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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 -
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 -
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 evokes emotions.
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 left. Even in the case of landscapes or seascapes, the scene may not evoke pleasing memories -
Incidentally, why are some landscapes seen as beautiful and others not? Probably for the same reason as why people create gardens -
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 art.
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 satisfying art.
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 -
But 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 below 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 Compositions
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 the left.
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 below, 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 distance.
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. Notice the "exit" in the distance but within the picture.
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 -
Normally the circular arrangement is a bit more subtle, as in the painting below.
The F.J.Widgery picture above 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 below 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 -
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 Compositions
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 below 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 below with the lines highlighted so you can see the angular design.
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 picture.
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-
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 satisfying experience.
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 achieve this?
Consider the two pictures below (a simulated landscape). The one on the left looks unnatural, whereas the one on the right is more natural.