Many people wonder what it is that
makes a good picture. "Good" in the sense that it is aesthetically
pleasing to the viewer. Incidentally that is not to say that a picture
that is more attractive will be more highly valued - refer to the
Valuations page for information on what
really affects the price of paintings. This page purely examines how an
artist makes his work satisfying to the viewer.
There are three primary aspects that
affect the attractiveness of a picture: the subject matter, the
technique used and the composition. Each will be discussed in turn.
Certain images attract the viewer more
than others, and hold one's attention. These are psychological
characteristics of most humans, and are probably partly inherited. Faces
for example are something to which babies are innately attracted.
Likewise movement in the visual field will catch one's eye when a static
view does not - this is probably a survival advantage, and explains why
artists often try to suggest or simulate movement of figures or objects
in their paintings. The nude female figure is similarly attractive to
males, for obvious reasons.
Other pictures are stimulating because
they convey a scene that reminds the viewer of a pleasant experience,
and hence evoke satisfying memories. For example, a view of a flower
garden on a sunny day, or a scene of Venice may remind the buyer of a
pleasant holiday (clearly the demand for pictures of Venice does not
simply rely on the quality of the architecture). Historically many
paintings of landscapes and townscapes fell into this "holiday snaps"
category, although they usually have other merits than that of
comparable photographs as will be explained below.
Of course the experiences evoked may
not simply be pleasant ones, but can be almost any that are stimulating,
because the alternative for the viewer may be looking at a blank wall!
Many classical, religious or genre
pictures also tell a story, or attempt to illustrate an existing drama
that is known to the viewer. The drama usually is of the kind that
Also any image has psychological
"associations" which can be used by the artist and combined with other
images or associations to create new emotional experiences that are
psychologically or emotionally stimulating.
But if you consider the three subjects
that are the major themes of this web site, namely landscape, seascape
and still life, then in many cases the "raison d'etre" of the picture
may be quite obscure. What psychological stimulation is there in a still
life? See example right. Even in the case of landscapes or seascapes, the scene may not
evoke pleasing memories - for example look at the picture on this
web site that shows Dartmoor on a misty day (see above). So there are clearly other
influences at work.
Incidentally, why are some landscapes
seen as beautiful and others not? Probably for the same reason as why
people create gardens - because a well tended and nurtured range of
foliage evokes the primeval food gatherer or farmer in all of us. But
gardens are also "designed" so you can see that composition is an
Good technique by the painter certainly
increases the attractiveness of a picture. The accurate replication of a
scene, and attention to detail, was of course particularly important
before the use of photography in the modern age, and there are so many
amateur artists around who will be impressed by good technique that it
is still of some importance. In any case, if an artist cannot control
the colour, line and brush strokes in his work, he usually can't achieve
what he is aiming for.
Good composition is also a technique
that can be learned, and as we shall see, this is of major importance.
The design of a picture, or composition
as artists like to term it, is one of the most important factors in
attracting the viewer, holding your attention and giving you a
satisfying experience. Unfortunately it is often the aspect least
obvious to the uneducated art buyer, and the one that there is more
garbage talked about, even by artists, than almost any other aspect of
This situation has not improved of
late, when the rules of composition are deliberately broken so as to
create an unusual experience (which there may be some justification for)
or for a cultural "shock" (which there probably isn't). In the extreme it
means that piles of bricks or blank monotone canvases, can result in
reward for the artist. In the discussion below I will ignore these
aberrations and stick to the mainstream demands of the public for
The Shape of the Canvas
Let us start with the typical starting
point of the artist. What shape canvas is the picture to be drawn on?
In case you hadn't noticed, most pictures are oblong in shape, ie.
rectangular but not square. They are not round or oval, even though the
latter is actually a more convenient shape to compose a picture within,
as you can see from the example above. Square corners tend to lead
the eye out of the picture, whereas oval shapes make it easy to
establish a circular composition, which as you will see later, is a good basis
for a design.
But there are practical problems with
oval shapes. The conventional frame is more difficult to construct;
canvas, paper or board tends to come in square form; and hanging the
picture alongside others is not always easy. Also of course pictures are
hung on walls, and they are usually rectangular also. For those reasons,
oblong canvasses are more popular.
Using the Golden Mean
But why oblong rather than square? In
fact if you look at the range of pictures on this web site at the
time of writing, the ratios of one dimension to the other are almost all
within the range 1.3 to 1.7 (ignoring the fact that some are "portrait"
shape versus "landscape" shape). It has been known since at least the
ancient Greeks that the ratio 1.618 (called Phi, or the Golden Mean) is
a number common in nature and is typically seen by most humans as an
"ideal" or "beautiful" ratio. It can be generated mathematically or
geometrically - there is not space here to explain it fully but there
are plenty of sources on the internet on this subject, or look at books
such as "The Geometry of Art and Life" by Matila Ghyka or "The
Divine Proportion: A Study in Mathematical Beauty" by H.E. Huntley.
Phi is present in the design of flowers, in the growth of shells, and
was used by the Greeks and Romans in architectural design (for example
the temples at Paestum). Examples of picture frames in the Phi ratio are
You can of course construct the whole
picture design, not just the frame, using this ratio, but that is not
usually done. But let's just consider one issue. If you are developing a
landscape, where do you put the horizon line? If you put it smack in the
centre of the picture, or close to one edge, that is not likely to look
as natural and elegant as putting it in a place dictated by the Phi
ratio. Examples are shown below.
So we have already established that you
can enhance the beauty of a picture by using a natural ratio in elements
of the design. The reason why people prefer it is probably from it's
pervasive presence in nature, and even in the human body. Now let's move
on to other aspects of the design.
Ensuring a Balanced Composition
One of the simple differentiations
between what humans perceive as ugly faces and beautiful faces is
whether they are balanced or not, on either side of a vertical line. If
the two sides are symmetric then they are seen as more elegant. However,
faces are clearly not balanced exactly along a horizontal line, as the
eyes are a different shape to the mouth, etc. So balance is important,
but cannot be pervasive. As I have shown above, an equal balance of sky
and ground may appear unnatural. Likewise, it would be seen as unnatural
to have two clumps of trees on each side of a landscape picture that
were exactly equal, because we know this never occurs in real life.
Symmetry where it is expected is beautiful. Symmetry where it is not
expected is unnatural and hence ugly. But
the two horizontal and vertical halves of a picture have to balance
somehow if the end result is to be beautiful. How does the artist
Consider the two pictures below (a
simulated landscape). The one on the left looks unnatural, whereas the
one on the right is more natural.
to allow for the smaller tree in the above right hand picture, being
unequal in size to the larger tree (and hence nominally unbalanced), you
can still achieve balance by moving the smaller object further away from
the centre. In effect the balance achieved is like that of a fulcrum
where a smaller object further out balances a larger object nearer the
fulcrum point (diagram right).
A good example of this principle in one
of the pictures in our gallery is the one on the left by F.J.Widgery,
where the large, dark block of rocks on the right, is balanced by the
smaller headland on the left.
This pictures is also balanced
vertically because the headlands above the horizon line balance the
rocks and foreshore below the horizon. Note also how the artist has
avoided the problem of having the horizon in the dead centre of the
picture by hiding it in mist.
Problems with Unbalanced
If there was a single large element on
the right hand side of the above picture with no balancing element, one
reason why this would not work well is because the eye is naturally
first drawn to the largest, most prominent object. But where does it go
from there? With no other object in the frame, the eye would tend to
drift to the corners of the picture, or even out of the frame. In the
above example it would probably follow the line of the seashore out to
Blocking "Opposing" Lines
Keeping the eye focussed within the
picture, and holding the viewer, is an important element in composition
as we will see. In the picture on the right, the right hand tree does
not simply balance the larger tree on the left, it also acts as a
stopping vertical line to halt the eye drifting out of the picture via
the horizon line.
Entrances and Exits
Rather than have the eye exit the
picture, some artists even provide an "exit" within the picture
to which the
eye is lead. In interior room scenes, this can be an actual doorway
or window. In garden scenes or landscapes, it can be a gateway in the
Often there is a conscious effort by
the artist to lead the eye into the picture, for example a winding path
that disappears into the distance, as in the example by Richard Wardle
from our gallery. Notice the "exit" in the distance but within the
One very common general construction
that is used to retain the eye within the picture is to used a circular
composition. In the extreme, this can be as simple as a "vortex" as in
many of J.M.W.Turner's paintings - see example below entitled
Normally the circular arrangement is a bit more
subtle, as in the painting below.
The F.J.Widgery picture on the right
has an overlay showing the likely path of the eye around the picture.
Note that the circular design can be constructed not just by line, but
by tone or colour. Click on the image to see the original picture.
Notice also how in the picture above,
the smaller rock to the left of the main group is placed so as to stop
the eye drifting off to the left, as otherwise it would do, and is
positioned to direct the eye up towards the secondary object which is
the headland above and to the left. The other, more distant headland,
and the clouds, then lead the eye back to the main focal point.
Not convinced? Then look at the picture
on the left by Constable. Clearly there is a circular design with the
main subject framed by the trees (which just happen to join at the top)
and the pond providing the link across the bottom of the scene. The main
subject is within the circle.
This is a compositional "trick" to
solve a common problem of circular composition in landscapes - namely
how to link from a tall vertical object to the ground through the sky
somehow. In other cases, artists use prominent cloud formations, flights
of birds, columns of smoke, or as in another Constable painting, a
You are no doubt going to say at this
point that the artists in the examples above may have simply drawn what
they saw, but in reality
they chose the viewing point. Even if they did not manipulate the scene when
painting it, which is quite likely as a small change in shape, colour or
shading of an object can easily do that, and even if they were not
consciously aware of the requirements of good composition, they have unconsciously adhered to the rules of good design.
Triangular, "S" Shaped and Angular
Alternative composition forms are
triangular ones (often used in half length portraits where the arms form
the base of the triangle), which again provides a way to hold the eye
within the scene, and "S" shaped ones which are effectively two circles
linked together. The Wardle scene on the right could be viewed as of
that form as you can see.
Angular compositions tend to depend on
a somewhat different arrangement where converging planes are used to
direct the eye within the scene and hold it within the frame. The
Widgery picture mentioned above is shown on the left with the lines
highlighted so you can see the angular design (click on the image to see
Note that very often multiple
compositional elements are used to make up a picture, or you can
sometimes interpret the same picture in different ways. However, if
construction is random, or ignores these rules, it will be a bad
The above has only been a very simple
overview of composition and how it affects the quality and satisfaction
of the viewer. For more information a good book on this subject is
"Composition in Art" by Henry Rankin Poore.
Colour and Tone Harmony
One aspect not considered so far has
been the impact of colour and tonal graduation, as paintings rarely
consist simply of lines and planes. Clearly certain colours have
existing associations in the human mind. Black may be depressing,
whereas white is uplifting. Red is garish, while green is calming.
There are also well known
"complementary" colour pairings (where mixing the pigments yields a
neutral grey-black). Using complementary colours in a composition may
make it appear more unified than otherwise.
Just as a composition must be
"balanced" for shape and forms, it must be balanced for colour and tone.
If there is a large amount of bright red on the left hand side of the
picture, it will need balancing by some other brightly coloured or high
impact object on the right.
Fooling the Visual System
Some features of the human visual
processing system can also be used by the artist to give particular
attributes to his paintings. For example, the use of colours of very
similar luminance on objects (ie. their ability to reflect light) makes
it difficult to establish the relative position of objects. This can
make them appear in motion. Likewise the human eye tends to focus
on areas of high detail and contrast, so painters can use this to keep
the eye within the picture by leaving the edges in soft focus or using
broader brush strokes. This is often done in still lifes and portraits
and is not the result of the artist simply trying to save time.
Similarly the soft focus in many impressionist pictures can fool the
stereoscopic system so that the picture looks more three dimensional
that it is.
For fuller studies of the impact of
colour and the visual system look at "The Elements of Colour" by Johannes Itten
and "Vision and
Art: The Biology of Seeing" by Margaret Livingstone.
The exposition above is really only a
very brief overview of the study of composition and how it impacts
viewer satisfaction. You may not even be conscious of these issues when
you look at a painting (and the painter may not have been when he
painted it). But if the painting is poorly constructed, the design is
inelegant, your eye is distracted from the main subject matter, or your
eye is led out of the picture, then it certainly will not be a
To Gallery Page
Panvertu is a registered trademark of Roliscon Ltd. Copyright ©
Roliscon Ltd 2003. All rights reserved.