‘Jeune Fille en Robe Rouge sur Fond de Fleurs’ by Emile Lévy (in The Drawing and Pastel Gallery) highlights how effective a few basic rules of composition can be.  It’s a simple pose but I loved it.  For me it works because the ‘V’ shape neckline of the girl’s dress is mimicked in the stance of her hands which also form a ‘V ‘.  It’s called a ‘repeated motif’ and it’s also repeated in her hair which is an upside down ‘V’ directly above and mirroring the neckline of the dress.  Because her hands, legs and neckline all direct the eye towards the bottom right, the composition is neatly balanced by having her gaze to the left.  Bung in some striking colour in the form of a bright red dress to catch the viewer’s eye, use the same red (at much reduced saturation) in the wall paper to tie the composition together and the job is done.  Ah, it all sounds so simple doesn’t it.
‘Jeune Fille en Robe Rouge sur Fond de Fleurs’ by Emile Lévy

 I’m a sucker for the use of strong contrasts between light and shade to generate a bit of drama (a big Caravaggio fan).  I’m particularly interested in how an artist makes use of shadows.  It’s fairly common see a figure emerging from shadows to great effect but sometimes the shapes of shadows make for an interesting and different composition such as in ‘Ombres Portées’ below by Emile Friant.

‘Ombres Portées’ by Emile Friant 

Here are some more great examples of the use of strong contrast from The Musée d’Orsay:


Eugène Burnand ‘Les Disciples Pierre et Jean Courant au Sépulcre le Matin de la Résurrection’ 

Alexandre Cabanel ‘Comtesse de Keller’ – there are those repeated ‘V’ shaped motifs again.

Another attribute to a painting that always reels me in is an injection of energy; a sense that the character(s) have been caught mid-movement.  It can be hard to put your finger on what the artist has done to achieve it.  Frequently it’s the nature of the line or brushstroke which either has or appears to have been rendered rapidly (Degas’ ballerinas would be a famous example) but it can also come from the positioning of a figure or artefact in a manner that could only be maintained by an energetic force, such as an inclined figure maintained by their own movement or a sweeping gust of wind across a dress (as in the Tissot below).  Perhaps the paintings will demonstrate what I mean better than my words do:

 James Tissot ‘Evening’

Victor Prouvé ‘La Famille’  

 ‘La Famille’ in The Drawing and Pastel Gallery just blew me away.  I kept finding myself wondering back to look at it again and again.  Not only does it possess vast amounts of energy (they seem to swing around in the man’s giant arms) but the simplicity of sticking to tertiary browns for the majority of the composition allowed Prouvé to use blues to bring the lady’s dress forwards.  It’s rare for an artist to use blue to bring an object forwards in a painting, it’s usually done with warmer colours, so I often find it catches my eye.  Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ is a famous example.

Vincent van Gogh ‘Thatched Cordeville in Auvers-sur-Oise’

Of course you can’t talk about energy in paintings without including some of van Gogh’s billowing clouds.  Actually I felt a little sorry for van Gogh.  Don’t get me wrong, the man was a genius, but even geniuses have to learn by their mistakes.  Some of his other work hanging wasn’t that special.  We’ve all painted rubbish even the greats, it’s how we all learn, but I personally have a rule never to let my rubbish leave the studio.  I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it if someone stuck it up on a wall for all to see.  Even though we all still like to see it, I couldn’t help wondering whether he would have been happy about it.

We all love paintings of elephants in the saturated head of the African sun.  It’s the kind of image you’re bound to find in any shop that sells wall posters, but who did it first I wonder?  Is this painting by Tournemine, painted in 1867, a possible contender? 

Charles Emile Tournemine ‘Elephants Africa’

Finally never underestimate the power of grey shades.  Monet knew it, Whistler knew it, but here are some examples from the Musée d'Orsay:

Charles-François Daubigny 'Snow'

 Alfred Stevens 'Bath'