Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Compose: The quadrant test

Do you have any techniques you use to determine if you have an interesting composition? One that I learned early in my practice was the quadrant test. I've long forgotten where I first read about it, but I came upon it again the other day in a wonderful book called A painter's guide to design and composition: 26 masters reveal their secrets by Margot Schulzke. This book is well organized and illustrates many of the points discussed using paintings through their stages of development.

Years ago I created a quadrant "mat" out of a large sheet of clear plastic that I cut from a heavy weight plastic bag art stores often use when you purchase sheets of paper. I used a permanent black marker and a ruler to divide the plastic into quadrants . I can place the mat over many different size paintings by laying it on top of the painting. Because my work is often intimate in scale I created a smaller one to. When you overlay it the quadrants are visible underneath. The idea is to look at each quadrants to see if there is visual interest in each areas (no dead spots).

A story told (2007) 6 x 6 in. mixed media on board

It works well with most paintings. Even when there are areas where there is open space you usually have some interesting bits of visual energy going on to help your eye move through the piece.

10 x 30( 2004) acrylic on canvas

Then of course you always get the exceptions. The work above titled Breathe is all about the open space to the left. I am a yoga enthusiast and one day while looking a this particular amaryllis it gave me the same feeling I get when I fill my lungs with air and slowly exhale. Yoga gives me energy and peace at the same time. I think in this situation the empty space supports the composition. If I had used a less vibrant background it might not have.


Four Seasons in a Life said...

Apart from photographing the finished artwork, I have been also taking pictures of its stages of progress, but after capturing edge to edge the entire art work, I go into the work in progress photographing details, thereby discovering individual compositions within.

This process dates back to when I was a commercial photographer building a stock library of images, in which we take pictures of the same item at different angles in vertical and horizontal format.

Now I do this during the process of an abstract, however when a piece is finished to see if I could have gone even tighter with my original work.

I study the final results and so hone my overall skills in composition.

Maybe one of these days I will do an essay on my blogs and demonstrate my comment here.

Wishing you a wonderful day as I return to the kitchen and continue preparations for tomorrows big day.


hwfarber said...

Until now, I have simply painted and re-painted until the work "looked right." After Kathy's Nov. 17 blog about Orderliness I have checked many paintings--in books, in magazines, and on my walls--against the armature of the rectangle and found matches; some were boring and some were exciting.

Last week, a friend called; he wanted to see my paintings and possibly buy one. Since they're packed away (& my friend does not like spending money) I used the computer to print out color copies (8 to a page), along with price and size info; I put this on the dining table until I could drop it off. Sunday night, out of boredom, I decided to check these paintings against the rectangle. (I used a magic marker on a plastic baggie.) They matched--I was elated; somehow, I had arrived at the right place. Later, I was ticked off because using a simple rectangle armature would have saved me countless hours of thinking, turning the painting on its side, looking in the mirror, etc. Now I wonder if this rectangle is actually part of everyone's brain (artist & art viewer). And, if it's natural how can we know which artists employed the armature as a tool and which artists simply felt it. Does it mean that anyone can paint harmoniously if they use the rectangle?

I always have too many questions--this has been on my mind for a couple of days. You or Kathy or Don might have answers. I think formulas and tools can be helpful but only to a point. I love your amaryllis; seeing it life-size would be a treat. My comment is much too long--sorry.

Margaret Ryall said...

Your idea of photographing throughout the development of a composition is interesting. I often take shots to document my progress but I never thought about using them to discover "individual compositions within" as you describe it. I do something similar when I take a shot of a finished work. I go into my editing program and create a series of crops and look at them for interest. This does help me look at the sections with a critical eye. I would appreciate hearing more about your process. Happy Thanksgiving.

Margaret Ryall said...

There's no such thing as going on too long with a response. I went back and reread Kathy's post about Orderliness (for the fourth time). I like your idea of creating a plastic mat with the armature on it and then checking your work after the fact. I think it takes more than organization/placement to create a harmonious painting. Colour and shape seem to be very important in harmony. Harmony would be a good topic for a new post. I'll have to think about that. I've decided to create an armature for the 10 x 24 work about the daylilies. Perhaps it will help with my problems. I need to return to that work soon. I seem to have gone on too long using other works as examples in my recent posts. Your post it getting me back on track.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Kathy said...

Hi Margaret,
Good post! I haven't used the system you mentioned because I tend to check myself during the design stage before I commit to paint. I work on the balance of the design first. However, once I've committed to paint, I photograph the painting and use my computer to transform it to grayscale to see if I've adhered the intended design. But, as you and Egmont point out, there are many useful approaches to evaluating one's work.

layers said...

many years ago when I used to paint watercolor landscapes I used the quadrant division of space-- worked great to work out the horizon line and placement of the focal point - house or tree or whatever. but now that I paint non-objective it does not work for me anymore.

beauty comma said...

i understand what you're saying about dead spots! i think there's a difference between dead and open though, which you've proven in the amaryllis painting! there's so much life in the yellow parts. some musician or perhaps composer once said "the rests are music, too" which i think applies very well to your painting!
margaret, thank you so much for your comment on my christmas inspiration post - it made me very happy!

HeartFire said...

Hi Margaret,
I have just caught up with your posts on composition, so interesting, thank you for sharing. What great information and exchanges.
I have been using Photoshop to sometimes help me decide how to finish paintings. I scan or photograph them, then use the paintbrush in PS to try out colors or shapes in parts of the painting. But, I hadn't thought of using it for grayscale, what a terrific idea. I promptly went to PS & opened several of my paintings in it - "enhance - adjust color - remove color"... I am so pleased with this tip, as I do need to pay more attention to my composition and shapes and values.
And I like this quadrant tip, hadn't heard of this, so I will try that too.
I really like the painting you have on this posting...