Composition, correction, negative space

Today tried to address my problems with composition. Among other things, I muddle “composition” with mimetic accuracy, symmetry, and balance (as rigid stability). “Composition” becomes a process of “correcting” parts of the picture that appear to lean or pull the image (or the eye) in an unwanted wrong direction. The result is usually to stiffen out all the movement, while failing to achieve the “balance” I’m seeking.

99.9% of the time I completely forget about shaping the negative space.

I decided to take a single object and paint it several times, starting with a simple composition and gradually making them more complicated to find where the problems come in. The object I chose is an inverted cruciform candle. Originally this object was a sculpture I made in the late 90s.


170307a Inverted Cruciform Candle (2017) oil on canvas

I painted 170307a Inverted Cruciform Candle (above) upside-down, then uprighted it (as it’s shown here). It was painted over an old colour painting which can be seen around the edges. The result reminds me of Kapoor’s Adam (below).

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 12.44.25

Anish Kapoor Adam (1988-89) sandstone and pigment 119 x 102 x 236cm

I masked up another old painting and painted the candle again, in a more complicated composition. Spent a long time adjusting the patches of grey swirling behind the candle, trying to create balance with the tilted angle of the cross bar, while keeping movement in the picture.


170307b Inverted Cruciform Candle (2017) oil on canvas

I think the composition is more stable with the wick pointing up (above), but I also like it the other way up, with the wick pointing down (below). The object is interesting to me either way: as a floating candle with the wick pointing up, or with the wick pointing down (like a pen, writing in fire) and the wax making the form of a burning cross.


170307b Inverted Cruciform Candle [upside down] (2017) oil on canvas

The ambivalence of the object reminds me of Derrida’s writing on undecidables and reversibility. The same applies to Pinocchio’s axe/penis.

I got bored of painting the candle. Decided to experiment composing an abstract picture.  I painted over 1605 Colonial Woman (below), because I never liked it. For me, it’s too closely copied from a photograph.


1605 Colonial Woman (2016) oil on canvas 62 x 62cm

170307c Composition (below) is the painting I made on top. I made a conscious effort to do three things I never usually do: Abandon my ideas of “correct” or “balanced” composition and create a composition based on what I like; Erase and overpaint anything that isn’t creating a composition I like (there were many instances); and concentrate on the shape of negative spaces (sometimes I forgot this, but whenever I remembered things began to look up).


170307c Composition (2017) oil on canvas 62 x 62cm

The result reminds me very much of Guston, and a little of Maria Lassnig, but that doesn’t worry me. More important is that I enjoyed the process and for once I actually like the composition, not because it’s “correct” or balanced but because it’s more interesting to me than almost any of my previous compositions. I couldn’t resist aiming to create a strikingly unbalanced, leaning, twisted composition, but it turns out that doesn’t look “incorrect”, it just looks different, and although I don’t understand how it’s working, I like it.

In future I hope I’ll be able to apply and develop what I’ve learnt here: that composition is something to be creative with and enjoy, not a fixed corrective criteria; and that negative space is as much fun to paint (and as important) as objects.


4 thoughts on “Composition, correction, negative space

  1. “In future I hope I’ll be able to apply and develop what I’ve learnt here: that composition is something to be creative with and enjoy, not a fixed corrective criteria; and that negative space is as much fun to paint (and as important) as objects.”

    this is what I take out of this post. Otherwise Liam, Im puzzled and disconcerted at what I see as tentativeness and uncertainty in your description of your composition experiences. I anxiously wanted to say to you that you were choosing very unpromising potential compositons. But fucked if I know how you might or could or should kick off and progress and process as composition.

    Perhaps I am simply lucky and don[t know it – owing to you almost contemporaneously confessing where you are at, and where you are not, with composition. And of course it aint a situation where I should expect an organic road to success in a technical realisation of a high level intellectual and poetic! haha. So I should suck up your uncertainty and simply support you.


    • “I anxiously wanted to say to you that you were choosing very unpromising potential compositons.”

      I don’t understand the phrase “choosing very unpromising potential compositions”.

      Did you mean that the elements I’m choosing to compose lack potential? I’d agree that the single cruciform candle lacks compositional potential compared to a group of objects varied in size, shape, spacial depth etc. That I can understand.

      Or did you mean that a lot of my compositions are poor, and therefore my sense of composition in general doesn’t display promise or potential? That I also would agree with – so far!

      Are either of these what you meant, or was it something else?

      We should all suck up uncertainty! 😀 Certainty in art is overrated.


      • it was the former. The candle might very well have (doesn’t anything have?) potential as composition material. It’s just you seemed to use it because you were otherwise stuck for an idea. Then your use of it, in the iteretions here, seemed to disregard it. It’s as if you painted around it.

        I’m also pondering on what IS the compositional process. Here it seems you took an existing “thing” and toyed with it. I guess that’s as good as any way in, but it is so random. It might be that I can’t shed a provincial need for “meaning”. Which can of course be death. But composing around something and then fiddling for balance seems to point to something bound to be joyless.

        Haha me – I’m imagining my comeuppance will come when you paint something wondrous and then tell me that this was your method.

        Unless you must really concern yourself with your canvas/materials budget, try not to overpaint something. Have some sympathy for your biographer. 1605 Colonial Woman might very well have been too copied from a photograph. But it works and it sure has balance. The good news is that the replacement Composition also works and has that balance word.

        Concentrating on the shape of negative spaces I don;’t yet get. In theory yes, but not in your work. How me when something sticks out for you.


      • The issue with negative space is that I can easily paint an entire picture and never once think about it, but if I do remember to give it thought then I immediately have ideas about how I want to adjust it creatively. Forgetting about it is always a missed opportunity. The relationship between meaning and composition is a curious one too, which I don’t fully understand, but I’m learning as I go. Some constructivist painting has nothing but composition, but it still has a strong sense of some kind of meaning or mood. Close looking at Guston, Rauch and Schutz made me aware of enjoying their composition in itself, my eye moving around the picture, what some composition books call “revery”. The way they compose their pictures imbues the subjects with something more than just what they are and how they’ve been rendered, so they’re not just piles of garbage, 60s german people erecting pylons, people eating themselves, whatever. By comparison, painters like Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas choose very interesting subject matter, but I don’t find their compositions very interesting because it’s often lifted directly from a photographic source, or just very centralised.


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