Center your subject in the painting


Rule Breakers

Posted: 10 Feb 2012 02:31 PM PST

   Artists by nature tend to be rebels, especially against rules. Some have even created art movements by defying conventional rules. We need only glance back to the mid-19th century to find in the Impressionists the most scandalous rule-breakers in art history. They radically disobeyed the conventional rules of their time and eventually became the heroes of our day. But it was conventions they rebelled against, not composition principles.
Claude Monet   "Woman with a Parasol" 1875 Member of Impressionist Movement
There is a difference between conventional rules and principles of composition.  A conventional rule is an accepted guideline set forth by agreement among artists, but a principle of composition is a functioning law of physics that gives an art work order so that it can be read without confusion.
One of these conventions that is not itself a principle tells us never to place an area of interest in the center of a painting.  This convention can be successfully defied by an artist who understands the principle of balance. Balance is a law of the physics with respect to equilibrium:  elements visually heavier on one side will overpower lighter weighted elements on the other. 
One way to defy the "never center" convention is to use symmetrical balance which makes one side of an art work a mirror image of the other.  Painter Georgia O'Keefe employed this principle in her painting, "Cow's Skull:  Red, White and Blue" and Leonardo da Vinci used in in his "The Last Supper."
Georgia O'Keefe    "Cow's Skull: Red, White & Blue"    1931

File:DaVinci LastSupper high res 2 nowatmrk.jpg
Leonardo da Vinci    "The Last Supper"  Circa 1495
Another method for defying the convention of "never center" is to use radial balance where elements circle around a central area.  Henri Matisse used this principle in his painting, "Dance I" and Albrecht Durer used it in his etching, "The Lamentation"
Henri Matisse, The Dance (1), o/c, 1910 (MoMA)
Henri Matisse     "Dance I"   1909

But the convention of "avoiding placement in the center" presumes assymetrical balance where elements on either side of an art work's center are of different sizes, colors, textures, shapes and values.  Nevertheless, an artist who has a working knowledge of the balance principle can find a way to place an area of interest in the center of the work, offsetting it with active elements around it. Winslow Homer uses this tactic in his painting, “The Herring Net.”  Even though the event is right in the middle of the canvas, our eyes are drawn away from the center by the fish in the net on the lower right, the light reflecting on the water on the right side, angles of the oars, and the weight of the fellow hanging onto the front left of the boat. And boats in the distance as well as the floating barrel in front help distribute the visual weight away from the center of the format.
Winslow Homer    "The Herring Net:    1885
Mary Whyte did a similar thing in her painting, "Red."  The face of the woman is located dead center, but the bright colors of the hat and dress, the textures and movement of feathers in the hat, the weight of the dark background shape and the chair in the opposing corner, all carry a visual weight that balances the painting, enabling a visual flow throughout.
Mary Whyte   "Red"   2008
"Rules of thumb" do work to prevent troublesome confusions from spoiling an otherwise well done painting, but artists need not be bound by them if a clever use of a principle can override the rule.  In fact, the more thoroughly we artists are able to understand how principles work, the more options we give ourselves for not only defying convention, but for finding creative ways to make our works more compelling.

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Comment by Jim Moyer on February 23, 2012 at 1:43

I worked on a boat scene from Peggy’s cove yesterday and placed the boat above center, However when I added the boats reflection it ended up dead center + o r – I will try lots of lead-ins to fix I will post in a few days.

Comment by Eddie Morris on February 22, 2012 at 17:45

Thanks Jim.

Comment by Julie Wickham on February 12, 2012 at 19:43

Great article - thanks Jim - there is so much to consider when planning a painting - this is a fantastic summary of just element.

Comment by debbie piro on February 12, 2012 at 13:35

Jim, Thank you, this helps with understanding a few things..

Comment by Montalvo on February 12, 2012 at 7:22

Jim,"Thank you" for posting. This was something i was wondering about. I usually paint without giving thought to the composition. I still have much more to learn. Thank You.


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