Thursday, March 14, 2013

Composition Part 7 - Circle

I’ve never been interested in paintings of flowers, but this one hanging in the house of my mother-in-law has grown on me over the years (no pun intended).  It is composed in an iconic circular pattern, which is appropriate since the circle connotes unity, wholeness and family.  There is variety and asymmetry, but the circle is the unmistakable theme.

Although the circle seems to be no different than the light or dark spot motif, the reality is that a circle can be suggested in any number of ways.  And, the circle doesn’t need to have anything to do with the pattern of light and dark values.

 Portraits that include only the head are natural circle compositions; faces are roughly oval shape after all.  Rubens’ A Child’s Head leads the eye around and into the face.  It is a familiar, almost inbred behavior; to flit from eyes, nose and mouth to cheeks, chin and hairline.  Rubens gives us the hair and clothing as a tease, but we return to the area of the eyes, nose and mouth.

 Cranach’s portrait of Luther’s Father is less inviting, yet has the same lure.  The blue eyes are especially lively as the face emerges from the scrummed background.

 Morning Sun by Lovis Corinth doesn’t zoom in on the face, but instead creates a revolving composition using the arm and head of the subject, as well as the shape of the bedding.  In fact if you squint your eyes the shapes describe a circle within a circle.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that the subject is a friendly, smiling person, and the “story” is pleasantly vague. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner leaned toward the dynamic and abstract in his later years.  Music Party, Petworth follows that line, but the circle is caught in the mix of suggestive figures.

This illustration from the children’s book, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by P.J. Lynch, is much more specific and realistic than Turner, but still produces the same swirling circle.

Of course you can be blatant about it and simply frame the scene with arching trees as in this image by Watteau.  He has essentially created a floating donut shape, with the figures and activity happening at the base of the circle.

Rembrandt was nearly as obvious in his painting, Parable of the Rich Man, although in reality he describes a spiral.  The symbolism of the ledgers engulfing the miser is dramatic, and could be the basis for a fantasy computer game.

A.I. Keller’s painting Calvin Cooledge Inaguration, (the swearing in was performed at his father’s farmhouse in Vermont on the unexpected death of President Harding), uses a similar lighting as the Rembrandt.  In this case however, the circular pattern suggests stability and controlled drama.  The placement of the lamp at dead center is reminiscent of Winslow Homer, another New Englander.

Some compositions can seem contrived, such as this oil sketch called Sky at sunset, Jamaica, West Indies, by Church.  However, in this case there is no doubt that this is exactly what Church saw.

Another example of accidental circles is Claude Monet’s Study of Olive Trees. 

An obviously contrived design is Gustav Klimt’s Schloss Kammer am Attersee, where he goes out of his way to isolate the white of the building wall.  The resulting circle is more like a pair of parentheses, or two pale skinned aliens talking to one another.

A vignette can create a simple circle composition.  Above is a sketch idea for the Cleveland Clinic Christmas Card from long ago.  It was a small ink sketch with a thin smear of pastel to suggest a winter evening.

Above is another ancient rendering; this time of a residential tower entrance using wax pencil on board.  The interior lighting and the shapes of the glass awning and floor create a pleasing circular motion.

This low aerial of Rhodes College by Wesley Page shows how a courtyard or cloister falls naturally into a circle.

So, let’s all get out there and circle the wagons near the Arctic Circle.   We’ll eventually come full circle, but be sure to avoid the vicious circle.  Time to end since I’m spiraling out of control.

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

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