Monday Morning Art School: a simple exercise in composition

Diagonals keep us interested because they’re harder for us to “solve”.
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer. Courtesy of Memorial Art Gallery.
Winslow Homer’s most successful compositional motif was the long diagonal. He used it with great success from the beginning of his career right through to his mature Maine seascapes. Diagonals are particularly important in the latter, since they tie rock and sea together in a monolithic whole.
But diagonals are tricky, as I found last week. The Brandywine hillsides are lovely, but they’re not what I’m used to. They kept turning out stumpier than I wanted. Today’s exercise is designed to help us see the subtlety of the diagonal line.
The basic structure of The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, above. Use tracing paper to do this step.
Diagonals are more dramatic than vertical or horizontal lines. They draw us through the picture, tie disparate elements together, and create depth and perspective. They don’t need to be articulated; this is a good place for the lost and found edge. A diagonal can be implied by a value shift within a larger object.
Our minds like diagonals for the same reason we like space divisions like the Golden Ratio: they keep our interest because they’re harder for us to “solve”.
Experiment with different values within the painting’s structure.

Today’s exercise is one you can do with a printer and tracing paper. Unfortunately, I have neither, being still on the road, so I’ve approximated it in Photoshop. First, find a suitable Homer painting, one where the diagonal drives the composition. I’ve used an old friend: The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894. This painting is at home at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, where I’ve studied it many times.
Sunlight on the Coast, 1890, Winslow Homer. Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.
You can use this painting or another. All I require is that the broad sweep of motion be on the diagonal. I’ve included a few other possibilities as well.
Next, I want you to print a copy of the painting and trace its major shapes. When you’re done, you should have something that looks approximately like the outline above.
The Fox Hunt, 1893, Winslow Homer. Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The last step is to experiment with different value systems inside Homer’s basic structure. He was working from reality, but you have no such limit. When you’re finished with this, what do you observe about the values he used versus the ones you’ve tried?
If you sketched in the smaller dashes with high contrast, those passages should drive your eye as much as the big shapes do.