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Composition: Divide the Format

Once you have decided on a format with its size and orientation, the next decision to make concerns the divisions of the format.

The format can be left undivided and considered as a unified whole, or it can be divided in a variety of ways. The format can be divided by a single emotional gesture or by a highly complex cerebral matrix of lines. The divisions of the format can be premeditated and carefully constructed or they may emerge spontaneously as the painting progresses. Robert Wade wrote, "I don't use 'compositional devices' in my paintings; I put shapes where I think they 'feel' right to me. Perhaps the so-called experts might analyse them and work out all sorts of mathematical formulae to give reasons for the positioning of the various elements, but that is all pie in the sky. If it feels right, do it...that's my belief!" (Quoted in Landscapes in Watercolour by Theodora Philcox.)

The format can be divided by lines that are horizontal, vertical, diagonal, radial, or a combination. The format can also be divided by geometric shapes, letter shapes, or irregularly-shaped value patterns.

Some artists start by placing the area of interest on the format and then experiment with various ways of bridging the space between the area of interest and the edges of the format.

Format divisions are often grouped into basic design motifs: undivided, horizontal, vertical, cruciform, axial hold, frame-in-frame, checkerboard, diagonal, radial, staggered, asymmetrical, and cantilevered. Within these general categories, there are endless varieties.

All of the design motifs have one thing in common, they all create an invisible, underlying, and controlling structure for the painting. This skeleton determines, in large measure, how the viewer will be attracted to and guided through the composition.

Upon this scaffolding you will arrange the interesting, entertaining positive and negative shapes that make up your painting.

Consider the objective of your painting. Think about the emotion you want to elicit from the viewer. Think about the message you want to communicate. Then choose the format and the format divisions that best accomplish your purpose.

Undivided Surface (Jules Olitski, Jackson Pollock)
"A blank sheet of paper or canvas has unity. The painter's problem is to add variety without losing it. One solution is to treat the surface uniformly, minimizing variety. This is the way of color-field, minimal, and serial painting. Another solution: Treat additions as a grille or meshwork through which the unity of the field is preserved." Rex Brandt

Divided Surface

Non-Hierarchical Divisions (Jasper Johns)

Hierarchical Divisions (horizontal, vertical, horizontal and vertical, diagonal, radial, geometric shapes, letter shapes, value patterns, area of interest)

Based on Lines (horizontal, vertical, horizontal and vertical, diagonal, radial)

Horizontal Divisions

Vertical Divisions

Horizontal and Vertical Divisions (checkerboard, cruciform, axial hold, frame-in-frame, half-, quarter, eighth- "folds")


Diagonal Divisions


Radial Divisions

Based on Geometric Shapes (triangle, circle, square, Golden Rectangle)


Based on Letter Shapes (L, S, Z, O, C, U, J)

Based on Value Patterns

Based on Area of Interest

© 2009 Scott Brown. Website design by Clarion Design.