Still Lifes by Design

Knowing how to compose a picture is all-important. I came by my sense of composition by osmosis—looking at a lot of professional artwork. Imitating the masters taught me to look at the whole image, not just the subject. When I teach, I encounter all different levels of students. Some of them can’t draw well enough yet; some of them can’t paint well enough yet—but I try to teach each one how to compose a picture.

Here are some of my oft-repeated lessons:
Don’t place your center of interest in the center of the page, unless you know how to handle such an awkward placement. Often this is the first time a student has considered doing anything other than putting the vase of flowers in the middle of the paper, because he is so focused on the object that he wants to paint. I ask him to look beyond his subject, to break his attachment to it, and to see it as just one of many elements that go together into a successful painting.

Consider the negative shapes. Can negative shapes be made more interesting by moving the subject or by changing the format? Often, just cropping the image so that unimportant parts of the subject run off the edge of the page will solve the problem of boring negative shapes.

Consider the entire image in abstract terms: Think of value dominance, movement and balance—before you pick up the brush. I want to teach students to paint with their heads, as well as their hands.

A good composition engages the viewer at first glance. Everything about it just feels right. That sense of balance and unity comes from integrating every part. All of the lines, colors, contrasts, etc., need to work together, regardless of the subject, to invite the viewer to explore every inch—then return him to the center of interest.

Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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