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  • Writer's pictureShawn Dell Joyce artist

O'Keefe and Composition

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe was an American modernist artist. She was known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes. O'Keeffe has been called the "Mother of American modernism" and a feminist artist.



O'Keefe was controversial, and that's probably what I loved the most about her. During her lifetime Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings were viewed as abstract paintings of female genitalia. One of the reasons for this was the way her art was critiqued in the 1920s. Male critics, in particular, deemed her paintings as vulgar representations of sex, especially because they were painted by a woman.


Today, her works wouldn't even raise a pierced eyebrow, but in 1920, she was scandalous!

Polite women rarely make history.



O'Keefe was married to Alfred Stieglitz, a famous b&w photographer. I imagine the dinner conversations they must've had, and arguments over composing paintings vs. composing photos. You can see the influence of photography on O'Keefe's paintings, especially in her composition choices.



Most of her compositions are arranged as if you were snapping a photo of the subject; strong focal in the middle of the canvas, parallel lines almost dead center, triangular positioning in the center and so forth.


Composition in art is the arrangement of the various elements within an artwork. In more detail, it is how the elements of art and design - line, shape, form, colour, texture, value, and space - are laid out in accordance to the principles of art and design - scale, proportion, unity, variety, rhythm, mass, shape, space, balance, contrast, emphasis, volume, perspective, and depth. Creating a harmonious relationship between the elements and the principles.

Basically, it’s the path that your eyes follow when you track across a painting.


Wassily Kandinsky and many European artists believed it would be left to right-

Japanese and Asian artists believed from the top to the bottom, Davinci believed in a Golden Curve.



Creating a Strong Composition:

1. Start with a Notan (black and white thumbnail sketch showing just the dark shapes against the light) this shows you only the abstract shapes.

2. You may want to make several notans of the same subject using different compositions until you fine one that is aesthetically pleasing.

3. Make a more finished value sketch next showing a minimum of 5 values. This sketch also shows a focal point and focal edge.

Focal Point-where the lightest light and darkest dark meet

Focal Edge-pattern of darks that leads your eye to the focal point

4. Put a grid of cross hairs on your sketch and scale it up to your canvas. Note that your focal point should be near one of the four intersecting lines

AVOID dead center unless

You are painting a portrait.

AVOID putting important things too

Close to the edges of the canvas.





5. A GREAT painting should have a balance of:

-COLOR

-Positive form and negative space

-light and dark

-warm and cool

-Scale and perspective

-lost and found edges




HOW TO MAKE A GOOD COMPOSITION - this is one of the exercises from my Classical Training class and involves a still life and using a viewfinder (a cut piece of paper that you look through) the hole in the viewfinder should be the same shape and orientation as your paper. We will be making 3 thumbnail sketches based on looking through the viewfinder at the still life.



First, find an interesting view of the still life singling out a small part of it through the viewfinder. Make a quick sketch (5 mins.) of just the dark abstract shapes you see. This is the composition.





Do this three times from three different angles, taking only 5 minutes per sketch.




Choose the one NOTAN that has the best composition and make a value sketch from that same view showing 5 values from dark to light.



Put a grid of cross hairs on your sketch and scale it up to your canvas. Note that your focal point should be near one of the four intersecting lines

AVOID dead center unless

You are painting a portrait.

AVOID putting important things too

Close to the edges of the canvas


Now make the painting starting with your darks and working to your lights.




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