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Six Compositional Boo-Boos by Robert Genn

Six Compositional Boo-Boos
by Robert Genn

Last night, while on jury duty, my fellow juror and I agreed the most common fault seen among entries was in composition. Well drawn, well rendered and well coloured--all came to naught when the composition had significant faults. I've often written about what an artist should do. In this letter I'm giving six common pitfalls. Last night we noticed them all.


Weak foreground. The foreground appears as an afterthought. Wishy-washy, unresolved or inconsequential--it fails to set the subject onto a reasonable ground or to lead the eye to what the artist would have us see. Even in abstract or mystical work, a foreground needs to be implied and understood as a vital contributor to the whole.


Homeostatic conditions. Homeostasis means equidistant lineups of trees, rocks, blocks of colour, or other patterns that are too mechanical or regular. It includes trees growing out of the tops of people's heads. While sometimes seen in nature, homeostasis is a natural human tendency--a subconscious reordering and regularizing within the brain. "Even in front of nature one must compose," said Edgar Degas.


Amorphous design. The general design lacks conviction. A woolly, lopsided or wandering pattern makes for a weak one. Often, the work has unresolved areas and lacks cohesiveness and unity. "Everything that is placed within the enclosing borders of the picture rectangle relates in some way to everything else that is already there. Some attribute must be shared between all of them." (Ted Smuskiewicz)


Lack of flow. Rather than circulating the eye from one delight to another, the work blocks, peters out and invites you to look somewhere else. "Composition," said Robert Henri, "is controlling the eye of the observer." Effective compositions often contain planned activation (spots like stepping stones that take you around), and serpentinity (curves that beguile and take you in.)


Too much going on. Overly busy works tire the eye, induce boredom and make it difficult to find a centre of interest or focus. Less is often more. "Take something out," said the American painter and illustrator Harvey Dunn.


Defeated by size. Effective small paintings often work well because they are simple and limited in scope. But when artists make larger paintings they often lose control of the basic idea and what is ironically called "the big picture." "The larger the area to be painted," says Alfred Muma, "the harder it is to have a good composition."


Best regards,




PS: "A well-composed painting is half done." (Pierre Bonnard)


Esoterica: The path to stellar composition is spotted with potholes. Further, compositional design can be unique to the individual, and intuitive. This approach can be unreliable. Habitual poor composition can have long-term effects on otherwise excellent work. After our engaging juror effort (there were many excellent, compositionally sound paintings), over a straight-up gin Martini (for a change), my friend and I loftily decided to found a "School of Composition"--where only composition would be taught. Like the tattoos on the girl's back, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Robert Genn has given ARTAZINE permission to post from his twice-weekly newsletter. For more of his artistic insights, visit his blog at www.painterspost.com.

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