How to learn composition from a 17th century Dutch painter.

Started Apr 11, 2007 | Discussions thread
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PhotoKhan Forum Pro • Posts: 11,013
How to learn composition from a 17th century Dutch painter.

Back in 2004 I visited Amsterdam on a business trip and managed to get 1 and a half day off to visit the city.

Amsterdam is really something and I found it so engaging that I had to return, later on, with my wife for a more comprehensive visit.

That first time around, among other beautiful places, I went to the Rijksmuseum for a tour of the Dutch masters. The main museum is closed until next year for renovation and it had only one wing open where it carried a permanent exhibition – “The Masterpieces”.

The exhibition included some of the more known works of 17th century Dutch painters like J.Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Frans Hals.

One particular painting struck me deeply. I was contemplating it in awe for quite a while. I managed to capture a hand-held picture of the painting, using the only photographic tool I had at the time, my trustworthy Nikon CP57oo (Photos are allowed in the museum. The use of flash is not).

Back from the trip I placed a post on NTF. I came upon it today, while going through old texts and felt it could be interesting to re-post it here.

The painting - “Italian Landscape with Draughtsman” by Jan Dirksz Both – can be considered a very accomplished lesson in composition, providing quite a useful lesson for all of us, modern day “image-grabbers”.

Here it is:

And here is the lesson:

1. Balance is created. Notice how a diagonal crosses the composition from the top left down to the lower right. It is formed by the interlacing tree branches and the running stream of water. To the left of this line dark tones are predominant, determined by the shady area of the represented forest. To the right, light tones are used to represent the sky and far away motives.

2. Balance is solidified. The dirt road and wooden bridge are placed in a line that runs from left to right at about 1/3 up the composition.

3. A story unfolds. The road crosses the scene from left to right (western cultures direction of reading) and takes us into a tale. Starting with the small herd of goats, we pass the draughtsman, shepherd and the remaining resting travelers, right into the burden beasts with the traveling group. From here, we can imagine the road further unwinding into the distant city – their probable destination – and to the far out mountains.

4. Balance is further accentuated. The left resting group is roughly at the same distance, as the travelling foreground man and beast, counting from the intersect point defined by the diagonal line and the horizontal first third one. The small herd of goats balances the far right side resting party of two. Finally, the travelling group fading into the distance pulls the composition to the right, offsetting the whole balance into a dense compositional point (People, beasts, city, mountain) – The arriving point of both travelers and viewer alike.

5. The iconoclastic touch. For a perfect balance, the 2 flying birds should have been placed a tad up and to right, more into the lighter part of the sky. My guess is that Jan Both knew this too well. By “misplacing” them, he added the final touch. While formally steering away from the right thing to do, this small detail adds an “imbalance” that attracts our view to the whole composition over and over again.

Masterpiece, huh...? Quite true….

PK

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