Use Geometry for Best Painting Composition & Design

by | Jun 10, 2012 | Blog | 3 comments

What is Geometry in Painting

If you stare at a painting, just about any painting for a long enough time, geometric shapes will start to appear. Our mind likes to see in a simple and streamlined way. It will look for patterns in images if we stare long enough. Sometimes painters will use geometry in an obvious way, as seen in this Mondrian painting. Here the artist uses squares that are easy to see. Abstract painters tend to use more readily visible geometry like this in their work. Other geometric shapes can be circles, diamonds and rectangles.

 

Mondrian painting to show geometry for composition
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930, oil on canvas, 18″ x 18″

 

Aside from actual geometric shapes easily visible in a painting, as in the Mondrian above, there are geometric shapes that are subtle, not so obvious, that I call underlying geometry. These are almost subliminal, directing eye movement with invisible pathways. Painters can use these to move the viewer’s eye in a certain desired pattern. These underlying geometric shapes use what’s called negative space to help give the illusion of a geometric pattern.

What underlying geometry can you see in this painting?

Painting by Nancy Reyner with S-Curve
Nancy Reyner, Abiquiu Dam, oil pastel on paper, 9″ x 12″

The above painting makes use of what’s called an S-Curve. By staring at an image long enough, our focus becomes softer and this engages our right brain side. The right side is the part of our brain that can more easily see subtlety. The shape of the S can be distinquished by noticing how your eye moves. Starting at the bottom lower left, your eye will move as if it is drawing the shape of an S starting at the bottom of the S. From the bottom left the eye is then encouraged to move towards the right along the red orange ground. From there we move diagonally back to the left along the edge of the rocks where they meet the blue water, then the top of the S follows the top of the mountain line where it meets the sky. Each work of art generally uses at least one underlying geometric shape. You may be able to see additional geometry in this painting, but the most predominant is the S-Curve.

Another example of a painting using an S-Curve 

Violet River, painting with oil pastel by Nancy Reyner, showing S-Curve
Nancy Reyner, Violet River, oil pastel on bristol paper, 6″ x 8″
 
What is negative space in painting

Negative space is an art term that refers to the illusion of space we feel in a painting, between forms, or perceived as atmosphere or background. It is perceived while viewing an image with our (often lesser used) right brain hemisphere, while shapes or defined forms are seen with our more frequently used left brain side.

As an experiment, place your hand flat on a table in front of you with fingers spread out. Our left brain takes control right away and so we first see our fingers. You may notice the green background (space) but your focus will most probably be on the fingers (form).

Now try to look at the spaces in between the fingers by keeping your eyes fixed on those spaces, until our eyes turn them into interesting shapes. You will need to switch from left to right brain hemispheres to fully view those spaces in between the fingers. Our left brain is our default system, so it is easier to look at forms while it takes more of a conscious effort to see the spaces in between. While viewing paintings, and trying to see the space in between the forms, it takes more of a conscious effort too.

I believe it is difficult if not impossible to see from both sides of our brain at the same time. To find subtle forms in a painting then, requires a conscious switch between our two brain hemispheres while viewing the painting, and also as artists, while painting it. When we allow ourselves time to view a painting with our right brain (viewing the negative spaces), we can see those subtle geometric patterns.

As an experiment, place your hand flat on a table in front of you with fingers spread out. Our left brain takes control right away and so we first see our fingers. You may notice the green background (space) but your focus will most probably be on the fingers (form).

Now try to look at the spaces in between the fingers by keeping your eyes fixed on those spaces, until our eyes turn them into interesting shapes. You will need to switch from left to right brain hemispheres to fully view those spaces in between the fingers. Our left brain is our default system, so it is easier to look at forms while it takes more of a conscious effort to see the spaces in between. While viewing paintings, and trying to see the space in between the forms, it takes more of a conscious effort too.

I believe it is difficult if not impossible to see from both sides of our brain at the same time. To find subtle forms in a painting then, requires a conscious switch between our two brain hemispheres while viewing the painting, and also as artists, while painting it. When we allow ourselves time to view a painting with our right brain (viewing the negative spaces), we can see those subtle geometric patterns.

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745, oil on canvas, 35″ x 27″

Colored lines are superimposed to show underlying geometry.

It is a natural tendency to seek and find geometry in images. I believe that any painting you feel is interesting to look at, be it an Old Masters famous painting in a museum, or a contemporary one in a local gallery, will have some form of underlying geometry in its composition.

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways.

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3 Comments

  1. Betty Pieper

    What an interesting post. Once when looking at a group of thumbnail images of my work I thought I perceived
    a likeness for crosses in the overall design. I will have to go back to look now that I've read your article!
    I know that sometimes I see the negative spaces and images more quickly and thorougly than the positive.
    Once when viewing a painting of trees by the Bulgarian artist, Petko Pemaro, I saw nuns in old fashioned
    habits. It is always the first thing I see; then I enjoy the trees.

    Reply
  2. Susan Holland

    This is possibly the most valuable information any maker of visual art can get. The exercise Nancy suggests is wonderfully easy to do, and once you try drawing from the negative space expert (the right brain) you will see magic happen!

    Reply
  3. Mary Manning

    Even in the most abstract works I paint, at the end of the painting, there are underlying shapes, often S-curves, spirals, and pyramids. Often while painting, I do not consciously see those shapes, but they appear as if by magic at the end.

    Reply

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About Nancy

Nancy Reyner is a professional fine-art painter with over 30 years experience using a variety of mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor and mixed media. She has appeared on television for HGTV’s “That’s Clever,” and authored several best-selling painting books with F&W Media. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM. Read more.
 
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