Fellow artist, Sally Schisler, just asked this question about the Twachtman paintings I posted, “After looking at them for a bit, it occurs to me that my eye falls very close to center. Aren’t we not supposed to do that? Many times when I’m close to finishing a painting, I realize that I have created shapes/lines – etc. – that lead me right to the center….. I admittedly obsess over whether a thing feels balanced or not. And I simply do not agree with the ‘avoid center’ train of thought.”
I love a good question, and I agree with your not agreeing. I’ve consulted the staff here at MyOpinion University and we’ve come up with a short dissertation on the dominant/subordinate rule in painting and why you use it… or not. As rules go, it’s a good one. I think the consensus of “centered is boring” is not without merit but the trick is to know why you are deciding to go one direction or another. Edgar Payne was a master of composition, his paintings are about leading the eye (eye flow) by creating a hierarchy in the painting. Making one thing dominant through scale or color or value, placing something else for your eye to go to next and so on. The main event dead center doesn’t leave many places for your eye to go and can be kinda boring…. in the wrong hands.
Here’s a perfect example of creating eye flow through the dominant/subordinate rule. Scale and value of boat number one draws you in, secondary scale and contrasting value takes you to number two, and for balance there’s boat number three and then you go back again to boat one. So not only is there a clear path for the eye to navigate, there is a kind of balance between the elements. I often think about a painting as having a fulcrum point and all of the elements in the composition having varying degrees of weight. If you know where your fulcrum point is you can alter the scale or color or weight of each piece to create balance and counter-balance.
Conversely, there’s Giorgio Morandi, a painter held in high regard and in almost any major contemporary collection you can think of. He had a tendency to place things in the middle without any supporting elements. But then, eye flow is not what his paintings are about. Instead of creating a compelling hierarchy in his work, he would suppress detail, space and volume to allow the viewer to concentrate on what was really important, the interplay of surface, shape and color.
Now I say there’s no hierarchy in these, but there really is, it’s just a more subtle, somber approach. And though the elements tend to be gathered in the center, nothing is dead center. If there is something dead center, then there’s a quiet counter-point to move you around. Likewise, Twachtman’s painting below has the center of interest in the center, but it’s not really, it’s down low and slightly off to one side with plenty to act as counter weight. The degree of hierarchy can depend on what your painting is about. I saw a small painting by Wayne Theibaud of a piece of watermellon floating centered in a field of creamy white. Didn’t bother me a bit because it was so beautifully painted.
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