The Three Most Important Elements in Composition


The Three Most Important Elements in Composition are shape, value, and edge.

As artists it is important to realize that “seeing” is the process of recognizing shapes, values, and edges. 

When we look out the kitchen window and see the Weeping Willow tree in the backyard, we are seeing objects in space that have form. We know they have these characteristics because we can go outside and feel the bark on the truck and the leaves on the branches.

If we try to put the idea of “tree” on the canvas, it becomes a challenge.  The tree is three dimensional, but our canvas is flat and two dimensional. But, if we realize what it is that we are seeing, the process becomes as much one of structure and mechanics as anything else.

Today, I want to talk about three of the things that the artist “sees” and follow that with a few ideas about how to use this information to begin to design a composition.

Fundamentally, the artist sees shapes, values, and edges.

If we look at an object, we know it has depth.  It has length, width, and height. In other words, the object has form.

But, when it comes to putting these features on a canvas, it is important to realize that we must do so through a form of artifice.  We can’t put the leaves and the bark on the canvas, so we must find a means to create a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface.

Furthermore, we must consider what it is that we see. We think we see a tree, a rock, a building, but we see only Shapes, values and edges. If we remove all the color from the image and look at it as a large shape of tone, we can more easily see that it is the shape that we see.

Take a banana for instance. The image in our mind when we see banana is one of a long, curved yellowish fruit with maybe a few brown spots on the skin. But when we remove the color and outline it, we are left with an outline of a shape. It is no longer a “banana”, it is only a “shape of a banana”.

Why is this important?

Paintings are creations. They are a composition of parts (shapes) that we decide we want in our picture. We are not trying to copy the world we envision before our eyes. Instead we are going to put shapes together in such a way as to convey the feeling we have about the scene before us.

We may want to emphasize a particular element and make it the most important shape in our painting. If we only think about the objects before us as tree, banana, hill, we get stuck in the literalness, all the miscellaneous details of what we see. But, if we see only “shape” we can put these shapes togerther to make an harmonius whole

In a previous post about A.W. Dow I outlined his four main steps needed to begin a painting..

Let’s take a look at them again and see how shape plays a big role in his structural outline

  1. Make a simple drawing of the big important shapes.
  2. Decide where the lighrs will be
  3. Cover the rest in a midtone
  4. Add the darks

So what exactly did Dow mean, when he said make a simple drawing of the big important shapes?

First and foremost the Big Shapes that Dow referenced are the four main planes in a landsape, namely, the sky, the horizontal ground plane, the slanted hills and the Vertical plane such as trees.

These are the first big shapes you need to consider when starting a painting.

So take a piece of paper and look out your window and make a simple drawing that includes the sky, some trees, a distant hill, and a horizontal ground plane.

TRy different sizes of these elements. Move them around. Make the shape of your page different also. Try a square page. Then try a very wide border. Have fun with it and see what you can do.

Try this for a week or so and share some comments about how you made out.

If you have any questions, please shoot me a note, or leave a cmment below.

We’ll get into the other steps in future posts.

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