10. The Visual Language Of Art : Shape & Composition

It’s opening night at the gallery.  There’s a small painting on the wall;  You’re just drawn to it, and you don’t know why. .. You can’t see a horse, yet you know this is a show of horse paintings, so you figure there’s a horse in there somewhere, but that’s not what draws you.  What is it?

I believe it’s the abstraction.

Rode Hard, Put Up Wet. 9 x 12 oil on panel, by Lesley Humphrey.  During my artist’s residency week at the Kentucky Horse Park, this tired roping horse was tied to a post close to the AAEA studio.  Luckily, I was already set up and waiting for such a chance.  He dozed off and stayed in this position for 45 minutes.  What a luxury!

Regardless of how “real” the subject may be, when you find the abstract shapes in the composition beautifully orchestrated, somehow the painting seems stronger, has more authority, or adds another layer of competency to the overall piece.  

When my husband Larry and I operated our art gallery, we would often see people drawn to the same paintings during an opening, regardless of size and subject matter; Often, paintings that didn’t, until close inspection, offer any recognizable subjects at all. 

STORY:  The Day Worker Painting

Our art gallery (located beneath my studio) is situated in a small town just outside of Houston, Texas.  A couple of blocks away, there are usually some day workers from south of the border, congregating, waiting for jobs.  On occasion, my friends and I would hire them as models.  On this particular day, as I was driving to the studio, I noticed a very interesting looking older man wearing, what looked like, a hand-woven hat, to help shade him manage the brutal, Texan sun.  He was wearing, what looked like a rugby sweater. Now, the age and stature of this man is generally not chosen for hard work.  His face to me was wonderful; deeply etched by a life I would never know.  I decided to hire him.  He did not speak English and was too scared to leave his younger ‘translator’, so I went to get my painting things, and my painting umbrella, sat him on a stump, bought him a cold drink, and painted him on an 11 x 14 panel.

Day Laborer by Lesley Humphrey

About 2 weeks later we had a figurative opening at the gallery, and I rather liked my little Day Worker painting, so I decided to frame it and hang it.  Debbie, an artist, friend, and  collector of mine, walked in, spotted the small painting in the back and said “Whatever is that lovely thing?” and immediately walked to the back of the gallery.  She exclaimed, with a note of slight dismay in her voice.. “Oh my goodness!  It’s a day laborer sat on a stump!”  She struggled for a few minutes with the subject matter, and I was interested to see how many people did the same thing.  I was happy when she came over to me with a little red button on her finger and said, smiling… “I don’t know why… I just had to have it.”

Debbie had fallen in love with the abstract surface, the arrangement of shapes…not the subject matter.   It was the ‘abstraction’ ; the organization of the shapes that ‘spoke to her’ before her rational mind had a chance to ‘figure it out’, and decide if it was good, or not! 

Try checking your own abstraction by reducing the image, blurring the image, turning it into black and white to eliminate color cues, and turning it around (as I have here with Day Laborer):


Abstract Shapes for Realistic Imagery:

Abstraction, for these purposes, is the overall surface of the painting that has little or no relationship to any objects either real or imagined.  As I have explained previously, I am predominantly a “shape painter”, so it is my job to compose/organize the picture plane as a series of shapes that work for me a strong composition which fully supports my intention/content.  A good way to see the overall abstract composition is

I would suggest that, in the paintings displayed here, they are my ‘trained response’ to place or anchor the subject matter, in a pleasing way, to the four corners of the canvas/panel.  Since abstraction relies on the artist’s personal choice, in other words, the artistic application of one set of shapes often guiding subsequent shapes, there can be no rules………. But I can offer guidelines:

The Golden Mean:

What does mother nature, Einstein, Etruscan potters, and painters from Vermeer to Seurat have in common?  They are all masters of “the golden mean”, the divine section, Phi 1.618, the Fabonacci Series, golden ratio…. Call it what you will, it is an underlying principle that seems to create beauty, order, without perfect symmetry and it is visible in so many things in the world that we find beautiful.  For artists, the theory states that there is a “perfect” way to organize shapes and lines on a canvas.  A “perfect” place to situate one’s ‘focal point’, whether it’s ‘defining the third’ by painting a woman with an umbrella (Seurat’s La Grand Jatte) or how to put a cow pony in an interesting space.  (In the early days of painting, I would calculate this to a 1:6 ratio, but now it’s purely instinctive… like driving a car.)

For painting purposes, the simple rule is to divide your canvas into thirds, both ways.  Where junctions intersect, there is the recommended place for your focal point, according to the golden principle.  If you are interested in learning more about the golden section and how it found and is used in everything from nature and science to art, see websites such as http://www.goldennumber.net/.

What is the acreage/real estate pattern?

Sam & Marta. 14 x 11 oil on panel by Lesley Humphrey.  Master riders of their magnificent Pura Rasa Espanol horses (Andalusian), Sam and Marta (father and daughter) used to ride in the Houston Rodeo Parade.  I was fortunate enough to be able to meet them prior to the parade, whilst they were waiting.

One of my mentor’s great rules for traditional composition is quite simple:  “SAMENESS IS BORING!”  Many of us already know that this goes for cutting the canvas is half, as in an horizon line on a landscape that passes right through the middle of the canvas.  When shape and value (light & dark) are dominant design elements in your visual language, as they are in my representative alla prima paintings, it’s also important to note how much ‘acreage’ belongs the darker values as opposed to the lights?  Is it half and half?  It might be a good idea to take a look at your paintings, ask yourself the following:

  • How about the acreage you’ve devoted to colors?
  • Is the painting half warm and half cool?
  • Is half of the real estate/acreage/pattern devoted to one hue and the other its compliment?
  • How texture or paint quality?  Is it half thin/transparent to half thick/opaque?

Remember : Sameness is boring!

(Unless is part of your personal statement/content)

Paper Doll, or Silhouette?

When painting single subjects, it helps to consider whether your subject/content will be best painted as a ‘paper doll’ (like the paper cut-outs we used as a child), or a silhouette?  To simplify this concept, below you will find examples of both:

Silhouette : Dark against light

Paper doll : Light against dark

In silhouette, or in paper doll, we must devise ways to ‘anchor’ our subject of interest to at least 3 sides in a poetic, interesting way.  This can be done in any way that is pleasing to you.  You may take cues from your visual field, or you may select a series of abstract shapes that will create a composition that is pleasing to you, or supports your desired content.  On ‘Sam & Marta’ above, you will notice that I used a loose interpretation of Houston buildings, along with the cast shadows to anchor Sam and Marta (both paper doll and silhouette…) to the side in a way pleasing to me.  This created a series of interesting shapes on the overall, visual, abstract pattern.

Exercises to practice your abstraction:

Thumbnail sketches, of a jazz musician’s shapes. (I selected the one on the right)  I like to create thumbnail sketches as I play with ways to create a strong abstraction.

You might also like to try the following exercise to practice ‘getting out of your head and going with your gut’ instead (where your own, true, personal abstract style dwells):

Multi-media 5 minute sketch by Lesley Humphrey

Using a variety of media during this 5 minute pose, every time my ‘need to be good and correct’ voices started in my head, I switched media!  Using gouache, red market, pencil, black market, ink pen, I switched every few seconds.  Notice the abstract became as important as the figure.  It nearly always does, for me, when I “lose my head!”

Give it a shot.  Use cheap paper and try not to be good.  Then outline the shapes that you find.  You might just find your own abstract style is just waiting to be found!

 Let’s all get into shape!  It’s good for us. 

Want to see the process in action? Click below.

Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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