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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Format and Scale

Last week, Dar commented:
I wonder if you have any thoughts about format (size, shape, orientation) and scale (life size, sight size at arm's length or ten feet, etc), and how they apply to composition.
We've got two things here to address. I'll look at format this week and pick up on scale next week. (So you'll have to come back :) )


Format means the size, shape and orientation of the surface onto which a two-dimensional art work is made. We all know sizes range from postage stamp to huge murals, that shapes range from the ellipse (or circle), square and rectangle to more complex free-form shapes. Orientation applies to the rectanglar shape--to whether it is presented as a horizontal or as a vertical.

Shape and orientation affect the overall composition more strongly than size because generally speaking, when a composition works small, it will work large and vice versa. But shape and orientation do, indeed, influence the import of the composition.

First, shape and orientation work together. Two shapes--the circle (or ellipse) and the square--have no orientation, but all rectangles do. Rectangles vary from just barely not square to extremely elongated. Look at this set of shape variations on my "Sautee Herefords at Dusk":
A distinction to be made is that the oval and circular shapes have a single, continuous edge giving the composition a softer dynamic. And because there is only one edge within a circle or an ellipse, placement of the subject matter can be almost anywhere within the shape and still work. It's the easy way out of challenging composing.

A square is the next easiest way out. Because all sides are the same in a square, there is no commitment to an orientation. For example, if the subject is a strong vertical, our choice is to reinforce the vertical with the same format or to contrast the vertical with a horizontal format, an even trickier task. But with a square, that consideration does not exist.

But with a rectangle there is variation in the size of the two sets of edges; these can vary in size from subtle to extreme. Here are three examples: Since the major reason to compose is to best interpret our ideas and feelings about our subject, choosing the shape and the format is our first decision toward how a subject will be interpreted.
Subjects usually tell us how they want to be oriented so that their character can be reinforced. Look at the four photos below:

Notice how each fits into its format's orientation as well as shape.
  • The upper left stance forms a square. The composition might be more interesting to add some space to the right changing the format to a rectangle but a square works.
  • The upper right pose is alert, a feeling that a vertical reinforces.
  • The lower left stance is also alert, but the subject "asks" that it be placed in a horizontal format because of its shape. A vertical format would require an equal amount of space at the bottom or top, thus weakening the attitude communicated by the subject.
  • The same thing is true for the lower right. Because there are two dogs, an elongated horizontal format best focuses the attention on the two as a pair.
The best idea for deciding on a format is to do thumbnail sketches of several possibilities, then use the one that best allows the most interesting composition to emerge.


Dar Presto said...

Thank you! That's very helpful. Are there times when the orientation can be used as a counterpoint? Sort of deliberately creating tension or empty space?

Dianne Mize said...

Dar, yes, indeed. Counterpoint is one of the tools that makes functional use of orientation.

Lisa B. said...

Great article on E.E. this week. The demonstration showing the difference in how to lighten red was a real eye opener. Thank you!