My flock of little paintings at Skyeworks Gallery has grown a bit, with a few new sheep (this time with reds), plus a Highland cow and, because it’s been so hot, a shady tree (albeit in autumnal colours, shedding leaves).
The Elements of Art are a form of creative alchemy, for many an almost mythic philosophy which allows the expert to see into the inner workings of the creative process, the grammar of the atelier, or the structure of critique. Alchemy developed as scientists discovered the properties of chemical elements, and this knowledge was conveniently placed into a Periodic Table, to help others predict, innovate and discover. Similarly, the alchemy of art can be revealed through its elements, giving the artist a strong foundation for innovation and interpretation.
The Elements of Art are split into four sections: Spectrum, Structure, Synergy, and Story.
Section I: Spectrum
Spectrum is all about light and colour: the building blocks of any piece of painting. Colour is a wide ranging term. When thinking about creating or critiquing art we generally divide it up into three parts: Hue, Tone and Saturation.
Hue is what most people mean when they talk of colour. It is, effectively, the name we give the pigment, or mix of pigments. Obviously we can’t just refer to ‘red’, ‘green’, ‘yellow’ and ‘blue’. We know from experience that there are a myriad of different colours, sorry hues, out there. Artists have created a code that makes these recognisable. So, for example, we have sky blue, sap green, etc. Some of these names come from the appearance of colour in nature, some, like cadmium red, come form the minerals the pigment is obtained. When an artist thinks about their choice of colour, hue is the first stop. Hue sets a colour in nature, it gives us a recognisable foundation on which to base interpretation of a painting. We know the sky is blue, the grass is green. This is our first instinctive response to an image. (Note that by choosing to paint the sky green, the artist can swiftly move the audience out of their comfort zone. These things are not fixed.)
Tone, also known as Value, is the lightness or darkness of the colour. After recognising hue, we then interpret tone. Tone is on the periphery (where it plays a much more important part in the eye) and helps us identify movement in nature. Tone is a more primal, emotional trigger; the hunter rather than the gatherer. A good tonal range makes a painting open and inviting. A small tonal range means the eye and mind must work more to interpret what it sees — things can be hidden in plain sight, identifiable only through the variance in hue.
Saturation, also known Chroma, is a measure of the intensity of the colour. A highly saturated colour is bright, almost glowing within its hue. A poorly saturated colour is muted, more pallor than colour. Artist quality paint has a greater intensity than student paint due to the smaller proportion of binder or filler included in the mix. A quality painting, using artist level paint is by its very nature more inviting, it dazzles where the student quality paint merely illuminates. But artists can vary the saturation of a colour by adding neutral grey of an identical tone to the mix, dulling the image and evoking a calmer, more muted emotional response. The lack of saturation may be by intent rather than economy.
Section II: Structure
Having collected our building blocks through colour, we now begin to assemble the painting. We create a framework for the art, we generate a structure within which the art is born. There are five elements to structure: Line, Direction, Texture, Shape and Form.
Line, typically a mark longer than it is wide, made by brush or pencil, gives outline and defines boundaries. It is the first pathway through the painting, it pulls the eye and is used to delineate objects.
Direction takes line and applies it across the canvas. It can be vertical, horizontal, diagonal, straight or curved. It gives the one-dimensionality of line its purpose and creates a map from numerous pathways, a spider’s web of possibilities.
Texture is an appeal to an alternative visual sense, the tingle you feel in your fingertips as your eye works its way across the image. A taste in your mouth. Texture can give life to an otherwise dull painting; it can expand the mystery and sense of discovery as the light changes across the surface, it gives and takes according to your viewpoint. Texture can be used to emphasis the line and direction of a painting, or provide a subtle alternative, a sub-plot or buried treasure.
Shape is the creation of two dimensions in the painting. We readily identify several shapes, the square, rectangle, triangle, circle and ellipse. Shapes are flat, and they provide a surface which reflects the world. If lines are letters, then shapes are words. They speak to us individually and in groups.
Form is the creation of three dimensions in the painting. Spheres, cylinders, boxes, pyramids, etc. But form is an illusion, presented on a two dimensional plane. It is therefore part of the trickery of the artist. We are persuading the audience to interpret the image before them, and make assumptions.
Section III: Synergy
The framework of the painting is complete, now we give it life. Synergy beings together all that we have created and allows it to grow beyond its basic components. Part illusion, part psychology, and a little bit of magic. Synergy has three main aspects: Space, Composition and Perspective.
Space, or more fully, positive and negative space, is the relationship between objects (defined by lines and shape and form) in the painting. The biggest mistake artists make is to concentrate only on the positive space, the objects which define the painting. Negative space gives the connection between objects — if the negative space is greater than the positive then objects are distant to each other. If spaces are enclosed, they cleanly define objects, if they are open, they allow a flow from one object to another. Space can also be defined by hard and soft edges, which in turn can define the essential idea of the painting, giving importance to a particular aspect of an object. Space is particularly important in abstract painting, where there is little to ground you in the reality of nature.
Composition is the arrangement of objects in the painting. It is important enough to have its own selection of elements, such as balance, rhythm, motion and proportion (see Elements of Composition). Composition is the artist setting a scene, opening the door and inviting the audience in to share their vision. Ultimately, composition is about the aesthetics of the painting, how it engages the mind of the audience and what kind of emotional response it creates.
Perspective is the application of science to art. It is the way we represent three dimensional reality on a two dimensional plane. It comes to us from centuries of observation by artists long dead, who used various tools from the simple picture plane to the sophisticated camera obscura to achieve a good representation of how we view the real world through two eyes. And in the process, science becomes magic.
Section IV: Story
An artist creates to share their vision of the world with the audience. The major part of that is the story. This is the way the painting continues to invoke passion and interest after the initial viewing. There are three aspects to story: movement, symbolism and narrative.
Movement is the way the artist gets us to travel through the painting. A result of line, shape and form, coupled with composition. Western eyes tend to travel from left to right and from top to bottom. The artist needs to persuade the audience to follow a more complex path through the painting, revealing treasures and ideas as the journey continues. An ideal painting will offer a choice of routes, giving the viewer something new to discover when they return to the art work in the future.
Symbolism connects the artist through culture of the audience. It is the notion of a hidden language, of secrets to be discovered, and further level of engagement with the painting. (If you want to investigate the use of symbolism further, take time to look at and research old masters such as Holbein.)
Lastly, there is Narrative. This is the combination of all that has gone before, mulched together to provide the essence of the artistic experience. The ‘why’ of the painting. Through the narrative the artist gives the audience a gift. They can take all that the artist has created and personalise it. The narrative is more than a simple telling of a tale, it is a conversation between two minds. Through it the painting develops a meaning for the viewer which is unique to them, because it reflects their experience of life.
The Elements of Art allow us to investigate and interpret the process of artistic creation. They should be used both during the act of painting and whilst viewing art created by others. An understanding of the elements should allow an artist to develop their abilities and expand their horizons.
The first thing to know is that the Elements of Composition are not the same as the Elements of Art, it’s different concept (though composition is one of the Elements of Art). The second thing to know is what is meant by “composition”. It’s the overall arrangement of what’s in a painting, its subject matter and elements (abstract art of course not having a ‘subject’).
The aim is to get the viewer pulled into the painting, their eye drawn across the whole composition, enjoying the scenery, before returning to the focal point. A successful composition does this subtly, without us being aware of it. Henri Matisse, in his Notes of a Painter, said: “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.”
The Elements of Composition are, in Western art, generally considered to be: Balance, Contrast, Focus, Motion, Pattern, Proportion, Rhythm and Unity.
Balance: Is there a symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangement? Symmetry can add a sense of calm, orderliness, whereas asymmetry can lend a sense of unease, imbalance.
Contrast: Are the dramatic differences in tones, strong darks and intense lights, or is it minimal?
Focus (or Emphasis): Is there a focal point, somewhere that the “most important bit” where the viewer’s eye will ultimately pause and rest, rather than wandering around and around.
Motion (or Movement): Is the composition static or is there a sense of movement? This can be done in many different ways, including through suggested movement with soft edges.
Pattern: If you look at the fundamental lines and shapes, is there an underlying structure that is pleasing or intriguing, or is it chaotic?
Proportion: Do the things in the painting relate to one another, do they fit together? If it’s realism, does it follow the rules of perspective, are nearby things bigger than things further away for instance.
Rhythm: Find the beat, as you would in a piece of music. Its job is to lead and pace the eye across the composition. Look at the fundamental shapes as well as colour, repetitions and echoes.
Unity: Is there anything in the painting that feels it doesn’t belong, something sitting awkwardly, out of place?
It can feel like a lot to consider in each and every painting, and through practice it becomes more intuitive. Checking each is a part of self-critiquing. If you find it hard remember the Elements of Composition, here’s a mnemonic:
Before Considering Final Mark, Ponder Painting Rightside Up.
Balance, Contrast, Focus, Motion, Pattern, Proportion, Rhythm and Unity.
Before Considering Final Mark, Ponder Painting wRongside Up.
Balance, Contrast, Focus, Motion, Pattern, Proportion, Rhythm and Unity.
Faced with a landscape with many possibilities, how do I decide what to sketch? Take this example, a picnic spot a little south of Struan, where I was on Sunday. To the right there’s an inlet with boats, to the left a sequence of headlands and a lighthouse, looking down a colourful rocky shoreline.
I’ll look around, but most likely go back to what got my attention initially, what do I find most striking or dramatic or appealing? That’s what I’ll sketch first; other possibilities might become further sketches, depending on time and the weather, or saved as a location to revisit another day.
In this instance, it was the tall, dark cliff in the far distance (not quite as far as the wide angle of this photo makes it seem), and the splash of white that was the small lighthouse in the middle distance. As the clouds moved, the light on the distant cliff changes; sometimes darker, sometimes lighter and revealing more. I’ll definitely come back here on a sunnier day for another look.
“The freedom of Eardley’s gestural painting in her landscapes is contained within very well thought-out compositions. The use in all her paintings of brilliant touches of colour in key positions shows her schooled eye for balance and dynanism.”
Source: Joan Eardley by Fiona Pearson, National Galleries of Scotland p9
Brilliant in thoughtfully positioned and in intensity of colour. To take one example from the paintings Scottish artist Joan Eardley: look at the reds on the chimneys of a painting titled Snow. Then at the yellow in the bottom right-hand corner, which is echoed in the central foreground. Muted to an earthy, ochre yellow it dances across the landscape, ending mixed with the red as a touch of orange in the distant cloud.
Small touches of colour that change the whole mood of a painting, and pull your eye across the composition. Did Eardley plan the placement and choice of the beforehand or did it evolve? I imagine a bit of both. Ultimately it doesn’t matter when it was decided, only that it was.
White studio cat’s favourite painting from my Edges Exhibition has sold, to a collector on Skye.
So, at the end of another day’s painting, this is how Grazing the Loch looks (this was it yesterday). The weather’s got a bit windier, creating white horses on the sea and blowing in a bit of mist. Some daisies have also popped up in the grass. You can’t see it in the photos, but the cliff edge in the distance has some iridescent silver and gold on it, part of an underlayer; it shows if there’s side light. It’s now at the “Am I there yet?” stage, where I ponder it.
Update: I showed it to the couple who commissioned it, and they love it. So now just to tidy up the edges and varnish it.
I’m waiting for the paint to dry on this before I have another round with it. My fingers are itching to fix the all-to-neat alignment of the shoreline and sheep heads, but first the paint needs to dry. I also need to decide whether to add a cloud in the sky to cast the shadow on the distant hilltop, or lighten it. Plus all the other additions, tweaks, adjustments, not-yet-put-in-ideas bouncing around my head. And deciding whether it’ll have daisies or buttercups in the foreground. Perhaps a few poppies for a splash of red? Are we there yet? Is it dry yet…?
There isn’t a single, secret ingredient which instantly transforms a painting from one that looks flat into one with a sense of depth. Rather it’s a combination of ingredients; you have to use a few, working out how much of each you need for that particular recipe composition.
1. Decrease the Detail
We see more detail in the things that are closest to us. Plants and trees don’t have to be very far away before we no longer see every leaf individually. So paint more detail in the foreground, less in the middle distance and only suggest it for the background. Give a sense of texture, tone, and colour for the distance, not specifics.
Don’t get seduced by a reference photo taken on a ultra-high definition camera that shows you every blade of grass several kilometres away. But we’re painting, not reproducing photos. Poetry lies in what’s not said.
2. Make Elements Smaller
That things further away look smaller than things close to us is one of the fundamental rules of perspective in Western art. By placing an element of a known size in a painting, such as a figure or tree, it instantly gives the viewer something to measure the rest of the elements against, a sense of scale and distance. Our brains automatically scale the rest of what’s in the composition to this.
Having a road or railway or a row of trees or fenceposts getting smaller and narrower as it heads into the distance is a classic. While we do know a road is the same width along its length (or more or less, in the case of a single-track road as in the photo), it appears to narrow the further away from us it is and thus seeing this in a landscape painting help creates the illusion of depth.
3. Hide Bits
Ducks may fly in a row, but once they’ve landed they wander all over the place. Overlap elements and our brain immediately interprets it as one thing being behind another, contributing to a sense of depth.
4. Get the Blues
The further away things are, the lighter they are in tone and they cooler (bluer) in colour. It’s not necessarily dramatic, it can be subtle, but it’s there. The technical term is “Aerial Perspective”, but before you run away in a panic from the P-Word, think about how you’ve surveyed a landscape admiring bands of hills or mountains disappearing into the distance, getting lighter and lighter in tone. That’s aerial perspective, or a change in value or tone that give a sense of distance. Think:
Foreground = “Normal”
Middle Distance = Lighter in Tone and Bluer in Colour
Far Distance = Much Lighter and Bluer
Adding a glaze of a lighter tone on what’s in the distance of a landscape painting immediately increases the sense of depth. I’d use titanium white, possibly muted with a bit of grey-blue. With the “colours become cooler or bluer” thing, don’t only think about adapting the colours in the distance but also consider what you’re using in the foreground. For instance making a foreground green one that leans towards yellow and a background green one that’s bluer. Add reds to the foreground as red pulls forward in the eye (and it doesn’t need to be solid patch of red, it can be a glaze) .
5. Soften Your Touch
Hard edges (or found edges) seem closer because they’re sharply defined, whereas soft (or lost) edges seem further away, that sense of suggestion rather than definite telling.
6. Canvas format
It’s easier to create a sense of depth in a wide or landscape format canvas or piece of paper than a tall or portrait format one. It’s because we generally look at a landscapes horizontally not vertically, so our eye is trained to look sideways not up an down. Of course there are exceptions; the main point is that it should be a deliberate choice. Human vision is steroscopic and based horizontally (i.e. we have two eyes next to each other) so depth is automatically related to the horizontal; wide paintings emphasise this.
7. Put Things in Perspective
Take the time to learn the rules of one- and two-point perspective, and use them. Stop running away from it.
- Aerial perspective applies to the sky as well as land. The sky directly above you is bluer than at the horizon. Watch out when relying on a digital photograph to provide information on sky colour as many bleach out the sky.
- Warm objects appear closer, so if your painting lacks depth, don’t try to solve it by adding a small figure wearing a red shirt in the distance, have them wearing blues.
- Spend time considering how high or low you’re going to put the horizon line. It’s one of the strongest visual clues for viewpoint and perspective in a landscape. Very low down, and you’ve little space for putting in whatever’s going to be “foreground” in the composition. Very high and you’ve little space for “sky”.
I’ve been painting on a small scale again, on 7×5″ canvas (about 18x12cm). These two “mini Minch” seascapes are a memory of some of the wild weather I’ve watched blow across the view, where white horses churn up deep Prussian blue. Available from Skyeworks Gallery, £35 each.