Art Gallery Gauvin

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Use the Star

 Using 'The Star' - An easy Way to Good Composition


Did you ever look at a painting half-completed on your easel and think: Something's wrong! But try as you will, you can't figure out what that something is. Nine times out of ten, the problem you have will be caused by faulty composition. The success of an artwork depends on the thought you put into the composition of the piece. You already know the basic rules:

1. In a landscape, the horizon must never cut the canvas in half; it is always placed one-third or two-thirds down from the top.
2. The horizon should never stretch in an unbroken line from edge to edge of the canvas.
3. The focal point, or most important feature of the painting, must always be placed off-centre.

You followed the rules. So why does this painting look 'wrong?' A good bet is that you were so eager to start painting, you did not given enough thought to the placement of 'minor' elements. In truth, there are no minor elements in an artwork. Any more than there are people who are merely 'spear-carriers' in the great Play of life.

Years ago, I devised what I call 'The Star' as a tool to automatically keep me from making mistakes in that first, vital phase of setting my composition. I like to draw straight onto the stretched, primed canvas but The Star can be applied to sketches on paper of any size. It is so easy, it will work for anyone. Here is what you do:

On the virginal white canvas, mark the centre. Using a T-square ruler, draw in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines, through the centre point from edge to edge of the canvas. You have made The Star. So, how does it help? It reminds you not to place the focal point on any of its arms. For example, you will avoid placing the eyes of the subject in a portrait, the head of the lead horse in a group, or the most interesting feature of a landscape on these lines.

Another point, often overlooked by painters, is the need to keep the viewer's gaze from wandering outside the frame. Experienced artists have learned this can be achieved by placing some element of strong interest on the right-hand side of the painting. Here is why it works:

People of the Western world read from left to right. So, you will want to stop the eye by enticing it to linger on the right. Then lead it back, towards the central area of your painting. You will learn to do this, almost effortlessly, by paying attention to the dynamics of shapes within your composition.

Again, I stress the fact that this has to be worked out at the drawing stage. It is too late to try fixing a weak design once you have laid down several layers of paint. Then, there is nothing you can do but destroy the failed thing and start over. I used to call this a 'Doom and Destruction Day' before I began using The Star.

Drawing on canvas should be done with a piece of vine charcoal. I do not recommend compressed charcoal for drawing, as it is greasy and hard to erase when you want to make changes. And you will want to; that is part of the creative process. Among its other advantages, vine charcoal will rub off with the flick of a soft rag.

TIP: Ban your cat/ dog/ children from the studio if you like to prop your unfinished canvases against the wall. Better still, slide them (canvases - not pets or kids) into the racks that you, or an obliging Significant Other, have built to house them.

Graphite pencil is not good for drawing straight onto the canvas. With time, oil paints will lift away from the pencil lines. This problem can be overcome by painting over each line of the drawing with a thin mix of vegetable turps and pigment, leaving it to dry thoroughly before continuing the work. Here is a much faster and easier way:

When your drawing is completed, when you are certain everything is just as you want it, stop. Allow yourself a breathing space of a day or two before you look at the drawing again. When you are ready, turn the work upside down, or hold it in front of a mirror. Any errors will now jump out at you. No less a master than Leonardo Da Vinci worked this method out for us, 500 years ago.

Any final adjustments made, you are ready to fix the drawing. Whether you make loose or finely detailed drawings, this is a vital step. I recommend you choose a workable fixative in an aerosol spray. Open all windows and doors in the studio, or take the canvas outside if there is no wind. Health-conscious painters don a paper facemask such as house painters use, because some ingredients of these sprays are toxic.

With the canvas upright, cover the entire surface with a light and even spray. Do not overdo this, as a heavy concentration of spray will wet the charcoal and cause your lines to blur or even dribble. Wait about five minutes, then do a second sweep with the spray can. When finished, upend the can and spray to clear the nozzle. Wipe any drips and replace the lid before stowing the can in your supplies cupboard.

No, you are not ready to start painting! The careful artist will wait some hours to be sure the surface is totally dry before laying colours. I know, believe me, the temptation to get started. Please cultivate the habit of patience. You may resent having to 'waste' a day waiting. But if you take the trouble to craft your paintings with care, they will last 500 years or more. Do you think that kind of "immortality" worth the waiting? The Old Masters clearly thought so.
© Dorothy Gauvin