I saw this image the other day and I think it is a great composition. The image is by Sergio Martinez. What I would like to do is analyze why this picture literally captivates me. Before we go on, make sure you visit his blog and click the image to view it at a higher resolution.
It seems like a truism, but an image ought to have one main focal point. If there are competing focal points the image seems to lose something. If there is one main focal point, the image feels stronger and more complete. I think we can have more than one point of interest, but the trick is to make sure that there is one point that is the ‘focal point’. It should be a hierarchy, where we have one dominant area where we want the viewer’s eye to go. All other areas of interest should be used to move the eye to the focus. More on that in a moment.
You will hopefully agree that the main focal point is the area where the little figure is playing the violin next to the lantern. The next point of interest would be the toy at the base of the wagon, and then the toys above and to the left of the bench on the wagon. There are other points of interest, but these are the main ones that are highest in the hierarchy.
Notice as well how Sergio has placed the violin figure very close to one of the points of intersection of the ‘rules of thirds‘. That is one of the more dynamic positions in an image. It is not a static point directly in the middle of the image, and neither is it too far off the bottom or right of the image. It feels right, right where it is. Moreover it also gives Sergio room on the left and top of the image to move your eye around the image.
The next thing we notice is that Sergio has used contrast to effectively direct our eye to the point of interest. There are a few places in the image with sharp contrast, but the highest contrast appears to be exactly where the little figure is silhouetted by the lantern. The whole area that is lit by the lantern is a higher contrast than the surrounding image. Our eyes are naturally drawn to areas of higher contrast.
Notice, for example, how the buildings on the right side of the image fade in contrast into an amorphous gray into the distance. The reason we can say ‘distance’ when we are actually looking at a 2d plane is because the artist is using atmospheric perspective to add depth to his image. When we look towards the horizon one of the things that happens, due to atmospheric perspective, is that the colors get desaturated – they lose their vibrancy and strength. Hence the colors in the image become grayer as we get ‘deeper’ into the image. Another thing that occurs is that contrast is reduced. Note on a particularly hazy day how the contrast decreases as you look further and further away towards the horizon. Sergio is doing the same thing with the steeple and building that fades off into the distance on the right.
So we have the dark shadows of the wagon contrasted against the bright light of the lantern. The toys behind and to the left of the bench on the wagon are lit by the lantern and are contrasted against the shadows that they cast on the side of the wagon.
Those areas of contrast grab our eye, or at least draw our eye towards them. If our entire image consisted of high contrast areas (or entirely low contrast areas) then the eye would have a harder time getting to the focal point. In fact that would create multiple focal points (or no focal points) and reduce the strength and composition of the image.
In relation to contrast, just a note about the color. More specifically, the saturation (the richness) of the colors. Notice how the main focal point has the most variety and saturation of colors. It is this area that has most of the reds and bright yellows. The other elements, though they do have color, are much more subdued (desaturated – pushed toward the gray) and less varied.
Lastly, let us see if we can follow our eye around the image. A good composition will lead the eye into the picture and then move it around and into the main focal point. It doesn’t ‘capture’ it and force it to stay in one place, but neither does it let it meander around aimlessly.
I do not know about you, but the following is how I feel led into and around the picture:
1. My eye seems initially to be drawn into the picture along the cobblestone road. From the bottom of the picture it curves around where the highlight hits the edge of the road on the right, and then swoops into where the focal point is (the violinist and lantern).
2. The next thing it tends to do is skip over to the Pinocchio-like toy at the base of the wagon.
3. Then it seems to be naturally drawn up the curves behind the Pinocchio-like toy and up to the other toys. The detail in the faces and clothes captures my eye for a moment.
4. Then my eye moves to the left along the wagon. The dark line above the window in the wagon and the pencil/brush strokes all draw me toward the fountain.
5. The dark shape of the vertical fountain stops my eye from going off the left end of the page. The contrast in that area and some of the details of the buildings behind keep my eyes there for a moment.
6. That vertical fountain then draws me upward like an arrow pointing up. The texture of the trees then catch my eye and draw me over to the crescent moon. That arc of the moon then launches my eye along the top of the wagon until it hits the steeple.
7. The whole dark mass of buildings on the right keeps my eye from running off to the right and all the lines and shapes point me back toward the violinist and light. Notice how the staircase, with the little roof, zig-zags your eye down and to the left.
Overall this image has a nice path – allowing your eyes to look at all sorts of little details and ’sub focal points’, but ultimately all of the ‘roads’ lead back to the main focal point. If your composition is solid, as in this picture, then you are well on your way to a successful image/painting.