The word “composition” means a great deal, particularly to the landscape artist. What does it actually mean to both the average person and to the serious student of painting?
My own interpretation suggests that it is primarily an orderly arrangement of various visual objects that should be co-ordinated so as to express one thought, or one idea. For instance, a landscape might have for its main feature a bridge of special artistic formation situated in the foreground. Now if the bridge is to be of primary interest in the picture, every other object shown in the picture must be so arranged that all the various features will assist in giving the bridge a priority, not only in its position in the landscape, but also in tone and colour.
It seems to me that composition to the individual student of art should, and generally does, conjure up visions of personal expression in drawing and painting. One realises this very clearly when examining works such as John Sell Cotman’s painting, in which he, in a most masterly way, was able to use important elements from nature so as to express his own vision or thought relating to his own paintings. There are numerous other works of such artists as Claude Lorraine, John Constable, Turner, and others, where one comprehends the fact that the artist has had something definite to state. Though all the laws of composition are based on logic, this does not prevent painters from expressing their own feelings or personalities in their creative work. Turner, who was a master of composition, was able – through his genius – to explore a wide field in the decoration and pattern of his paintings, particularly those on a large scale.
It is extremely important for students of art to study as many examples as possible of good compositional pictures. The more knowledge one acquires of the achievements of other painters, paradoxically enough, the more original one is able to become. The appreciation of only one or two Masters, ignoring the works of other great painters, is bound to lead to a dead end, so go all out for study of ancient, mediaeval, and contemporary art. A wide background of knowledge is a vital factor if you wish to create and express your personal vision.
Château Gaillard, Les Andelys, France: Oil 24in x 20in
The colour reproduction, Château Gaillard, Les Andelys, France, shows a somewhat complicated study, but on looking carefully at this picture one can see that the main portion of the Château is placed towards the right-hand side of the picture, which is more desirable for it than the centre. Notice that the smaller remains of the castle on the right-hand side of the larger edifice are arranged in pleasant proportional relationship to the surroundings. Again, the ruined section on the extreme left immediately above the pink-tinted building is so arranged that it appears well spaced when compared with the other two architectural features just mentioned.
Now it is important to realise that nature gave to the artist the excellent arrangement seen in this picture. It was drawn and painted precisely as presented by the original subject, but a great deal of time was spent before this happy composition was discovered. There were many views of the same subject which were quite undesirable from a compositional aspect and would have had little or no meaning if painted by an artist. It is essential for students to acquire a feeling for composition so that when they go out painting, they will have a thorough understanding of the word.
On looking at the Château standing on the hill, one can easily see that the general curvature of the hill is convex. But if we drew an imaginary curve commencing at the highest point of the top right-hand building, passing downward along the top of the roofs or chimneys of the buildings towards the centre, and then running upward on the left-hand side, we would then get a concave curve. Theoretically this is interesting, since the two curves, though in opposition, do not disturb the serenity of the subject. Notice that the line of the road which leads towards the centre of the picture directs the eye to the subject of interest: namely, the Château and its immediate surroundings.
To avoid pictorial confusion with the green material immediately below the Château, I deliberately left out an ivory-coloured quarry which I observed in nature immediately at the foot, or centre, of the Château. Moreover, had I painted this there would have been too much opposition to the rock or quarry structure already shown in the picture. The elimination of unnecessary detail is most important if one wishes to make a convincing composition.
A certain amount of thought had to be given where passages of sunlight flowed across the foreground road and some of the buildings. The design of light versus shadow needed some careful adjustment apart from the transitory effect of the sun. The horizontal sunlit lines, mostly on the left side, gave stability to the picture, being approximately at right angles to the vertical buildings. Also it should be noticed that horizontal lines help to give an atmosphere of repose to the mind.
The actual painting of the road was extremely difficult. The varied colour as seen in nature was only achieved after several attempts (by scraping off colour with a palette knife and repainting). The buildings on the extreme right were painted, in the first instance, on a warm-tinted ground, made of yellow ochre, black, white, and a little vermilion, and the first coat was washed in with so much turpentine that it looked rather like a water colour. On top of this wet, thin ground I then painted some silver colour effects by mixing a little black, plenty of white, and middle chrome yellow, with here and there contrasting touches of delicate bluish-green.
Lastly, in relation to this coloured picture reproduction, the figures were put in so as to help the sense of scale and to add a human interest to the subject.
Outdoor sketch, ‘Withypool, Somerset: Oil 20in x 24in
There are two black and white reproductions of pictures of ‘Withypool in Somerset’. The first was painted entirely out of doors, and is easily identifiable because the pattern is of a negative quality, while the foreground trees are only just noticeable against the distant material. I started off in the early morning and later I discovered a heavenly subject that would have excited any artist, but unfortunately the effect lasted only about three minutes. It was a delightful morning in November, with frost and fog and the sun bursting through, causing everything in the distance to look like a fine display of shimmering, glittering diamonds. A slight breeze came along and the air palpitated, turning the moving fog into exquisite fantasies, but before I was able to cover any of the canvas the effect completely disappeared. There was only one thing to do about it, and that was to try to remember my first vital impression.
Studio picture based on outdoor sketch of ‘Withypool’: Oil 30in x 25in
On arriving in my London studio, I made two or three colour studies on smaller canvases from the outdoor sketch (which was 24in x 20in) and then I began to paint the picture on a 30in x 25in canvas. The result of my experiments can be seen in the reproduction. It should be noticed in this reproduction of the finished painting that the immediate foreground was kept low in tone so that one can study and see the effect of the more delicate distance. The meadow immediately behind the stream, adjoining the two buildings also fit better into the tonality of the background trees. The pattern of the dark trees adjoining the stream on the right-hand side helps to give emphasis to the artist’s feelings in relation to the composition of the foreground and distance. The white railing in the centre of the picture, adjoining the stream or river, shows a more dramatic touch than the insufficiently expressed material in the sketch. As regards the painting of the sky, there is a vibrating effect generally in the finished picture, and the light cloud suggestion conveys an atmosphere peculiar to that time of the day. If not entirely successful, the general composition of the final painting shows enough development from the original sketch to give students a clue as to the evolutionary possibilities in their own studies.
Students who may feel disheartened or discouraged with some of their outdoor paintings would be well advised to try out several ideas on any subject which may have failed to give them satisfaction. Quite unconsciously perhaps, the student will discover, in experimenting with his work, that he is expressing something that is part of his own feeling with regard to landscape art. In any event, it is most interesting to a student or professional artist to try to create something new from his own work. Personally, I have now reached a stage in landscape painting where I first paint out of doors the original subject as presented by nature; then in my studio I paint the subject again in the same size, working solely from the original sketch. Thirdly, I usually get a larger canvas and, with the original painting and the second interpretation of the original painting, I put in all I know on the final canvas. It is only by absorbing this method that I feel I can reveal my own emotional reaction to the subject.