Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Composition Part 5 - The Cross

The astronomical symbol for the earth is a circle with a “plus sign” in the middle.  In a way it summarizes the human reality of living on the earth.  It may be a sphere, but to humans it is a horizon line with living things rising vertically up from the earth.
Civilization is organization, and organization on the earth’s surface is usually a grid; a series of crosses.  Gravity describes the cross: columns defying gravity and beams connecting the columns, giving shelter for humans.

Winslow Homer had no problem placing a compositional cross in his paintings.  The Blackboard is only one of several that places a standing figure at the very center of the painting and breaking the vertical with various elements, in this case the wainscot and eponymous blackboard.  He is usually more circumspect showing his compositional structure, but here he lets it dominate the design.

Another example is House in Ruel by Edouard Manet.  Between the red horizontal soffit and the tree trunk, you can’t get more obvious, but then the rectilinear elements of most buildings are hard to ignore, and most artists work hard to downplay the pattern.

Any review of landscape or seascape paintings runs heavy with cross motifs.  This Hudson Valley landscape by George Inness is pretty typical.

The painting Princess Maria Klavdievna Tenisheva by Ilya Repin begins to camouflage the cross pattern in a standing figure.  The vertical of the figure is obvious, but varied in form and value.  The horizontal is only suggested by the top of the chair, the brightly lit arm, and the jeweled lace across the chest.  Any good portrait such as this will try to reduce the natural verticality of the standing figure.

On to architectural illustration…

As stated above, a grid is a normal marker of civilization.  The aerial view below of a government complex by Deborah Hickson is interesting in that it takes the grid of the project, and makes it into a static abstraction on the page.  It is obviously a green campus formed by buildings and populated by people, but the abstraction of the cross is there with the reality.

Kobe Portopia Hotel by T. Yanagisawa shows the simplest example of a cross composition.  Like a pine tree standing on a plain, this tower is the perpendicular exclamation point in defiance of the leveling force of gravity. 

More nuanced is the night time rendering below of the renovated entrance to Carnegie Hall by John Kletzien.  Note that the rectilinear structure of the masonry is down played, while the lit elements are allowed to play “hide-and-seek” with the cross motif.

By using the natural vertical of the one point perspective view Christopher Grubbs’ rendering of Barangaroo in Sydney, Australia creates a strong cross pattern.  This is a good reminder that the simple act of picking a viewpoint will often produce as much structure as is necessary for a successful composition.

Some buildings are designed with a strong cross form.  In that case your problem is to modify the cross pattern.  The wireframe below of my proposal for an artist’s studio, shows a design that fits that description.  Luckily, there were plenty of other things going on to dilute the main forms of vertical poles and horizontal roof.

Finally, although the cross composition is the most obvious pattern to use when illustrating buildings, that is its chief disadvantage.  The cross can easily become too obvious and boring.  So it is best to hide or obscure your composition wherever possible.  Or better yet, add another pattern on top, a diagonal or circle perhaps, just to make it more interesting.  In a way composition is the same as puzzle design; you want there to be an answer that is satisfying, but you don’t want the solution to the puzzle to be easy.  Play hard to get, just not so hard to get that the audience walks away.

A caveat for all posts on composition.
You don’t want to produce total chaos.
You don’t want to create banal order.
You do want to entice, hint, and suggest.
You want to create mystery, even if the subject appears to be obvious.

 - Composition Part 17 - Value Studies

No comments:

Post a Comment