Monday, 24 February 2014

A Sense of Proportion

At the end of my last post Prep School I set the small tea-time teaser of spotting the difference on, 'The Green Belt'. This post tells you why there is one. With this new composition well underway and almost finished, I can see there are a few ugly gaps giving too much negative space between the subjects. In compositions the negative space between the subjects is really important as it is these areas that give the eye a chance to have a small, restful pause before moving on and recognising the next shape. Too much negative space gives a disjointed feel where objects or subjects are too far away from each other and the eye is not drawn smoothly around the piece. Too little means the subjects are lost amongst each other. The balance is key and everyone gets it wrong at some point. A good starting point is this informative guide by Katherine Tyrrell, Composition - Elements of Design.


Mind the gap there.

Adding an extra stem and curved blade of grass
bridged the gap and filled a too-big negative space to the
top right of the composition. 

Here too there was far too much space
and not enough focus in this central area.

The extra grass fills the space and a small pencilled-in feather
(once painted) will add a little more focus.

Any botanical piece needs to focus on the identification of the subject, even where there are a number of different ones together. With this mixed piece, I still wanted an element of identification and included seed heads, buds and finished flowers wherever I could but how to make a pleasing composition? From the outset, I wanted to make sure that there was a relatively even spread of interest across the piece. Again, ratios and proportions need to be taken into account for a pleasing composition, and at this point I could go all mathematical, (is that even a word?) getting technical about the geometry of the  Golden Mean and the Rule of Thirds and how some artists use a lot of a + b algebra and thirds to get their compositions right. Again, The Making a Mark blog has a superb resource for this, Composition Thinking in Threes.

You can blame this guy.

Michael Maestlin was the first to
publish a decimal approximation of the
Golden ratio in 1597

(Image and text Wikemedia)

For those of you who like a diagram, this is a
typical demonstration of the Golden Mean or Ratio using a spiral.
It even has a value 1.6180339887....
and is represented by the Greek letter phi
(Image Wikimedia)

The lowercase letter of phi
is used to represent the golden ratio
(Image Wikemedia)

Enough of all this, it's scaring me now. All I know is what my dad taught me about gardening. When planting flowers and bulbs in our plot, he would always show me that planting odd numbers together was far more attractive than evens. So, threes, fives, sevens etc. works far better than just two or four. Same applies when painting, odd numbers of features such as buds and blooms work better than even numbers. One is an odd number too but it doesn't always work in a composition. Although, a large, single pineapple plant can look stunning.

Three Calla Lilies with a single leaf.
Although I think a second leaf at the opposing angle
might have worked just as well here.

Something else that's important to note here is how you have your elements facing on the page. Now this was something I really had to get my head round, but it would seem that compositions work really well when the main elements are facing outwards. It's almost like you have to think about the centre of your page as radiating outwards, placing the main blooms and buds first, with prominent focus in the centre leaning subjects out towards the edges. Having the stems and flower heads leaning in towards the centre would not allow the eye to move smoothly around the composition. The eyes have it.

Three Lilies are the predominant focus in this one with all the 'action'
going on near the middle of the page.
The three elements of the lily are facing outwards,
towards the edges of the paper.

One is fun, (and an odd number).
The single Freesia has one fully open bloom, the back of a bloom
and a large bud as the main elements.

Although this piece was well received,
the single camellia flower looks a bit lonely, even though
there are five buds and blooms there.

Looking at it all now, the prunus berries and rose hips
could have done with a third stem each.

The central group of camellia buds and the inner rose hips
are facing slightly too much towards the centre.
Luckily there are other elements, guiding the eye around the piece.

Shall I talk triangles? Before starting the lily composition above, I finally got the triangle thing. Once you have your three blooms and are getting them facing outwards, you tend to find that you can draw a perfect triangle between them. The Calla flower heads also have a bit of a triangle going on too. A bit like joining the dots. Again, it's all about ratios, proportion and that Golden Mean again. Don't even get me started on Pythagoras and his theorem (The sum of the areas of the two squares on the sides, equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse). Arrgh, You would think I should have got all this straight away, as I learnt all about this sort of thing when I studied Architecture all those years ago. Ta dah!

The ancients knew exactly what they were doing.
Proportion, balance and perfect mathematical division.
The red box demonstrates the diagram of the Golden Ratio.

Note how the fine detail and focus is all going on in the smallest area.
This has been repeated across the elevation of the building.

Image with thanks to

Just look at that symmetry.
Another example of perfect execution of the Golden Mean

The Villa Rotunda
Andrea Palladio 1508 - 1580
One of my architectural heroes
Image with thanks to Wikipedia

My head hurts now. And there was me thinking this sort of thing would be easy. All I want to do is produce nice paintings. Well, we shall see if I have succeeded with this one of bitten off more than I can chew. Ah well, now what did I do with that protractor?  


Katherine Tyrrell said...

Thanks for the mentions.

Have you come across my website about Composition and Design?

(Also try completing the "search description" in the right hand column when writing the blog post. You can write your own summary for Google!) :)

Carole Jurack said...

Thank you, Jarnie ... this is a marvelous blog. So informative and you've made it so easy to understand as well. Now, if it is as easy to follow these rules we will all have fantastic paintings! I think the "eye" knows and we just have to follow what it tells us. Great, great info. Thanks SO MUCH!

Sketchbook Squirrel said...

Hi Katherine.Thank you for the reminder on that, I bookmarked your site on Composition and Design last week. Extremely helpful and informative.

Ah, I should do the search description.

Sketchbook Squirrel said...

Thank you Carole, I am glad you find my ramblings helpful. :)

Janene said...

I think the golden mean and rules of thirds are fascinating--thanks for reminding me of them. I like how your painting is coming along!

Sketchbook Squirrel said...

I agree Janene, it's amazing how maths just comes together. Quite beautiful.