The Composition of Paintings: An Artist’s Perspective

by Alan Feltus

In making analytical drawings from paintings, start to look for what lines carry through, or continue from one thing to another. Or from the far to the near in a room. And how these work with edges of the painting. In paintings where these connections are seen that is the kind of structure or composing that interests me.

In this Degas, for example, watch how the vertical in the architecture continues down the dance master's stick, and the music stand and the chair working with that dark vertical in the background, in the mirror, I assume that is.. And the bar, the red line almost horizontal from left to right is picked up by the red sash and bow on the dancer on the far right. When you look for this kind of underlying structure you begin to understand what composing a painting is about. It is the structure that is additional to the narrative or subject matter of an image. A painting wants both that abstract reading, or structure, and also what the painting depicts in narrative. 

Figurative paintings, like abstract or nonobjective paintings, want to work in formal terms, quite apart from their image and their associations. A painting may be about a person sitting on a chair in a room, but it is also a complex fitting together of shapes that can be appreciated as such, apart from any representational reading.

My own paintings, although carefully rendered and perhaps seen as realism, are invented images with all manner of visual distortions and unreality. In my paintings, composition is intuitive by nature, rather than based on any imposed system where the placement of forms is governed by a geometric framework.  A painting that is organized intuitively is arrived at by instinct, maybe quite unconsciously. I have always liked painters whose compositional structure is as apparent as their narrative content, from Giotto and Piero della Francesca to Balthus. For me, a painting wants to achieves a balance between the structural language and the subject matter.
What are the aspects of intuitive composition? First of all, the need to find a balance must be central in such a discussion. We relate to balance in an image as we do in real life. Things in equilibrium are stable and not disturbing. I like quiet paintings. My paintings have to be stable and quiet in order to work for me. 

Some painters need disquiet. (Compare the seventeenth-century paintings of Vermeer and Jan Steen, painters from the same culture yet totally different in this way). Balance is intuitive. We achieve it automatically as we paint, each of us having our own kind of balance. Things adjust in position until they are within equilibrium.

Another crucial aspect of composing is how elements relate to one another and to the edges of the canvas. Paintings should not look like randomly cropped pieces of something that continues beyond the edges of the canvas. A painting is an object, complete and unique unto itself, different from the world around us. A painting is a transformation of something observed or invented. Transformation is necessary.

To understand the relationship between composition and the recognizable subject, think of Picasso's Cubist paintings. What we see is an abstracted image, which might portray some objects on a table in a room, but is above all a collection of shapes and colors and textures that reflect, or relate to, the vertical and horizontal edges of the picture plane. It is a construction that is very much about underlying structure. We assume that music and poetry are based on underlying structures. As children we learn about the way words and notes are organized to create form. Paintings also depend on such structures.

We don't refer to Cubist paintings as realist, of course. Realism, in any of its guises, tends to lose this balance between formal structure and image. For me, that is a problem. Too often we read the image and miss the painting.

Too often we read the image and miss the painting.

Completely abstract paintings, in which there is no figure, landscape, still life or other subject, are about composition itself. We see the paint as paint. We see the color and texture and value and the way paint was applied, the gestural touch of the painter's hand..

I think of myself as choreographing figures and objects when I make a painting. A painter has complete control over the precise relationships between forms. Everything can have an exact position and character that will remain forever unchanged. This fixedness is unique to painting (and photography). The painter wants to find the most perfect visual arrangement of forms he can find. When a painting is finished, it should be that nothing can be moved or added or taken away without upsetting the whole of the painting. One doesn’t want be haunted later by inadequacies not seen while painting. Of course, this is a near impossibility.

If every element in a painting is a part of the composition, then any line or color, any object or any space between objects, has been positioned, and then adjusted and adjusted again, to work in a precise way with everything else. This holds true for the division between floor and wall, the shape of a cast shadow, the presence of a book or a teacup. If I paint a piece of drapery or a piece of paper on a chair, that element is there because it has a compositional purpose. It might serve to continue a visual line across the painting's surface, establishing a relationship to those several parts that now line up in a particular way; at the same time, it might help define the way space reads in the painting. A piece of paper painted in perspective becomes a tipped plane. Placed on the floor, such a shape can hold an otherwise ambiguous area of color down as a floor and thus define the space. We can create a whole complicated patterned floor drawn in perspective, or we can paint, in effect, one square of a checkered floor that serves the same purpose. Of course, spatial ambiguity is sometimes also desirable. Wall can read as wall and at the same time as floor and not wall. Any element, such as the piece of paper on the floor, can serve many purposes. It will also be given a gesture. In terms of the narrative within a painting a tipped plane may be an envelope or a letter, introducing associations that would not be there if that something were a small piece of cloth.

Every form in a painting is given a gesture. Gesture does not belong exclusively to faces and body language. A piece of drapery, a book or a chair or a piece of floor seen between the other objects can be said to have gesture. An artist makes forms as he makes gestures. He can't help it. In fact, it is this quality that allows us to recognize the hand of a particular artist in a small detail from an unfamiliar painting.

We are who we are as artists because of what we paint and how we paint it, but we are also defined by our limitations. It matters what we want to make and what comes forth as we work—intentions informed by knowledge and desire, subject to our best abilities and our limitations. I see my limitations as part of my identity as a painter, and I know the struggle involved in the making of any painting is necessary. I usually consider paintings that seem to have been made without struggle to be suspect. Painting is very difficult work, requiring endless patience.

Alan Feltus web site

Alan Feltus is represented by Forum Gallery.