Deconstructing the Composition

 “Spring Cotillion”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
After publishing this painting on Facebook last week, an old high school buddy wrote a very funny comment:   Some cowboy wrote a song about these guys . . .”Get a Long Little Doggie.”  
Of course, I laughed at it the first time I read it . . .then it really got into my head . . . to the extent that I awoke from sleep with it chiming in my noggin!!  
The comment spoke to me about how the lay person looks at and sees a painting . . . .all they see is an image of something or some place.   In fact, that is the LAST thing with which a good painter is concerned or even thinks about!   Believe me, I was NOT concerned with making “cute” little dogs!
Obviously, the idea came from a sight seen in Washington Square in New York City last spring.   A gathering of people, all walking their dachshunds, had joined together as the dogs became ensnarled in their leashes.   I remember my reaction as I peeked in between the people to see the scene and was struck by all the leashes coming from different directions!   It seemed to be organized chaos!   So, out came my camera to record what I was witnessing.   I was only able to get away with six or seven photos before they disbanded.
Finally, after months of looking at the photos and wondering what I could do with them,  I remembered my reaction to the LINES (leashes and sidewalk seams) and DIRECTIONS (two of the elements of design) . . .and thought that I should use that reaction as the basis for the painting.  (It really didn’t matter to me what was at the end of the leashes . . . .dog or human.)
The photos had all sorts of superfluous stuff in them that had to be eliminated . . .peoples legs and shoes, baby strollers, purses and  . . .well . . . “stuff” that didn’t contribute to saying what I needed to say.
The three dogs, which stand in the center right, were the only dogs in the picture space in the beginning.   They are there with the leashes (line) coming in to the picture space and conflicting with the lines (seams) in the sidewalk as my beginning fascination.   While the lines and direction conflicts were my fascination source, the three dogs just didn’t provide a sound composition.   That is, they were clumped in an off center location in the picture space, which left a big gaping empty space on the left and below.   So, I added the dog in the bottom right to link up with the other two black dogs to form a single dark diagonal shape (yes, the “shape” is the three blackish dogs). . . .which left another big space in the upper left.   There were a number of different options to put into that space, including the lower carriage of a baby stroller . . . .but that didn’t fit the “dog dominance.”  I have learned if something is completely alone in a painting and does not relate with everything else in the picture space, it will call attention to itself and cause the focus of attention to be in the wrong place!   Eventually, in some other photos, there were two pups nuzzling each other who were projecting an interesting shadow . . . .bingo!   That shadow was imposed into that blank space (upper left edge) to help finish off the dead space and overlapped with the diagonal dark shape (the three black dogs)  (You may notice that I refer to them as “shapes” . . .because when it comes to seeing a composition, virtually anything can be a “shape.”   It doesn’t really matter WHAT a shape is, as long as it occupies space and is interesting to look at.  That shadow also helped tell more of the story about what was going on.   At this point, I could see that I had a large “compositional shape” occupying the picture space . . . . that of the three black dogs and the added shadow in the upper left edge . . . .a big oblique “clump” which holds the entire composition together.
Then, faced with a left margin being also void, the little red guy was put in to BALANCE the composition . . . .he had to be a tad bit more intense, color wise, in order to offset the weight of the other bunch who were dominating the lower right of the painting.   Eventually, I had to face up to hitting another balance issue by having a blank in the upper right corner, thus the added dog and legs & shoes to add a bit of humanness into the mix, without that difference calling too much attention.   As it currently stands, the ‘white’ of the shoes IS a small distraction and needs to be calmed down so that the VALUE difference doesn’t attract attention.  As the painting progressed, I found the leashes to be off in value, too, and not distracting enough to bring the wanted emphasis to the conflicting directions . . . so they had to be lightened and the colored edges were added to relieve the overall grayness of the rest of the painting and to soften the impact of the one dog’s “dress.”   That dress is an attention getter, for sure, which presented enough of a challenge that other intense colors had to be included into the picture space so that the pink would not seem to be so alone.
I will also admit to a heavy dose of procrastination and thinking after completing the drawing on watercolor paper before I ever picked up a paintbrush.   I had to  carefully consider the ORDER of operations so that it all didn’t appear as a patchwork and would integrate together and appear as a UNIFIED whole.   The entire ground had to be washed in first, without intruding into the dog shapes, which were left as raw, untouched paper.   Shadows had to wait until last . . . .why?   If you look at the piece, the shadow shapes and the lines all seem to act as connectors to all the separate dog shapes.   They had to overlap and connect every part of the painting.
As I laid out the paper to begin painting, I could see things I could not see when making the drawing a week previous . . . .I had included a set of carriage wheels in the upper left corner . . .they had to go!
I was ready to begin the painting phase . . . . .how would I paint the dogs?   What method?   After laying in the ground around the dog shapes, I realized that to give the dogs enough strength, I would work each one wet into wet with plenty of soft shifts in value and tone inside each shape (play of light reflection on their coats.)
Once all these issues were settled, the painting could be declared finished.
I can see now, there are a few edges that need softening and more work is needed to integrate those shoes a bit better.  You see?   As far as us artists are concerned, our paintings are never “done,” we just abandon them!  J 


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