There were a couple of very thoughtful comments left after the last post. I thought they warranted some more discussion. So here's part two on this painting...
Rafi wondered about the dog at the bottom of the painting, and if the painting would be better without the dog. He asked if adding the dog might have make too much of a frame around the woman, and isn't the contrast on her strong enough to hold your eye in the frame without the addition of the dog? It's a good question.
Here's the original painting again...
...and the original, minus the dog.
Personally, I think the painting needs something in that spot. Without anything there my eye gets "stuck" in that area where the dog used to be, it can't quite make the transition over to the stagecoach, and my eye starts to slide out the bottom of the painting. And without the dog the picture becomes too symmetrical to me...now the top of the picture is an empty blank area and so is the bottom.
I think the bottom area does need some element to help frame the woman but the dog sticks out because the dog is not handled as naturally as the other subjects in the painting. He's posed in a flat profile and posed in a bit of a stiff way, with all four of his legs parallel.
Also it's worth pointing out when looking at paintings on the internet it's hard to know what the original purpose was and how big the picture was going to be reproduced once it was done. That can affect the composition as well. What may look cluttered on the internet may have been a much larger painting in real life and may have been meant for a size that may have dictated some of the compositional choices.
Rafi was also asking about my comments about how compositional elements are there to "keep your eye from leaving the frame" and wondering if there was more to that theory. There's been a lot written about that and keeping the viewer's eye from sliding out of the picture seems to be the heart of most studies on composition. Including these great pages from Andrew Loomis's "Creative Illustration".
Also Poore's "Pictorial Composition" and Graham's "Composing Pictures" cover this extensively as well.
Rodney left comments wondering if the picture would have been better off if the coach was still there (instead of heading off) and also he wondered if it seems a little awkward and unrealistic that she'd still standing there like that, after the coach has left.
I get his point. But I like that the coach is departing...it gives the painting a feeling of finality. She's definitely staying and she and the town are stuck with each other...permanently. If the coach was still there you'd feel like she might still get back on. And you might wonder who else was getting off...or it might look like she was leaving the town after one last look around instead of just arriving...etc. I can think of a bunch of reasons why I like the coach leaving. Mostly I think I like it because everyone else in the frame seems like they're in motion, or just paused in the middle of an action, while by contrast she's just standing there stiffly and with perfect posture.
But of course it's all a personal choice and I know Rodney probably has a good version in his head that would work great.
And I guess to some it might feel a little "unrealistic" that she's just planted there, standing like that. But I think it's great because of how much power and authority it gives her and really helps tell the story in a clear way. So I like how she's standing there, taking it all in, probably thinking about how she would change this place and whip it into shape. If she were walking I don't think that would come through as clearly.
Maybe it's a mistake for me to write about paintings this way. After all it's all subjective anyway and I wouldn't want to influence the way other people see and interpret this stuff. I guess the reason I do it is because the only way I've ever really learned anything about art is by looking at art and asking myself why the artist made the choices that they did. That's the only way to learn about art, I think....analyze the choices that other artists made and see how they affect the finished work. And ask yourself if those choices are effective. Are they additive? Or do they diminish the piece?
Of course none of us can ever be in the artist's head and truly know what they were thinking. So we have to guess, based on experience. And because we're all different we all reach different conclusions. So don't ever think that my analysis is "correct" or the only way to interpret anything. Do your own interpreting, but hopefully hearing my thoughts will help stir yours up and get your mind in the practice of asking yourself,
"Why did the artist make that choice?"
Many times I've heard people say that they think many things that happen in a work of art are happy accidents or unconscious choices that just happen to work. In my experience as an artist, great artists have control over every element of their work and every choice is a conscious one, made for a number of reasons. So the more you train yourself to analyze and ask why an artist did what they did, the better insight you'll have into why some art seems to work beautifully and other art seems to fall flat or miss the mark.