More about composition: Visual Hierarchy

My interest in making art was very much awakened by museums and art history classes.  I just found the work so stunning and interesting that I had to do it myself. But I was not one who could just pick up a brush and play and come out the other end with something I liked. I was very confused by this because I loved art but I just hated the stuff I made. For this reason I really set out to learn what makes art or design… work.  I found the basic principles of art/design and this really gave me a way to understand what I was trying to do.  I am not trying, so much, to express a story or ideas with my work. Foremost, I am trying to make something I love to look at. And I want to share with you the ideas that I think about and try to use in that pursuit.  The last two posts were about Unity vs Variety, and Visual Weight. Now I want to go back to that Rauschenberg painting and talk about Visual Hierarchy.

So the idea with visual hierarchy, as I think of it in relation to art making, is about creating levels of dominance within your composition. There are major players, supporting players, background, and even some accents to liven things up.  Now, not all abstract art engages this principle, but Rauschenberg does in this picture and I think it is worth studying. Because often when you work in collage you just lay a bunch of stuff down that you like, and your picture is all boldness, all major players and maybe a few dead spots. How do you bring the whole picture to life, but create a sense of order that leads the eye on a fun and interesting journey?


Its good to think about a base or background that sets the stage. The beige and white set up a base layer for this painting. They are large, general shapes, not much detail. Into this I can imagine all the elements of the middle column going in, full strength. Also the word that’s next to our black “S” was originally, I am guessing, full contrast as well. That word is way too strong and dominates the painting so he pushes it back to mid-ground by painting over it with a transparent white. The same with the red “S”, it has been painted over with a brown/black glaze to bring down its contrast and intensity. The stars have also been toned down and their sharpness blunted by different overlapping strokes of paint.

So now, imagine that the middle column is mostly toned down and brown. Its a little dull. He has to bring back some excitement, so the light blue drips are painted in. They integrate the tie, echo the shapes in the skyline, and become a focal point, a foreground element.  (This is a good trick, when you can unify but also bring more interest). The piece of dark brown wood is a very interesting addition. You barely notice it at first, but the way it limits the chaos with its strong straight line, is very reassuring. From there we can move right to a field of creamy white that is calming and restful. The painting is still pretty monochromatic so he brings in bits of color, small strokes of yellow and green, to bring energy and interest to areas that would otherwise be too quiet. These accents draw the eye to explore that area of the painting.  These spots of color, in an otherwise muted painting, tend to connect, to form a ring that your eye follows, again, creating unity.

This business of emphasizing and de-emphasizing areas of your picture to create a unified and compelling work is really a very intuitive process, but I think this idea of levels of dominance can sometimes be a useful tool. Let me know what you think.

Happy Creating




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