top of page

Value and composition, design

Each of these is its own topic, so I’m going to do a sketch of all three; because... they are related. All this art stuff is related and I’m not pursuing them in any organized educational order. Let’s just say that light is really important in representational painting, direction of light in particular, darks and lights. Shape is important, color not so much. But the thing is... representational painting, realism, is like trompe o’leil, it’s faking out the brain or more using the brain to hold a moment of suspended belief that this two dimensional paint smeared on a flat surface represents three dimensional space... and then to make that smearing interesting. Why did I paint that is different topic for another blog post.

So three dimensional space has form. Light and shadow help describe that form. Mass, mass drawing, how an object occupies space is described in approximately five values. Recall the Munsell scale has ten values from black to white, but five values is enough to get by the mind. Those are: highlight, midtone or halftone, reflected light, turning or core shadow, and occluded or cast shadow. The lightest dark has to be darker than the darkest light and vice versa or things get confusing. Once we get to color, temperature changes in each of those phase changes, later... and then there is spectral dispersion vs retinal dispersion and prismatic color and shit gets complicated quickly, so we start with black and white.

The objective in sketching, drawing, painting in black and white is to simplify form... in plein air painting (outdoors in the plain air)... it’s 3-5 large shapes and 4-7 values of color, but again, that’s getting ahead. We use the other components, line, shape and color (5 values... greyscale) to define shapes and then turn thos shapes into forms, masses... objects, pictorially. Each of those is its own topic, trust me. Lines alone: thin, bold, fast, slow, curvy, lost, hidden, projected... perspective is another one. The list just goes on... lines make shapes, values on those shapes make masses, direction of light and shadow add to the reality. Something like that. Did you get value out of that? If you recall, value is one of the components of color, those being: hue, chroma, value, temperature and possibly twelve other features... symbolism, mood, you name it, emotion... yellow is aggressive.

So in simple form, composition is how we divide up the canvas or rectangle into dark and light. Dark and light.... if the darks predominate, our eye follows the light. If the amount of lights dominate then our eye follows the darks. See what I mean about all this stuff being related? Where you place represented objects... shapes, masses, and forms... dark shape... light shape determines a lot psychologically both about the artist and the viewer. The sky could be a big light shape or it could be a big dark shape on a cloudy day or at night. Where you put the horizon can be reassuring or disturbing, or there could be no horizon at all (Sargent). Fibonacci, the golden mean, repetition, pattern, all this plays a part. Composition goes on into infinity. Classical, stable, and horizontal and vertical lines, romantic angular and diagonal lines... all composition. See what I did there? Value, lines, shapes, composition... the stuff is inextricably enmeshed and not in a healthy way. There are bridge or beam compositions, S compositions, O compositions, radial compositions, triangular compositions an ones that have not even been described yet.

I should mention contrast... where light meets dark... the darkest meeting the lightest, draws the eye and the mind to it. The focal point. The moment of interest. Put those moments at Fibonacci points or on the golden mean and it’s more pleasing... like a major music chord. One third points are common... putting something smack dab in the middle, boring! Put people, objects, ideas at the focal point to draw our attention there, intentionally... move that tree. That’s what artists license is about. So where you put all the objects in a still life is composition and design.

Design is its own whole topic, too, so I’m going to devote a whole sentence or paragraph to it, but whole college degree programs in design exist. The use of line, shape, value, color, pattern, repetition, light and dark, contrast and composition to catch our eye from across the room among a wall of other paintings and then keep our mind interested and our eye moving from place to place within the painting and back again, is what I will call design. Three lights in a triangular composition in some order of value... leading our eye and our mind around a canvas. Color is part of design. Again a whole other topic, like sketching, which I didn’t even get to.

There are three things that motivate human behavior, emotion, desire and knowledge. Someone said that.

35 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page