Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Composition Part 6 - The Pyramid

When I thought of the triangle in composition, one image came immediately to mind, the Egyptian Pyramids at Giza.  Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, only the pyramids are still standing.  Between their stable shape and being made of stone I wouldn’t be surprised if they were around for another 3000 years.

Since I just did a demo of I.M. Pei’s Louvre, the glass pyramid came to mind.

And with that came the Da Vinci Code movie... 

O.K., now I’m off the road and into the ditch...

The reality is that the pyramid shape applies to an amazing number of objects, from mountains to evergreens to half-length portraits.  I grew up on the edge of the Great Plains where the land was flat to the horizon, but scattered across the landscape were the farmsteads with pyramidal houses and barns, as well as the churches built by the various ethnic groups as they moved westward.
From Churches of Minnesota by A.K. Lathrop 2003

So it is clear that this shape is a part of natural and man-made objects; but what about paintings, drawings and architectural renderings? 

Half-length Portraits naturally fall into the pyramid pattern, with shoulders defining the base, and the head at the top.  The Portrait of Elizabeth Throckmorton by Nicolas de Largilliere is almost abstract in its austere geometry; a rather surprising mix to find in a 1729 painting.

The Portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velazquez is more varied, but follows the same pattern.  In fact the trick is to keep such a portrait from falling deeply into this “Bermuda Triangle” of portraiture.

Group portraits have always been a compositional problem for artists.  Where to position the heads; heads and faces being the normal focus when humans view a portrait?  Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne produces a pleasing pattern of heads and limbs cascading down one side of a triangle.  But as a practical matter it makes one scratch one’s head – is the adult Mary actually sitting on Saint Anne’s lap?  It works visually, so we happily don’t sweat the details.

The Chess Players by Eakins establishes a 45 degree triangle of heads, which forms a calming anchor to an otherwise busily, detailed painting.

If you have a person or symbol that you want to highlight, the apex of the pyramid is the obvious place to put them.  “Liberty” holding the French “Tricolour” is at the apex of Liberty guiding the People, by Eugene Delacroix.  The patriotic message is hard to miss.

A somewhat more realistic and subdued image is Taking of the Malakoff Redoubt by Horace Vernet.  It essentially does the same thing as Liberty, by using the same thing: patriotic pyramids.

Perspective can give the illusion of the pyramid.  The Kitchen Garden, Yerres by Gustave Caillebotte uses the centered perspective to unify an otherwise scattered view of plants and foliage.

Manor Garden - Raixa by Santiago Rusinol hides the pyramid within the curiously flat conglomeration of greens.  The stair itself is only a jewel within the unfolding pyramidal crown.

The rendering above of the Miami Worldcenter by Antonio Baglione takes what could be an overly busy image, and by using an elevated view over the street unifies it in a pyramidal pattern.

Mountains are another archetype of the pyramid found in paintings.  Fine Wind, Clear Weather by Katsushika Hokusai shows Mount Fuji, perhaps the most pyramidal of mountains.  This is only one of a series of 36 color woodblock prints of the mountain.  The series were so popular with the public that a further 10 views were added in the next publication.

The Snow Mountain by Albert Bierstadt inverts the normal relationship by focusing on the “V” shaped valley between peaks.  This is one of the more subdued paintings by Bierstadt, who preferred theatrical atmospherics and brilliant colors.

Back to buildings…  Santa Maria Della Salute in Venice is a building that was designed to fit a triangular shape.  Most artists have tried to avoid that simplistic composition, but I fell right into that trap in the above sketch from way back.

A building doesn’t have to follow any strict triangular pattern.  In fact it is better to hint at the pattern, as Alfred Sisley did in The Church at Moret.  There is enough of a sweep on the left, and enough of shadows and roofs on the right to suggest an equilateral triangle.

As noted before, perspective can easily create a pyramidal composition.  Hiroki Ikeda unifies his rendering of the Sakura Project, Tokyo in that way, while tweaking the view’s experience with delightful effects of color and detail.

My own ink rendering of the Medical School at Florida State University (HOK Architects) plays the same game.  Although this is a simple two point perspective with no convergence in the vertical walls, the general impression is pyramidal due to the various shadows and roof-lines.  The framing trees and ground cover are accurate, but rather overwhelming.

And the moral of the story…

It is obvious that the pyramid is a natural for many buildings.  But, as with the cross pattern, the pyramid must be obscured with other shapes and colors.  Make it part of another pattern, an off center spot perhaps.  Be bold.  This shape is primal and resilient, just like the pyramids at Gaza.

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