Oh wow. It’s 2001 & um…
So, without further ado—many of my readers doubt know these already, having teased them out for themselves, but for anybody starting out, Things I Have Learned About Art, mostly composition and color.
- Don’t have a line going off the exact corner of the page. This activates the corner visually—it hauls the eye down and right off the page, and they may never come back. Doesn’t have to be a straight line, either. Likewise, if you’ve got a large shape going off the corner, handle it carefully—if it’s perfectly balanced in the corner, the center axis will sometimes act like a line, even if it’s not drawn in.
- If something is nearly touching something else, but not quite, it activates the space between them. If you have a tree branch that’s almost—but not quite—touching the line of the mountains, people are going to be staring at that little gap. Since there is probably nothing to see in that little gap, you probably don’t want that.
Corollary 1: The eye goes to stuff that’s crossing. If you have stuff crossing other stuff, the eye will get dragged to where they cross. This can be used to your advantage.
Corollary 2: X marks the spot. If you have stuff—tree branches, arms, mountains, whatever, form an exact right angle cross, the eye goes there and STOPS. For whatever reason, a right-angle X is like a brake. People will stare at it. Can be great if it’s on your main figure! Not so great if it’s a couple of blades of grass in the foreground. X’s, for whatever reason, will haul in the eye.
- Don’t block movement. I think it was John Seery-Lester who wrote this one, and I’ve found him to often be correct. If you have a figure moving, don’t put stuff in their way. ANY stuff. A wolf running across the painting is halted just as easily by a bright blade of grass from the foreground extending into his path as by a brick wall. Obviously you have to make some judgement calls on this one, but if you’re going for a sense of motion, don’t put in a visual obstacle course.
- People look at faces. In most paintings, all else being equal, the eye is drawn immediately to faces. This is good! You want people to look at your figure! Also, according to Michael Whelan anyway, again, all else being equal, a book cover with a large face does better on the newsstand. Couldn’t speak to that one myself.
Corollary: They look at boobs, too.
- The eye goes to contrast. The point where the darkest darks cross the lightest lights is seriously intense, and the eye will go there. This can be used to your advantage, but if you have three or four evenly spaced areas of high contrast, the eye will wander around, get confused, miss your main figure, and the viewer will get bored and get a headache. (This one’s hard to spot in practice, so don’t sweat too much. If you’ve got a piece that isn’t working, though, consider whether this may be the problem, and punch up the contrast on your main point of interest.)
- Figure out what color your light source is, and dump the complimentary color in the shadows. This depends on your color scheme, but seriously, a little purple in the shadows cast by the yellow sun of the the earth can really jazz up a piece.
Corollary: Gray looks purple if you stick it next to yellow, etc. This isn’t either good or bad, just something to be aware of.
- The eye follows lines. If you have a strong line running most of the length of the painting, have it go somewhere interesting. If it winds up nowhere in particular—if you’ve got a dais or platform with a strong line at the top, say, and there’s nothing interesting to either side—then break it up—a leg, a fold of cloth, a torch, whatever—so that the eye can get off that hard line. It’s like a monorail. You gotta give ‘em a station to get off, or they’ll just go back and forth and eventually jump, and god knows where they’ll wind up.
Corollary 1: The eye will follow lines TO stuff, too. Have your hard line lead to somebody’s face, and wham, you know the viewer’s gonna see that face. Have the line of a mountain lead to your mountain lion, or whatever.
Corollary 2: Hard lines that divide your painting in half (or a third, or whatever) are tricky. See, they split the painting HARD, and there’s a good chance the viewer will not actually register half the painting. It isolates each half of the painting. Great if you’re doing a light-and-dark shot of the same area or something—the visual similiarities will tie them together. Not so great if you just wanted to put a table there. The hard line acts as a wall. You gotta give ‘em some kind of break to get through the wall. A mountain or a tree breaking up the horizon line might be all you need.
- Bright colors come forward, dark colors recede. But you can fake ‘em out with contrast and saturation.
- Certain color combos have associations that trump your painting every time. Okay, this is totally subjective, but bear in mind that if you use dark green and saturated red together, it’s Christmas, and red, white, and navy blue are more trouble than they’re worth. You may be able to make ‘em work, people certainly do, but you’re working against an entire culture’s programming on this one.
Corollary 1: Red, blue, and yellow in equal amounts gets really cluttered. Again, it can be made to work—my icon, for example, is from a painting where I used all three—but all those primaries can be awfully busy if you’re not careful. The platypus painting was seriously minimalist and stylized, which I think is why it worked, assuming it did and I’m not delusional.
Corollary 2: Fear the rainbow. Don’t ask me why, but if you have a complete rainbow spectrum, it just takes over the image. Not neccessarily bad, but approach with caution.
Corollary 3: Warning colors draw the eye. Since we evolved to associate bright colored animals with danger, like bees and poison frogs and whatnot, the specific combinations of black and red and especially black and yellow haul the eye in like no other. Black and yellow is much more powerful than black and white.
- Symmetry is powerful, or powerfully boring. Strict, formal symmetry can make for a very imposing, dramatic painting, or it can send you to sleep. There’s a trick to it. If I ever figure out what it is, you’ll be the first to know.
Corollary: Odd numbers are good. I am told this works in landscaping, too—two of anything cancel each other out. One is an interesting specimen, three is a good dynamic grouping. It works with higher numbers too. Odd numbers add drama, even numbers balance one another. Once you get to the point where you can’t count the things, don’t worry about it.
- Any collection of three dark roundish bits is a face. Learn to live with it. If you have a face take over a painting, however, you can usually fix it by taking out one of the “eyes.”
- Same value, different hue, vibrates like hell. Okay, this is hard to explain, but if you have two colors that are the same brightness, even if it’s a red and a green or something, and you stick them together, the fact that they’re the same light/dark value gives them this freaky visual wiggle, as they both fight for dominance. You can use this to your advantage, but more likely, it’ll give your viewer a migraine. Decide which color you want to win and punch it up a few notches.
- Anything can be any color, as long as you get the shape right. Especially true of skin tones, as long as it’s internally consistent, people will assume that it’s due to weird lighting, or they won’t even notice. Jerry Rudquist, my painting teacher, art rest his soul, told me this, and I have been proving him right for the rest of my life.
Corollary: Bright yellow is brighter than white. Heh, go figure. White is usually the brightest part of a painting, but occasionally you find a painting where yellow trumps it. I don’t know what causes that to happen, but it’s interesting.