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Thoughts from the Studio

July 31, 2017

We conclude our introduction of The Principles of Organization with the consideration of Dominance, Movement and Economy. *Please see archived newsletters for previous topics.

The Principles of Organization:
These are the principles that guide the employment of the elements in achieving unity within the visual arts:

  1. Harmony

  2. Variety

  3. Balance

  4. Proportion

  5. Dominance

  6. Movement

  7. Economy

Last month, we ended with the idea of Proportion being so innate with our sense of seeing that it is worthy of separate investigation in regard to each of the other principles.  Let’s hold that line of thinking in consideration of Dominance and the remaining principles. 

Dominance is defined as the importance assigned to certain elements over others within the same composition.  Some features are emphasized and others are subordinate. 

So, what happens when proportions are distorted, exaggerated 
or emphasized?  Our visual sensory instinctively pick up on the variance in proportion before our thought process kicks in to analyze what we are seeing.  It is kind of like first impressions – a sensory reading in context of what we see with what we know. 

Consider the sensory reading concept in regard to this painting by Jerome Paul Witkin entitled, Jeff Davies, from 1980.  This portrait is painted with the emphasis on the physical stature of the figure – the enhanced proportions are given dominance in the ordering of the composition.  The central placement of the figure within the picture plane – fills the entire frame with a full-frontal pose in an immediate confrontation with the viewer.  A dominating figurative composition. One cannot avoid seeing him, nothing else is given attention around him, except a mere slice of forefront.  It is as if he just stood up from the table. If Dominance is the star principle in this painting, then Movement deserves the award for best supporting principle, for its role in this successful composition.  

Movement is defined by eye travel – or as the visual pathway created in a work of art for the eye to travel as directed by the composition.  Let’s look again at Witkin’s painting of Davies:

The central placement and treatment of the white torso gathers the primary attention and then leads the eye out in a circular fashion taking in the rest of the figure, heightening the presence of his dominating stature.  This is not an easy feat. Viewers have an instinctive immediate response to “find the face” within a figure painting and especially a portrait painting.  Here, the artist utilizes the power of Movement within the composition, creating a visual pathway so that the first thing that gets our attention is the round fullness of the white torso and then spirals out to the arms the form a visual “parentheses” around the protruding belly and then finally continuing in a form of visual concentric circles out to the face and the fore-ground.   The success of Movement within an artwork is often achieved by creating a clear – visual pathway for the viewer.  One that is free of distractions or places of visual tension – where eye travel may get “hung-up.”  This is an area often overlooked by many artists, but well-known to the masters.  An area where the principle of Economy can truly be a secret weapon in our development of artistic arsenal.

Economy is defined as distilling the image to the basic essentials for clarity of presentation.

The creation of powerful compositions is about choices, and Economy can serve as a powerful helper in deciding what to include and what not to include as well as to how it gets included or presented.  It can be thought of as a system of hierarchy, as in who (or what) is the boss (the focal point).  In that way, it is a principle that should be ever present.  An artist should always keep the central focal point or content or concept of importance clearly in their minds eye while making all other choices.  Economy should be present at the beginning when looking at your subject.  In-process; that is all along the way as you make the artistic choices that will culminate into the finished work.  It should be present and considered upon completion, as Economy is an extremely important tool in objectively critiquing your own work. Thinking back over the choices made and seeing the visual result of those choices are a powerful learning tool in the development of skill set. 

Let’s have a last look at our example:  It is the principle of Economy that allows everything to fall into place for the successful presentation of this painting.  If we think of Dominance as the star then all artistic decisions should be made in regard to that premise.  For example, the use of the white round central shape – against the soft green, down filled jacket in its soft rendering and choice of subdued color, successfully compliments the focal point.  In contrast, what if the artist used a bright orange for the coat – and other bright colors for surrounding shapes, or his hat?  Then we would have what I referred to earlier as a visual “hang-up.”  Where should we look? Our quiet focal point that we planned to sneak up on the audience is suddenly visually overwhelmed by the loud attention - grabbing colors, more powerful than that of the white T-shirt.  The artist used economy in regard to the Essential Elements* of color, shape, line, value and texture to heighten and support his central focus – by not distracting from it.  Showing restraint, and masterful editing by choosing to let that white quietly emerge as the central focus taking “center-stage” while everything else (all other elements in subordination) diffuses out from it.  No other element oversteps the authority of the central focus, this is what is meant by Economy as hierarchy.  It can also be helpful to think of in terms of priority, like spending money. As artists, we should know where and what our attention and energy is being spent on.  Don’t waste time, artistic energy and materials, in the portrayal of anything less than what you want; or in the creation of visual distractions (hang-ups) that lead viewers away from the central focus of the artwork.  Most of the visual problems of composition could be solved with an understanding of Economy as they are often the result of unnecessary complexity (drama-fests) within an artwork.  Economy is considered to be both practical (as described in this introduction) and highly abstract (a topic for future discussions).  However, it should be noted, that in developing skill in economizing, one risks falling into the trap of monotony, (not presenting “enough” by way of visual interest within the artwork).  After all, the number one enemy of design is boredom!  When we hone our skills of Economy, we face our greatest enemy.  Finding the balance between enough and not enough is where organic unity* lives.  Distilling the essence of where the subject to where the visual interest lies and creating that visual path to the focal point is extremely critical.  Knowing when to pull back and not literally representing every little thing, is also imperative.  Sometimes greater clarity can be achieved by eliminating elaborate details and including only significant essentials.  It is important for us to remember:  Economy, along with the rest of The Principles of Organization, are not a set of rules – but are nuggets of consideration, to be polished over time, in the development of personal practice to reveal their shine within the many-facets that make up an artist’s unique style and expression and become evident in the presentation of the artwork.    

The Jeff Davies, painting is part of the collection at The Palmer Museum of Art.  I highly recommend that you go stand in front of it – to personally experience an example of Dominance and The Principles of Organization at work in his successful painting with a powerful presence.  Truly, it is a masterful display in its visual arrangement of the Principles of Organization. 

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