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Learn to Draw > Shapes and space relations

Another factor is the shapes of the areas. Regular figures of rectangular or circular contour show no tendency to movement, compared with shapes that are elongated or point to one side.

If two or more areas lie in the picture plane, a tension is built up between them. This magnetic field is an entity which creates its own relationship with the picture plane. It is destroyed if one of the areas has a shape that implies a direction - such as a very sharp triangle or a surface that contracts in perspective.

All relations between areas or magnetic fields and the picture plane are more insistent when the main point of interest is not in the center of the picture but moves away from it. If the composition is built symmetrically around the center line of the picture, the effect is always lifeless, peaceful, or solemnly ceremonial. Central perspective or a pyramidal composition has, thus, always been preferred for sacred pictures. The choice nowadays of emphatically asymmetrical arrangements expresses a desire to see Divinity more human and close to us. Symmetry, and especially central perspective, removes the Deity to the furthest imaginable distance.

You can now see how closely all matters relating to surfaces and areas are bound up with the composition of a picture. The illustrations given here are a modest attempt to encourage you to play, aimlessly at first, with areas and their shapes and arrangements, so that you understand something of the tensions and dynamics of their relationships before using them purposively to compose a picture. It is a serious, though frequent, mistake to compose only with pencil lines. If you cut out the appropriate shapes in paper and arrange them on the background you will have a much closer and clearer idea of how you want to compose your painting or drawing and what it will look like.


Rhythm in pictures results from spacing the lines and arranging the surfaces. Its possibilities are quite varied. Symmetrical, uniform spacing is monotonous and overemphasizes the plane of the picture, while a spacing which closes in or opens out leads out of the plane and evokes the illusion of flowing movement.

The rhythm of regular, parallel hatching is monotonous and inevitably stresses the frontal plane. If it swells and diminishes in the same stroke, it immediately suggests rotundity. If it does only one or the other it sets up a movement in one direction which seems to increase in speed where the rhythmic accents follow closer upon each other. The opposite effect may be felt also, depending on the sense of the whole composition.

1. The area shown in black on the left is exactly equal to that shown in white. 2. Left: These areas are equal
Center: The colored area is overwhelmed by the white area-or given added prominence. 3. Shape without direction.
4. Equilateral triangle and pentagon derive a sense of direction from the small stem. The rectangle and ellipse are two-directional vertically. The isosceles triangle has a single direction 5. Scattered dots in color indicate the direction of the white area; black dots. that of the black area (magnetic fields)
Experiments with balanced arrangement of plane on surface: 1. Two planes. No direction. 2. Three planes. Both a pronounced and weak sense of direction. 3. Three planes. Three different directions. 4. Four planes, all of differing directions, sizes, and tone values. The placing of the equilateral triangle helps support the movement upwards and to the left.
If the accents giving the rhythm, here for the sake of simplicity portrayed simply by strokes, are made smaller as well as closer together, the effect of perspective gives a corresponding movement in depth. If the frequency is disproportionately increased, the movement seems to increase, and conversely it slows down as the frequency of the accents diminishes. It is also possible to give a curved effect. The flattest effect is obtained from the rhythmic repetition of an ornamental pattern, on printed textiles or on carpets, for example, although the very movement of the eye itself gives some sense of pictorial movement as it unconsciously moves from one accent to the next, as though to make sure that the same unit is being repeated.

If a cloth printed in a large, definite pattern is compared with a plain colored one, everyone will agree that the printed one is more lively; and that, conversely, it is peaceful in comparison with one that has a woven pattern or damask in it. Ornamental pattern, as we have already said, is quite different from pictorial representation, which is our theme in this book; yet both draftsman and painter should understand the nature of ornamental design, since it carries the elements of plane, rhythm, and composition to their uHimate conclusion.

Design for textile print.Composition begins to exist only when the area of the picture is clearly defined. The rock wall used by the prehistoric artist did not possess this defined limit. Once it exists, on the man-made wall or on canvas or panel, the artist has to show his mastery within this limitation and work out a strict utilization of space. The composition of a picture, however, unlike that of pattern, is not confined to a monotonous filling out of the available space. Contained by the edges of the picture area, it also strives towards a center of interest and a concentration of the essential, generally in a broadly geometric framework.

Two or more geometric figures, acting as balancing weights, may be used to compose a picture; or one may act as a counterweight to the main center, with some sort of tension between them; or the figures may interpenetrate and overlap. None of this, though, is unambiguous, and the different solutions cannot be held to be universally applicable, for new answers to the problem of composition are always arising. Furthermore, a picture may begin either as a very tightly packed composition, a filled frame,or as a space in which the pictorial incident is the center of gravity but does not fill the whole area included within the frame.

Just as we have defined two extremes of vision, the intellectual, constructive vision and the naive, impressionistic, we can define two extremes of composition. One is the "isolating" or "detail" composition, the other is "central" composition, which works from the center of gravity outwards. There are as many intermediate stages and links between the two as exist between pure seeing and pure understanding, since composition no less than vision is engendered by artistic feeling alone and scarcely depends at all on logical or technical considerations.

Next: Composition and Perspective Together

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