Compositional Challenges and Simple Solutions

Constructing a strong composition or design is key to a successful painting. One element of design is depth, but how does an artist depict a volume of space? Traditionally it is taught that recession can be achieved through tone – that is lighter areas at the background of a work and darker areas towards the foreground. You can see this in landscapes such as Caspar Freidrich’s Evening Landscape with Two Men

But what if a motif has very little tonal recession? That is to say, what happens if darker elements are needed towards the background of a painting? What if the sky is deeply coloured and the foreground buildings are white? What are other ways to achieve a sense of depth?

Two other ways of achieving volume or depth in a picture are line and the size of forms. Pictorial volume is only one element of composition, but knowing how to maximise a depth of field puts the artist in control of a very powerful tool.

Line can be used successfully on its own to depict volume, or as part of a painting. In Van Gogh’s drawing Cottage Garden the directional lines of the foreground garden bed shoot almost vertically towards the cottage at the top of the drawing. Diagonal and converging lines take the eye into the picture.

Here is Camille Pissaro’s Boulevarde Montmartre at Night, a beautiful example of the use of line in a painting

Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897
(Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Note that there is convincing recession although the darker tones are towards the background of the picture.

Size of forms is another tool for achieving the same ends. Larger shapes towards the foreground lead the eye to conclude that these objects are closer to the viewer. You will find this working in my painting Hawthorn Towards Camberwell