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Elements of Composition in Botanical Art by O.M.Braida


Part One:  The Necessity of Learning the Elements of Composition

Organizing the various botanical requisites within one’s canvas to create an effective design relies on the ability of the painter to position elements where they both explain and delight the viewer. Since nature does not always offer a perfect example of itself for botanical artists to copy, it is essential for effective composition to “draw what we see so that others can see clearly.” (Omisim #1). At the same time, we are required to create a balance between drawing what we see and arranging elements to allow for a certain amount of design.Instead of looking at composition as a set of ‘rules,’ view it as a set of ‘elements’ that can be used to make a great painting. These ‘elements,’ once they are understood become our reference for all future compositions. Just as one would never decorate with all their ideas in one room, the botanical artist learns to select the elements of composition that work, to perfectly express, their botanical painting.  The combination of elements is what tells your story.The decision-making process begins first with our initial observation of the subject. It is with our gesture sketches that we pull the composition from the subject. For as Kimon Nicolades (1891-1938), American art teacher, author and artist, tells us “The composition is inherent in the subject.” In gesture studies, we find the best way to view our subject. We discover its natural rhythm and where its natural composition “stems” from. It helps us find the composition inherent in the subject and allows us to do so with no early commitments. Contour sketching helps to see the detail we wish to include in our composition. Once we decide which parts of our subject to include, then we need to organize them effectively to convey our story (our Matrix).And, as you develop as a botanical artist you will need to concentrate on seeing detail. This sounds simple, but the beauty in botanical art is its detail. So our requirement to look up close is a significant part of our development. Both gesture and contour drawing are two important steps in helping us create a valid composition that is aware of the necessary elements to make it great.

Part Two: Elements of Composition

Matrix (Positive & Negative Shapes 3-D Spatial Arrangement) – Our true success in creating a three-dimensional image on two-dimensional surfaces is dependent upon illustrating all five elements of geometric form: line, value, shadow, cast shadow, and reflected light. The process of creating our three dimensions leads us to the natural understanding that this arrangement creates foreground, middle ground, background, and far ground. This spatial platform is what I refer to as the “OM Braida Matrix Theory.” The Matrix Theory contends that all images take up space, and when that space is confined in a three-dimensional grid box we are able to decipher spatial arrangements. This includes negative space (openings where there is no subject). Negative space contributes to design. The Matrix Theory further states that when light appears on the subject in the box, the components of the subject will reflect their appropriate value in relation to the light and their spatial arrangement.Images within this spatial environment that recede in the background and are seen as far away are obscured by the atmosphere and thus lose their light and color value and the subject’s detail loses its light and color value, as well. This concept is Leonardo’s explanation of Aerial Perspective. The Matrix Theory contends that by using the changing values of light, shadow, and detail, we create a story within our story. Thus, our composition is enhanced by all elements of form and light, and since detail follows form and light, it, too, enhances composition.Contour & Shapes – Contour Lines, Curves, Horizontals, Verticals, Diagonals are effective elements of design because it can lead the viewer’s eye in and out of a painting. Their direction and orientation imply certain emotions. As they represent the “path” you wish the viewer to follow, they also represent the feeling you wish to express. The four dominant lines in art are: Horizontal lines to imply tranquility and rest; Vertical lines to imply power and strength; Oblique (diagonal or slanted) lines to imply movement, action and change; Curved lines or S shaped lines to imply quiet, calm and sensual feelings.Shapes are simply closed lines and include, for example, circles, squares, triangles and hexagons all of which appear in nature. Positive space is where shapes and forms exist; negative space is the empty space around shapes and forms. For images to have a sense of balance, positive and negative space can be used to counter balance each other.Form (Lights and Darks) – Form in its widest sense is the total structure of a thing – the visible aspects of which allow us to distinguish its character. As an element of art, form is three-dimensional (height, width, and depth) and encloses volume. Refer to Botanical Drawing I, Volume I by O.M. Braida to review the five elements of geometric form. As we have learned, when light from a single direction (upper left at 11:00 in the case of botanical art) hits our subject, part of the object is in shadow. Both light and dark areas on our subject provide contrast which suggests volume.Color Influences – V.I.T.H. is the vocabulary of color:
Value: lightness and darkness of the color
Intensity: the purity or saturation of the color
Temperature: use of warm or cool colors, or both
Warm colors advance: yellows, reds and oranges
Cool colors recede: blues, violets, greens
Hue: refers to the names of colors – red, green and blue.
(Monochromatic color: one color with only value changes)
(Analogous colors: adjacent colors on the color wheel)

So, when you think that color is all in one’s head, you’re right! To be more exact, color is in the eye of the beholder. In the eye…
“two types of photoreceptor cells are clustered on the retina, or back portion of the eye…Rods detect differences in light intensity and cones detect color. Opsins are chemicals that bind to cone cells and make those cells sensitive to light of a particular wavelength (or color). Light reaching a photoreceptor causes a breakdown of the chemical rhodopsin [A visual pigment contained in the rods of the retina in the eye]. This breakdown eventually signals neurons that connect to the optic nerve. The optic nerve connects to the occipital lobe of the brain. Humans have three types of cones, each sensitive to a different color of light: red, blue and green.” (Info excerpt taken from “The Nervous System” by M.J. Farabee

Texture (The Experience of Consistent Quality) – Texture refers to the surface quality or “feel” your subject imparts – smooth, rough, soft, etc. Textures may be suggested, by the way, an artist has created the visual art and in botanical art this element is essential for portraying the correct genus and species. The obligation of the artist is to explain but at the same time provide the viewer with an experience of consistent quality. So, be sure that your illustrated example of plant surface and even the texture of its environment is consistent in appearance and not contradictory (veins traveling in the same direction at the same angle; trichomes the same density, direction, etc.) Texture, while necessary to botanical art, can often be overstated and, therefore, overpowering. Too much display of texture can make the painting overly busy and cause the focus to be lost.

Unity (Harmony & Agreement) – Unity refers to harmony in our composition. Each aspect contributes, and each must be in agreement. The result is seen as a whole. With this element successful, the viewer will have more reason to stay with the work and not lose interest early. Unity also refers to an agreement of colors. Be careful in your mixing of colors and their subsequent de-saturation that you do not alter the color so visibly that it is no longer in agreement.

Dominance (Primary Importance) & Subordination (Secondary importance) – All good composition requires that the artist attempts to control the sequence and the amount of attention the elements of their design deserves. Dominance can be achieved through all elements of a painting. Large objects dominate smaller ones; warm colors dominate cool colors; strong values dominate pale values; and heavy detail dominates light detail. Placing your main subject in the center will dominate the painting and draw attention to it. However, this is considered not to be the best composition. It is better to place the most dominant element slightly to the side of the center.

In plant portrayal, there are often very many converging and radiating lines. The eye tends to follow these lines, and they can often dominate a painting. To help this try to alter color, tone, shape, value so that the giant “X” of crossing branches in your composition loses dominance.

Coherence (Logic) – With the OM Braida Matrix Theory we discuss the idea of spatial relationships. When working out this platform, keep in mind that a logical display of plant parts brought together to relate through shapes, sizes, color, etc. will help create a sense of unity. Individual aspects of the botanical subject are just as important as the sum of its parts. Be careful, however, that you do not create an overall sense of ‘sameness” which can lead to a rather uninteresting plant portrait.

Balance (Symmetry) – Have you ever seen a flower drawing or painting that looked as if it were going to topple over? Well balance implies there is a sense of weight. Large objects appear to weigh more than small objects.  I recommend “Composition in Art” by Henry Rankin Poor. In his book, among many other useful tips, he explains how to create a satisfactory picture by balancing design and movement above and below the horizon line.  Balance then is decided by the sum of the parts. Our job is to look closely at those parts when analyzing our work. What then exactly do we mean by parts? Well, for starters let’s go back to the five elements of geometric form: Line, Value, Shadow, Cast Shadow, and Reflected Light and add Size, Detail, Color, and Space. If all of these elements are of equal intensity, we lose our focal point. So in other words, we want each element to support the main purpose of our work. This support of parts is how we “tell our story.” When trying to figure out whether or not you have arrived at balance in your composition an easy test is to add more of one part, less of another, and see how the whole stands together. This can be accomplished in botanical art by using charcoal value studies before going too far into the final drawing or watercolor.  The Master’s use of


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