Invisible Threads

One of the juiciest morsels the author discussed was the way Poussin would pull his compositions together by lining up the edges of key forms so they would imply a straight line moving all across the painting's surface. Now I felt funny about this because Poussin's imagery never grabbed me emotionally. But reading the guy's text and studying his illustrations I could see in Poussin an unmistakable unity emerging out of what should have been a tumbling jumble of half naked figures. That first summer I must have read the author's book four or five times through. It spoke to me.It's easier to see past what the figures are doing and comprehend how they're arranged if you turn the composition upside down.

In this upside down version, start looking at what's now the lower left hand corner at the line of dark shadows Poussin pulls through the middle of his clouds. Moving uphill and to the right you soon come to the upraised knee of the central figure. Keep going and you finally move up what's now the right side of the little kid in the foreground. Clouds, thighs, and little naked kids aren't things one usually talks about in the same sentence. We don't associate them belonging together normally. But that's part of the magic in the painter's hands, to make connections for us between things that seem separated from each other. 

In two previous blog posts I talked about this "separate but connected line" idea in a Winslow Homer watercolor. And I showed how Homer took the idea further and implied a cross shape by placing two of his major diagonal pathways at right angles to each other.

Homer was a real original, but he wasn't that original. He took from the tool box given him by the painters who'd gone down the path before him. Guys like Poussin. Look at the upside down Poussin again and notice how the artist casts an unusually bright spotlight on the legs of the central figure. Go back to that central knee and draw a straight line with your eye down to the end of the toes of the foot on the left. You realize there's something resonating between this new diagonal line and the first one we discussed. Sure enough, they're placed at exactly 90 degrees to each other. Look longer and you'll find lots of other places in Poussin where he's done this.

Poussin instinctively grasped that his viewers were unconsciously attracted to his paintings when he used devices like this 90 degree arrangement of this major diagonals. Why is this so? 

I'm not smart enough to know with any certainty. But it's fun to speculate. My guess is that when we're about nine months old we become seized with a desire to try to stand up like all those big people we've been seeing. Watch any little one struggle to do this and you know it's no small accomplishment. There's lots of falling, head banging and tears. Eventually kids get it and learn to stand.

What has to happen internally is children are learning to physically sense the concepts of horizontal and vertical. And through their early attempts to stand they're getting an intuition about the axis of their body and what positioning it at 90 degrees to the horizontal floor feels like. Falling is no fun and it's a long process to get it right. Sensing they are erect and can stay that way as long as they want brings a surge of accomplishment and confidence. 

Unconsciously this drama plays on in the back of our minds for the rest of our lives. Looking at a tangle of forms leaning this way and that in a Poussin figure composition, you're going to trigger some of the old anxieties about your struggle to learn how to stand. When you sense an right angle relationship hiding between some of the paintings major diagonal pathways, you get a hit of that old optimism and confidence. "Hey you're going to be alright after all" your unconscious whispers to you. 

Whether or not my pet theory about the right angle relationship is right or not doesn't matter. What does is that painters have been doing this arrangement of their forms for centuries because it made people want to look at their paintings.

Let's jump up two centuries from Poussin to Winslow Homer. This is a test. Look at the very light area of the ground to the right of the figure of the girl. See the diagonal Homer sets up moving along the top edge of this patch of grasses. Now what other form did Homer install in the painting that runs across the surface at 90 degrees to this?

There will be cookies and milk for every successful answer.


  1. Phil, this is so great and timely for me, waiting to go out composition sketching w/ my brother, I will apply it this morning. The girls walking stick? Thank you as always great info, Terry

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  3. Whoops, too many typos in my first attempt...

    Terry, thanks! My advice is to just go out and let yourself be attracted to some subjects more than others (it all starts on an intuitive and feeling level). The more one draws or paints, the more in touch we get with our internal code of how shapes go together, and we find ourselves drawn to look at sources that hint at the great principles of strong visual design,

    What I tell my students is to look and feel first, then later as the drawing or painting is well underway allow yourself to observe what's happening compositionally.

  4. Thank you for all of your wonderful art lessons. I look forward to each new post. I have learned so much.


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