Launchpad: Composition Basics (Student)

Shaping the View: Composition Basics

 Compose a Visual Symphony: Three Sides to Many Stories | Variety of Visions | Pulling Towards the Center

1)  Compose a Visual Symphony: Three Sides to Many Stories

Part 1

Begin by taking a look at Annibale Carracci's 1590 painting:

Two Children Teasing a Cat

List the objects and figures in this image. Then, gaze at the image while paying attention to the direction in which your eye naturally moves across the canvas. Take notes on where your eyes fall, follow, and finish as you look at the painting.

Draw the path your eyes follow on this line drawing of Carracci’s painting. Did you draw a recognizable shape?

Review the following diagrams of the Carracci painting:

Did your eyes follow a similar path?

Part 2

Next, view the following painting (which is probably very familiar) by Emmanuel Leutze:

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Use the line drawing of the Leutze painting to answer the following question.

  • Can you discern a shape, as in the last painting, in the composition?

Next, download this figure, and use it alongside the similar drawing of the Carracci painting (figure 3 above) to answer the following questions. Compare the shape in the Leutze to that of the Carracci painting.

  • Are they similar?
  • Do you notice anything else similar about the shape?

Think about the orientation of the compositional shapes in the two paintings.

  • Why do you think that both artists have chosen to orient their triangular composition the same way?
  • What form do the two shapes resemble?

 

2) Compose a Visual Symphony: Variety of Visions

Part 1

Start by taking a look at George Catlin’s painting:

Ojibbeway Indians in Paris

In the last activity, both of the paintings that you looked at had a triangular or pyramid-shaped composition. But that is not the only compositional shape that can be found in works of art. In this exercise, you and the members of your group should work together to find the compositional shape of Catlin’s painting. Print out the line drawing of the painting and draw the shape or shapes that you find on the print out.

  • What shape or shapes has your group found in Catlin’s painting?

Once you’ve shared your findings with the class, take a look at the following diagram:

Figure 1

Compare the shape diagramed in Figure 1 to your group’s drawing.

  • Is it the same?

Next, look at the following diagram of the same painting:

Figure 2

Now compare the shape diagramed in Figure 2 to your group’s drawing.

  • Is this the same?

Part 2

Now, take a look at another painting by George Catlin:

Snow Shoe Dance- Ojibbeway

Using a print out of this line drawing of the painting, work with your group to identify the compositional shape or shapes in this painting. Draw those shapes on the print out. Be sure to concentrate on the way in which the figures are positioned.

  • What shape or shapes do you and your group see?

Once you have shared your findings with the class, look at the following diagram:

Figure 1

Now compare the shape diagramed in Figure 1 to your group’s drawing.

  • Is it the same?

Next, look at the following additional diagram of the Catlin painting:

Figure 2

Compare the shape that appears in this diagram to your group’s drawing.

  • Is this the same as your group’s drawing?

Part 3

The last painting that you will be investigating is by an Italian Renaissance painter, Vittore Carpaccio:

The Flight into Egypt

Finding the compositional shape of this image might be a little more challenging than the previous two images. As with the previous two images you should print out the line drawing for this painting and indicate the compositional shape or shapes that you find by drawing directly onto the print out.

Discuss your results with the class. What kinds of forms did other groups find in the painting’s composition?

Once you have presented your group’s findings to the class, look at this diagram of the painting’s composition. Does the shape resemble what your group found?

Compare the shape or shapes that appear in your drawing to those found in the diagram here:

Figure 1

 

3. Compose a Visual Symphony: Pulling Towards the Center

Part 1

In this activity you will be examining a number of paintings in order to investigate the way that the composition helps to move your eye and your attention around the picture.

First, take a look at the following painting by the Italian painter, Cima da Conegliano:

Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist

Look at the placement of the figures in this painting. Work together with your group, answer the following questions:

  • What is the compositional shape of the image?
  • What is the main focus, or focal point, of this painting?
  • What tells you that this is the focal point of the painting?
  • Where is that focal point placed within the composition?
  • Where is it placed within the overall compositional shape?


Mark the compositional shape and the focal point of the painting on a print out of the line drawing provided here. Next, work with your group to answer the following questions:

  • Why do you think the artist placed the Madonna and Child at the apex of the compositional pyramid?
  • What does this placement within the picture frame, and within the composition, tell the viewer about those figures?


Part 2

Next, take a look at a work by another Italian artist, Sandro Botticelli:

Adoration of the Magi

Work with your group to identify the compositional shapes within this painting. Print out the line drawing of the Botticelli and draw the shapes that you find in this composition on the print out.

  • What shape or shapes did your group find in this image?

Discuss your findings with the class. Did everyone find the same shapes?

You and your group may have found one triangle within the composition—but did you find two? Download the following diagram:

Figure 1

Look at this diagram with your group and then answer the following questions:

  • What are the elements that make up the main shapes that appear in this composition?
  • Why do you think that the two triangles overlap at the central point of the painting?


Part 3

Next, view a painting by Jacques-Louis David:

The Death of Socrates

Work with your group to identify the compositional shape or shapes that can be found in this work. Print out the line drawing of the painting for you and your group to mark your findings. As you are working to identify the compositional shape of this painting pay particular attention to the action that is happening in this scene—and particular attention to the ways in which the postures and positions of each of the figures helps to move your eye around the canvas.

After you have shared your observations with the rest of the class and discussed your findings, you can download the following diagram of the painting:

Figure 1

Did you and your group find the shape that is outlined in this figure?

This painting depicts the death of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who is shown as a white haired man sitting on the bed with his left arm raised. He was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning for “corrupting” Athenian youth through his philosophical lectures. One of his students—Plato—is shown with his back to the viewer and his face hidden from his teacher even as he passes the bowl of poison to Socrates. With this information, work again with your group to answer the following questions:

  • Why do you think that David decided to use the compositional shapes that he did in the creation of this image?
  • Why do you think that David chose to focus on the action of Plato passing the poison to his teacher rather than on Plato’s anguish?
  • How do the two shapes- the oval and the figure eight- work together to focus the viewer’s attention on the most important elements of the image?


Part 4

Now, bring together all of the line drawings and diagrams from this exercise and look at them together with the original paintings for the three paintings you have investigated:

Work together with the members of your group to answer the following questions. Be sure to use the paintings that you have studied in order to show examples and to illustrate your points as you answer the questions.

  • Do the compositions of these images have anything in common? What?
  • Why do you think that the artists have chosen to place the focal point of each of these paintings where they have placed them?
  • How does the rest of the painting’s composition relate to and interact with the central focal point?