Composition, Movement and Life
Cornwall based artist Glyn Macey combines compositional rules - broken and unbroken – with feelings and often ‘souvenirs’ gathered on location to breathe life into his paintings
Who is to say what makes a good composition and what is bad composition? Back in the day of the impressionists, artists worked their compositions to some pretty tight, self-imposed guidelines; and then along came Degas.
Inspired by photography Degas decided to dramatically crop his paintings, cutting figures in half and using structural elements to visually break up the image. This approach to composition was new and exciting. You might well be thinking that I will now advise you to throw away the composition rule book and design your painting in any haphazard way you choose, but I’m not, well, I am, sort of…
For those of us who are not yet on Degas’ level there is a compositional ‘rule’ that can help us to achieve pleasing compositions each and every time. This rule is the difference between looking at our work and being pleased and looking at our work through squinted eyes, head cocked to one side trying to work out exactly what it is that ‘isn’t quite right’.
The Rule of Thirds
The rule or law of thirds is the most commonly used compositional device. This rule basically instructs your space to be divided up into three horizontally and three vertically, giving a noughts and crosses type layout.
The rule of thirds then states that by placing the main element of your picture in or around the top left or right section, or the bottom left or right section, the composition as a whole will work. And it does. This guideline can also be used for creating small areas of intense movement and work contrasted with larger areas of suggested space.
I am fascinated by this idea and explore this concept again and again. By focussing attention on one spot on the painting the viewer will visually make up the rest of the area, as seen in the ‘Harbour Gaps’ example.
This rule is also often used with sea and landscapes, the artist choosing to place horizon lines roughly one third or two thirds down the page. Rarely do you find a seascape with the horizon in the centre. A lot of my paintings are based on this rule but remember that rules are there to be broken…
When planning a composition I often make several quick drawings to find the layout that works best or I will cut up paper templates to use as ‘placements’ for the main elements of the painting.
These templates can then easily be moved around the picture until an exciting balance is found.
Movement and Life
So we now have our great composition, but to supercharge it we need to add a little movement and life. To create movement and life in a painting it is necessary to have movement and at least a little life in the artist. By that I mean that, if like me, you just aren’t in the mood or feeling a little lazy then your paintings will exude that look about them as well. Whereas, if you are feeling energetic and full of pent up enthusiasm, your work will sparkle with life.
But here’s the question. - how do you fire yourself up when you’re feeling lazy?
Well, there is one proven way that works every time, guaranteed. That method is to get some exercise. Don’t groan, this works, even if you only go for a short walk. You see it’s the extra oxygen taken in while exercising or breathing deeply that helps to energise your body.
I often play music way too loud and dance around my studio, singing at the top of my voice with my brushes in hand.
This action alone starts a process of joyous, spontaneous mark making. And joyous, spontaneous mark making leads to movement and life in your paintings. So stand instead of sit, and sing and dance your brushes across your canvas.
Visiting the location
So you might by now have a great composition and be full of pent up energy… but, unless you have actually visited the location you are going to paint, your work may lack a little something. But why is it so important to at least visit your chosen location; let alone draw, make notes, paint and collect stuff while you’re there?
Well, it’s because keeping your senses open, listening to the bird song, breathing in the scents and feeling the warm sun or cold rain on your skin will give you an unrivalled ‘authenticity’ to your work, and here’s the thing, the casual viewer of your painting may not realise this authentic aspect but you will know it’s there, and this aspect is important. How much more authentic is a painting created from being there than one copied slavishly from a photograph? Exactly, and it’s the authenticity that we are about! I’m not saying that photography is a bad thing, indeed some of the step by step examples in my latest book needed to be worked up from drawings and photos (I couldn’t convince my editor to move the photography studio to the top of a mountain in Canada) and photographs can provide information that it is really difficult to capture in any other way. But for me and hopefully for you, we try to take the capturing of information to a whole new level.
I do this by...
Collecting – collect as much material as you can from your chosen location; sand, stones, leaves, tickets, packaging. It’s all valid collage material. Carry a ‘tat bag’ with you at all times, - I use freezer type food bags as they are transparent, they don’t have the little air holes that conventional carrier bags have and I can write on the bags themselves to remind me of locations, dates and times. If I have been collecting from the beach, all I need to do is to open my bag and breathe in the fragrance of sand, seaweed and shells and I’m magically transported back to the location. The same happens with woodland finds, city litter and any other destination that I find myself in.
Listening – Overheard conversations, birdsong, waves crashing, water lapping, wind, children laughing, dogs barking, thunder, silence. Write it all down and better still, record the sounds if you get the chance.
Feeling – How rough is that wall, the bark on the tree or the peeling paintwork on the café sign? How cold are the steel railings, the sea, and the ice? How soft is the grass, the sand, and the fallen leaves? Write it all down.
Taste – Wild herbs, spring water, rainwater, lunch, hotdogs, ice cream, bag of sweets. Write it all down and collect if possible.
Scent – Can you describe the fragrance of the flowers? The sea in all of its moods, the ozone and salt air? What about the city streets? The park? The cinema? Capturing the location is about more than simply pointing a camera. It’s about capturing the atmosphere, the essence. And once captured we are ready to start work…
If you are thinking of entering the SAA Challenge 2013, ‘Abstract Thinking’, Glyn’s latest book ‘Acrylics Unleashed’ offers some exciting and unusual ways to breathe life and atmosphere into your paintings. Published by Search Press it is available from the SAA Home Shop at www.saa.co.uk.
To enjoy more paintings by Glyn and for workshop details and information about his new Acrylics Unleashed online workshops visit www.glynmacey.com. SAA members will receive a 30% discount on online workshops by typing PAINT in the discount box. 10% of all proceeds from Acrylics Unleashed online workshops are donated to UNICEF.