The shapes used in the Visual Arts can be compositional and constructional. Artists use the compositional shapes as themes driving the symphony of their work. Within that theme are the smaller pieces, the pieces that link this visual language to the real world. They hold it together, each piece working on its own but nothing without the whole.
In symphonic music, a piece revolves around a period, generally eight measures that define the theme. In its most abstract form it’s a shape of sound. This shape will be used throughout the piece: stretched, twisted, turned. Always returning us to the delight of the original theme.
When thinking of color, too often ideas about the “local color” interfere. We think too much about color as a rigid construct. The sky is blue, the grass is green. These thoughts are meaningless. When thoughts of local color take over, we have paintings of things. Looking to other artists for knowledge, we find many thoughts and solutions to color.
“. . . the poem may be said to have its beginning — at the end, where all works of art should begin . . .”
Edgar Allan Poe, The Philosophy of Composition, 1846
Create a visual idea, a concept, a large shape or shapes that quickly communicate or summarize your reason for this work. Hold to this idea throughout the entire work. Consider the main theme of Beethoven’s Fifth:
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
What a simple concept: 3 eighth notes and a half note, changing from G to E and F to D. To look at it, it seems nothing. But what power is contained in that theme! Like a coiled spring. Your idea can be simple, just fill it with all the power of your soul.
Think in terms of movement and shape. Be poetic. Consider the light thrusting into the dark, human consciousness seeking enlightenment, the transformation of the savage to the thinking man, material flesh to spiritual being. Let it be a pure abstraction. Be as vigorous and full of life as you want for your work. This beginning determines the end of your work.
Symmetry and proportion are essential elements in the structure of a portrait. One of the best tools for achieving symmetry and proportion is the box. Creating a box whose dimensions roughly approximate the size of the head and its movement in space, will go a long way to creating a strong portrait. John Singer Sargent’s work is full of excellent examples of using the box.
John Singer Sargent, Olimpio Fusco, 1905, Charcoal on Paper, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1865-1932), 1892, Oil on Canvas, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.