Composition in Art

The following is an excerpt from Klaus Bohn's book:
50 Principles of Composition in Photography

Let’s stop to reflect on the origins of composition in art. It is important to learn from the great artists of the past and to discover how they used their vision to see and represent objects on canvas using paints. My favourite painter is Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), an English painter of portraits, landscapes, and elegant pictures. He is considered one of the most individual geniuses in British art.

I fell in love with his use of space when I visited one of Europe’s finest galleries in Berlin. I stood for a very long time and viewed a large painting of Gainsborough’s entitled, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750), which had a very unique way of using space. The curator walked over to me and asked, 'Would you like me to tell you about the artist and why he painted the way he did?' He had my full attention, of course, and he proceeded to tell me that Gainsborough liked to paint scenery. In order to sell his paintings to the rich, it was necessary to include people. The wealthy merchants and famous people of the day could afford to pay him what he needed to live.

Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews

The painting took on a special dimension that enthralled me to use this concept in my own work. To show space and keeping in mind that people needed to be an appropriate size, the image needed to be an appropriate size as well. Some of the images I have done have been commissions up to 40 by 70 inches, which is very large in portrait photography. The best selling sizes have been 30 by 40 inches and 24 by 36 inches. All this resulted because I had the opportunity to not only see the Gainsborough collection but to also learn from what the curator told me about his use of space.

Gainsborough’s 1748 painting entitled, The Charterhouse, as well as the teachings of the late Rocky Gunn assisted in my understanding and use of circles in the composition of my photographs. Rocky once said, 'Klaus, don’t just use pyramids, also use circles within the image.' The beauty about using circles within an image, even the outer dimensions of the image having a circular frame, is that it can provide a fresh impact to the viewer.

Gainsborough's The Charterhouse

Additionally, Gainsborough’s 1770 painting entitled The Blue Boy, has a warm muted background which is contrasted by the blue outfit worn by the young boy. It helped in my understanding and use of warm backgrounds more readily than before, and that the subject’s clothing need not be indicative of the background colour. Finally, I also appreciated Gainsborough’s 1751-2 oil on canvas entitled Thomas Gainsborough, with His Wife and Elder Daughter Mary, as it shows a need to photograph our families in the way we envision our relationship with them.

Gainsborough's The Blue Boy    Gainsborough's Thomas Gainsborough, with His Wife and Elder Daughter Mary

Another favourite artist of mine is Rembrandt (1606-1669), generally considered one of the greatest painters in European art history and the most important in Dutch history. In his oil on canvas from 1642 entitled The Night Watch (The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and of Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh), he uses light and shadows, people looking in different directions with some faces not even seen, and emotions varying from person to person. I like the concept of everyone looking naturally unposed. Rembrandt departed from the traditional formal portrait genre and instead used his imagination and creativity in composing this image. Not everyone is looking at the paint brush, so to speak.

Rembrandt's The Night Watch

Rembrandt’s self portraits illustrate an exercise that a lot of artists have pursued. I have been encouraged to do the same and have always highly recommended this study of self to be an ongoing lifelong pursuit for all photographers. My son David has been faith-ful in this endeavour as well.

In photography we are conditioned to always look at the camera when we are having our picture taken. However, very seldom do you see portraits composed by exploring new avenues by having the subject look away from the lens of a camera. Additionally, in searching out the individuality and seeing how impressions change, we do not need to light everyone the same way. It is important to learn from the past, from the great ones, and understand how liberated they seemed to be. My personal ambition is not to be afraid.

Mona Lisa is a 16th century oil painting on poplar wood by Leonardo da Vinci, and is one of the most famous paintings in Western art history. When viewing this painting in person, I stood and stared for a very long time. I was truly in awe, spellbound and transfixed as if I was immovable. To stand in the presence of an artist’s work is to stand in the presence of the artist. To make a connection, have an insight, to see the human, the person, flesh and blood accomplishment of the great work of art is truly something to behold. Do artists possess a more spiritual insight that is greater, smarter and more creative than someone who does not possess those same artistic abilities? I will leave that question for you to answer yourself.

Please click here to learn more about Klaus Bohn's book entitled,
50 Principles of Composition in Photography.