

Composition - the four most important lines

I have always been taught that the four most important lines in a painting are the edges of the paper or canvas which crop the image you are using as a subject.

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
At The Races - before the start (1885-1892) by Edgar Degas
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 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.
Marion Boddy-Evans Top 5 ways to ruin a painting
Filling the frame

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
Cactus #4
8" x 8", coloured pencil on Arches HP
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

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.

If you have a camera and like flowers, you can experiment very easily by just reading the section in the manual about how the macro button works! I took a bit of time to read that bit and therefore initially had to employ the cropping tool in PS Elements to work out the options using my own photographs.

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

Two very important things to think about when constructing your four lines are:
  • 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 Bird House
pastel 40cm x 28.5cm
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
  • 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!
Some Tips - on picture format and cropping

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.
Image format matters!
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)


  1. Your series on Composition is fabulous Katherine! Thank you.

  2. Yes yes yes yes yes! Thanks for saying this. I love cropping my works on paper and will gladly cut them any which way to get the 'best bit'. :) (and I love Degas, glad you used him as an example)

    I even describe my paintings :"the interaction of horizontals between shore, horizon and the edges of the canvas".

    Those edges are there. You can't ignore them, they define the work even if subconsciously. But I honestly don't think I've ever seen someone write an article about them before. :)

  3. Thanks Raquel and Tina - I could have written a lot more! ;)

    I'm mindful of this particular aspect as I find I spend an awful lot of time trying to work out where those four lines should go whether I'm out working plein air or sitting in front of the computer staring at a digi image.

  4. Hi Katherine,
    this is really an interesting article. Cropping images has become such an automated "habit" to my work - on photography and currently even more on my painting that I even don't think about it any more whether I should or should not. So I am glad that you bring this up to the front.
    Especially my newest series "Reminiscences" lives from cropping - more than any other paintings before. It has even become a true element of my designs lately which I enjoy very much to my own surprise!
    Great series about composition you are writing here.

  5. Katherine, I've posted a thank you on my blog to you today for your HOckney post.

    You are an amazing blogger! You present so much information in a very logical and clear way. Thanks for such an in depth disussion on compostion.

    Here is the link to my blog

  6. Katherine--
    Just you ever sleep? It's amazing to me how much information you have to offer. Great stuff!

  7. I sleep extremely soundly Terry - downloading the brain onto paper effectively empties it! ;)


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