Monday Morning Art School: Visual Harmony

Five classic techniques for organizing your picture plane.
Kaikroddare by Anders Zorn (watercolor) uses the principles of opposition and transition.
Arthur Wesley Dow was a painter, printmaker, photographer and well-known art teacher in the beginning of the 20th century. He felt that composition was largely a question of proportion. He identified five elements of spatial harmony:
  • Opposition
  • Transition
  • Subordination
  • Repetition
  • Symmetry
Examples of Opposition. The intersections of lines are raw and unadorned.
Opposition is a principle we see both in nature and human objects. It’s when two lines meet or cross to form a simple and severe pattern. These crossings are always abrupt, and can even be violent.
The beauty of a door lies in its unmediated opposition and symmetry.
Transition tries to mediate opposition. A line or object is added at the join, softening the moment of impact. This is a strong and ancient goal for human designers. The columns at Karnak, which were started more than 4000 years ago, are softened with decorative capitals at the ceiling. We’ve been doing it ever since, with brackets, corbels, and other architectural elements to soften stark architectural lines.
Examples of Transition. A bracket is probably the most common example we see in everyday life.
Transitions also occur in nature. A beautiful example is the overlapping, trailing silhouettes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are far less stark than mountains looming black against the sky.
Kaikroddare by Anders Zorn, top, uses the principles of opposition and transition. The cross of the oars and arms is unopposed in the closer figure, who seems vigorous to us. The burden in the far boat softens the sharp lines of the oars, making that figure seem less vital.
Different forms of subordination.
Subordination: To form a complete group, elements of the painting are attached or related to a single dominating focal point. This is the fastest way to create unity out of complexity and confusion.
Subordination can happens in three ways:
  • By grouping around an axis, (leaf to stem or branches to trunk).
  • By radiating from a central point, such as petals in flowers, or water splashing over a rock.
  • By size, as with a mountain within in a mountain range, or a cathedral around its steeple.
Our Maine houses and barnyards are excellent examples of repetition.
Repetition: In a sense, this is the opposite of subordination, since the objects are generally the same size. It is made by repeating lines in rhythmical order. The intervals may be equal as in a fish weir, or unequal, as in a grove of trees. Our long run-on houses in Maine are visually pleasing because of their repetition.
A Bust of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten in the Luxor Museum, Egypt.
Symmetry: This is a technique that we often avoid in contemporary western art, being more interested in balanced asymmetry (which is in itself a variation on the theme). However, the most obvious way to create balance is symmetry, where equal lines and shapes occur on either side of a central axis. I’ve included a portrait bust of Akhenaten as a demonstration of its effectiveness. Used carefully, it has the same severity and clarity as opposition.
None of these, of course, produce great art on their own. The skill lies in carefully using them to create harmonious outcomes. That requires practice.
Your homework.
The above illustration contains examples of each of the principles of design as identified by Dow. Your homework today is to identify which principle is at work and then draw your own version. Depending on your confidence, you can either copy his drawings or draw something of your own.
It takes a lot of trial and error to make something that’s visually harmonious, even for experienced artists. But the experiments are fun and easy. As always, I’d love to see you post your work on our Facebook page.
Interested in real-life learning? I’m teaching four plein air workshops in the coming year. Message me here for more information, or visit my website.
Today’s lesson and illustrations are from Composition, by Arthur Wesley Dow (Doubleday, Page and Company, 1920). Mr. Dow taught at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University.