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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Power of Direction

For ages, artists have been using directional movement to compose their paintings.  Directional movement is any visual movement in an art work created by a line or by the alignment of shapes or color or value contrast.

The classic is the triangle on which artists depend for giving both balance and dynamics to their work.   From before Rembrandt to after Norman Rockwell, today's art collections are filled with paintings whose compositional structure is some variation of this directional movement scheme.

"Storm on the Sea of Galilee"   Rembrandt van Rijn
In this Rembrandt painting, the upper diagonal of the triangle is created by line, but the lower two are created by the alignment of shapes.

 "Fishing"     Norman Rockwell      1971

In  this Norman Rockwell painting, the lower side of the triangle is created by line with the other two sides being created by the alignment of shapes.

There is a variation on the scheme that is also found in this Rockwell piece.

Opposing diagonals that counter balance each other
There are opposing diagonals and accompanying verticals and horizontals.

Vertical and horizontal that give stability.

Because a single diagonal movement feels unstable, like when we are falling, some other movement is needed to give it balance. An opposing diagonal can do this, so can a strong horizontal or vertical or a combination of these.  In Rockwell's piece we see all of these at work.

Look at these two paintings by John Burton.

"Changing Tide"       Oil

"Dance of the Lupine"     Oil

Two totally different subjects with the same directional movement.

Look at how the strong diagonals are balanced with both a horizontal and a vertical.

It works in all genre whether landscape, still life or portraiture. And the exciting thing is that the direction of light can be set up to reinforce one of the directions.   Qiang Huang is masterful at doing this.

"Still and Alive"       Oil

Here's the theoretical explanation of how it works:  Both the horizontal and vertical direction give visual stability.  The horizontal serves to calm things down, to give a feeling of being at rest; the vertical gives anchor and a fulcrum for balance.  A diagonal, though, gives energy and motion.  That's why verticals and horizontals are often used to stabilize a piece containing many diagonals or other energetic elements.

It all goes back to nature, to our psychology and the physics of our bodies.  When we are in a horizontal position we are at rest, in a vertical position we are anchored to the surface on which we are standing, but in a diagonal position without any support, we're most likely falling.  

Once again we see how the principles of composition are live forces rather than baggage to be dealt with or ignored.

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