Thursday, February 23, 2017

Seeing Is Believing: Improving Visual Impact Through Composition and Design


The "flow" embodied in a piece is a rather significant factor in the creation of a finessed work. What's "flow"? Well, it's how the eye travels around the piece. For that, we want to to keep the eye flowing within the composition, going from point to point to point in a smooth, continual, looping way. This helps to harmonize the composition while also increasing its "eye appeal." A piece with good flow is simply more visually appealing and interesting.

So how do we do this? Welp, we use a clever manipulation of shape, line, curve, detail, color, focus points, intersections, complements, and negative space to pull the eye around the piece in an active manner. In doing so, we improve the attraction of the composition while tying it all together into one cohesive whole. At the same time, we also direct attention to the unique features of the piece by inviting the eye to them. Truly, once we learn to engage the eye, we help to showcase our piece better while also lending more visual and emotional impact.  

On the other hand, an unskilled use of flow typically makes a piece look awkward, disjointed, de-energized, and not as effective in expressing intent or impression. In other words, the different portions of the piece visually interfere and conflict with each other, causing the eye to bounce around the piece unpleasantly and haphazardly, or causing it to bounce right out of the composition altogether...and that's a real turn-off. Pieces like this tend to lose the eye rather quickly and people move on with indifference, and we definitely don't want that!

So let's explore some handy ideas for improving the visual flow of our compositions. Mind you, these are just basic, simple concepts to give a general idea. In reality, flow and composition can become rather complex and layered, depending on how well we learn to implement them. Study the works of the masters, as well as art deco and art nouveau pieces (they both rely heavily on flow), and we'll learn how these artists took full advantage of the "traveling eye" to produce wondrous, enchanting results.

Sweet on Shapes

Different shapes evoke different emotional reactions. So envisioning a shape and designing the piece based on its emotional impact is a handy way to implement flow. Such shapes could be a circle, square, triangle, trapezoid, or even an amorphous shape. There really are no limitations and the options are totally open to our own preferences and motivations for our sculpture.

In terms of emotional response, for instance, a triangle is a very dramatic shape and would work well for increasing the drama of a composition whereas a circle shape tends to instill the piece with a more intimate, coiled, romantic, and introspective look. Likewise, square shapes tend to look proud, noble and steadfast whereas an amorphous shape can look energized, unconventional, powerful, and dynamic. Similarly, trapezoid shapes can look chaotic, wild, and unpredictable.

So for example, when we design on a circular shape, all the forms curve inwards and to each other in circular curls which gives a romantic, coiled, and dreamy appeal. On the other hand, when we design based on a trapezoid, body portions shoot out at disorganized angles. And to amplify reactions even more, we can work in more abrupt and dramatic contrasts of line and form to highlight drama. And don't be afraid to layer shapeswe can use more than one to add complexity and nuance.

Anchor Points

Certain features of our piece tend to have an anchoring effect for the eye. For instance, the eye is a particularly powerful anchor point. However, the ears, muzzle, mane, tail, hooves, and certain points of interest in a sculpture or paint job act as anchor points as well—for example, particularly detailed areas. Even more viscera things like expression can serve as an anchor point. So how we design where these anchor points exist in our composition can manipulate the eye to travel around it better.

For example, placing the eye and a flagged tail about even with each other will cause the eye to bounce between them as it's attracted to each focal point alternately. Similarly, a hind hoof articulated in a "snappy" fashion can be counter-balanced with twitchy ears to bounce the eye between them.

When we learn to use anchor points to "catch" and "bounce" the eye like a ping-pong ball, we learn to "play pong" to our advantage, and it can do much to enliven our composition.

Gotta Have A Hook!

Every sculpture and paint job needs a "hook," that something that immediately grabs the eye. And it should be something that sticks with us as a defining quality. A hook could be a narrative, an emotion, an impression, "wow-factor," a lively position, an unconventional treatment of the mane and tail, or some sort of an eccentricity. Whatever it is, it needs to attract attention and keep it, even mesmerize and lure us in. In essence, we should see the piece from across the room, be hooked, and then reeled in as our interest is piqued. Whatever captures the eye causes the body to follow and enraptures the heart. 

But creating hooks is a learned skill. As we start, we don't give such things much thought as we're more focused on getting things right. Concepts about composition, design, and the "traveling eye" tend to go over our heads in our early stages. It's natural and normal. In many ways then, we can identify those works created by beginners or intermediates by their tendency to ignore such things. But that's OK! It's all learnable! Indeed, as we become more skilled, we inherently adopt more effective hooks, especially if we stretch our skills and seek to learn and explore with each new piece. We come to understand the additional layers of our job, and seek to explore them with more deliberation and eagerness. This is one of the reasons why the work of seasoned artists tends to appear more sophisticated and interesting—it's not just because the quality is better, but the hook is more effective. Even so, a piece can have more than one hook, too! Multiple ones can be layered in the sculpture and the paintwork, creating a whole slew of ways to catch the eye. This makes designing a composition more fun as we put more thought into just creating a position, breed, color, pattern, or posture.

But we shouldn't rely on innate quality alone to serve as our hook. We need to be creating quality work already, so falling back on that to grab the eye will only lose its effectiveness in tough competition. In other words, the hooks we fabricate need to operate beyond inherent quality, being something intrinsic to the piece's composition and design. A hook needs to be that "something more," that "it" factor beyond the conventional or expected.

Love those Lines

The use of line and curve is effective for activating the eye in a way similar to shape. Line and curve also help us to pull the composition together in a variety of ways. For instance, we can pair line and curve with shapes to move the eye around inside the composition, or to even layer design and emotional impact. 

More still, different kinds of lines and curves inspire different emotional responses. For example, vertical and horizontal lines tend to emphasize stability, balance, and steadfastness. In contrast, diagonals enhance the sense of drama, movement, tension, and energy. 

Now as for curves, they can be wide, gradual turns, or tight curls or spirals, and everything in between. Whatever their expression, curves tend to inspire a sense of coiled power, nobility, playfulness, gracefulness, elegance, and control, and they're highly effective for pulling the eye around the piece. Indeed, curves paired with anchor points can be a powerful tool to move the eye around. Or think about pairing the curve of an arched neck with the curve of an arched tail—the two complement each other beautifully.

So put all these lines and curves together in a sculpture, then add in all our other compositional options, and we have a piece that activates the eye like nobody's business! And the more the eye bounces around the piece, the more inspiring and appealing the piece becomes. The eye doesn't become boredit becomes engaged! 

And that's not even counting the paint job. Because—yesthe use of line and curve can be implemented in both the sculptural aspects and finish elements, so we need to think beyond simple terms when we design either. In particular, however, paint jobs shouldn't "fight" the sculpture's composition, but enhance it, even accentuate it. Truly, a skilled painter can zero in on the design concepts infused into a sculpture and work to complement them. For example, placing rather up and down tobiano markings on a moving piece will root it and almost "stop" the motion, amplifying its mass and steadiness. Conversely, applying a curvaceous pinto pattern on that same piece will change it completely by implying a pulsating, motion-rich, coiled feeling. Now in terms of diagonals, we take that same sculpture and apply a roany effect to the pinto markings at the flank contrasted by belton spotting on the face to pull the eye back and forth between the two, creating a dramatic effect that can "speed up" the implied motion. So even how we design a pinto pattern needs more thought than simply, "I like it." All this means we can't simply sculpt or paint how ever we want—we have to always keep "traveling eye" composition in mind. 

Positive on Negative Space

As we design our piece we obviously fixate on those areas we can see and touch. But whether we know it or not, we're also designing the empty spaces around those shapes at the same time, and they're just as important as those we can see. In other words, the holes and open spaces around our sculpture are equally important. Honestly, there exists, in negative space, a whole ‘nuther sculpture around our piece that can also be cajoled into visual partnership.

For example, the elongated triangles between mane tendrils "point down to" the sculpture, helping to pull the eye back to it. The same can also be achieved by placing the legs on a standing piece slightly spread from each other to form negative space "points" that direct the eye back to the body. Or consider an arched tail lifted away from the body but with a tip curving towards it...that negative space between the tail and the haunches is a big block that can balance a highly detailed face or wild mane.

The effect of negative space is very subtle, but extremely powerful and effective. And because it works on the unconscious level, it can subtly impact the eye without being jarring or too obvious. So don't forget to factor in this "second sculpture" for best results.

A Detailed Strategy

Using areas of detail to pull the eye around the piece is also effective, and can lend cohesion and interest to a piece. Truly, a dollop of detail here and there really work wonders to tease the eye around the piece.

For example, pair highly detailed eyes with highly detailed hooves to draw the eye back and forth between them. Another smart move is to detail the ears, eyes, and muzzle with the same intensity to lend balance and interest to the face. Or we can use areas of wrinkles and hide texture to keep the eye flowing around the piece. Indeed, hinder wrinkles can help direct the eye back to the head with the way they're oriented. 

So if we plan our details and think about how they can forward the composition, rather than simply designing them on a whim, we can deliberately tickle the eye to travel around the piece, enhancing the interest and cohesion of our work.

Colorful Tactics

We can also apply the same idea to pigment! Using an area's painted details or color can move the eye around the piece into intricate tracks of flow. A splash of color or a dollop of painted detail there or a clump of spots right here can truly work magic. And pigments gives us more opportunity to create these dynamics since many coat effects are intrinsically highly detailed and intricate.

For example, dapples and coat patterns can be engineered with this in mind as can markings. Dapples placed in strategic areas about the body can move the eye around and make an otherwise ordinary piece really visually interesting. Likewise, a star and hind sock will pull the eye diagonally across the piece. Pinto or appaloosa spots can be strategically placed to keep the eye moving while still remaining realistic. Or add some streaks in the mane and tail to inspire the eye to travel in a point to point loop, between these painted visual stimuli. 

Similarly, markings can be placed on feet in clever ways to keep the eye moving over the body so don't place them haphazardly. For example, say we have a wildly positioned sculpture that has elements that would easily have the eye shoot out from the composition. But we can use pigment to keep pulling the eye back in! For instance, we can place a sock on that hind foot most under the body, "planting" the eye there to radiate up to the body while also providing a nice contrast between the chaos of the sculpted position and the centrality of the sock, adding tension and energy to the overall effect. Or we can put stockings on all four feet paired with a wide blaze to "frame" the piece in dollops of white.

Once we start to see the design components of our paint job, we gain the upper hand in effective design. Truly, strategic placement of pigment is a powerful tool for effective work that lets both our paint job and the sculpture shine to their best potential.

All Haired Out

Hair is an highly effective means to pull the eye around because it can be blown in any number of ways and directions, giving us almost infinite options. Wisps, tufts, waves, chunks, and tendrils can be engineered to move the eye around all over the piece, almost in an infinite loop. 

So don't just sculpt hair any which way—think about how it'll forward the effectiveness of the overall design. Honestly, many eyes have been "stopped" or "shot out of" the design by the clumsy design of hair. So take care. Use negative space, too. A handy trick is to hold the sculpture in front of a light source to create a silhouette and squint our eyes. If the shadowed outline of our hair doesn't cause our eye to travel around the piece, we have some design changes to make.

Yay or Nay

But we have to be very careful. We can't just place things randomly—we should have a strategic plan when we sculpt or paint. That's because a single angulation, detail, or use of color can either add the perfect touch or end up diminishing the whole piece entirely. Truly, it doesn't take much to make a compositional misstep, and we don't want to lose someone's interest!

For example, let’s say we’ve created a lovely sculpture of a galloping mare in the extended phase of the gallop, designing her to accentuate a sense of speed and energy. When done, we paint her a lovely, shaded deep bay. Yet we didn't tone down that orange undercolor on the hip and so the eye is continually drawn to it, away the rest of her wonderful elements. The eye just can’t ignore it because this one neglected bit is a visual nuisance and disruptive aspect to the whole piece. This is a common oversight in paint jobs that's easily avoided with some vigilance.

Or perhaps our decision to create a slacken hind foot articulation with the extended hind leg was wrong because it causes the eye to shoot right out of the composition there when a snappier articulation would have brought the eye back up to the tail and back into the piece. For another example, we create a composition based on a flowing circle that's designed to exude passion and gracefulness. However, that forelimb is positioned a bit too straightened, causing the eye to shoot out of the circle and creating a visual distraction. The error can be subtle, but the effect strong so we need to pay close attention to what we're engineering.

Our piece should work fluidly as a whole and not get "stuck" or compromised because we weren't mindful of every aspect, no matter how small. A finished piece is the sum of its parts, and the truly great work deliberately uses all those parts to make the sum have even more impact and appeal. Nothing is done without purpose, and nothing is considered too small towards the impact of the overall design. Every little bit counts!


We can also use complementary angles to add interest and compel the eye to move over our piece. In other words, we can create opposing angles with our composition that cause the eye to intersect them to be redirected. This technique is particularly useful with manes, tails, and feathers by "catching" the eye and redirecting it to a new complementary angle. So, again, don't just sculpt hair randomlysculpt it with a plan.

We can also apply this idea with the articulation of the feet. For example, "snappy" foot action, or a more acute angle of the foot, helps to redirect the eye whereas "floppy" slack foot action has a tendency to shoot the eye out of the composition if we aren't very careful. We can use the angles of the legs thusly, too, as their orientations and articulations can do much move the eye around the composition. Really, those legs are excellent opportunities to create complex complimentary angles that redirect the eye all over the place!

The angle of body parts—such as the shoulder, hip, femur, forearms, gaskins, cannons, neck, and head—can also serve as complementary angles, in part because the equine skeleton is built thuslybut also because we can manipulate some of these angles to best suit the composition. For instance, a raised head with a nose pointed up creates a complementary angle to a sloping shoulder. Now echo that head angle with an articulated foot and mirror the shoulder angle with a bent femur, and we start to mesh together a web that redirects the eye over the piece effectively.

So when we combine all these elements, we knit the piece together. Nothing about our sculpture should be done arbitrarily—everything should be chosen very carefully to forward the composition. This is what makes work complex, intriguing, and timeless because it keeps the eye engaged, curious, and interested. In fact, this is one of those factors that causes us to see new things every time we look at a piece.


The thing is, the eye wants to stop or fall out of the composition. It wants to be bored and move onto something else. This is due to our instinctive, hard-wired "orienting response," something that can even become addictive. For instance, music videos have a barrage of fast edits to continually stimulate this orienting response to keep the viewer engaged and watching. It's also one of the reasons why video games are so popular. 

Well, we need to tap into the same effect, too! We do this by keeping the eye looping back into the composition to pick up on something new to loop back over and over again. Learn to do this deliberately and we have an eye that eagerly gobbles up our composition. It stays interested in, almost addicted to our piece, and that's when people really begin to emotionally connect with our work. Ultimately then, our art will have that elusive "it" quality that intrigues people and captures their imagination, and keeps them coming back for more.

Tracking About

But we shouldn't stop there! There's more! For instance, we can layer "eye-tracks" over each other to increase the complexity, intensity, and sophistication of our whole design. What's an "eye-track"? Well, it's the natural pathway of the eye between interest points in the sculpture or paint job that entails all our strategies put together. Now probably the first point that will get attention is the face—we're a visual species and we naturally gravitate there, especially the eye. Now where will the eye go from there? Well, perhaps there's an elaborately sculpted mane or tail, maybe there's an intricate pinto pattern with cat-tracking, or maybe the ears point the eye to another part of the body. Where the eye goes next...and then next...and then next is what we can refer to as "eye-tracking." And when we get really good at our job, we can manipulate eye-tracking to keep the eye continually activated.

Because the general rule is this: the more the eye is drawn from point to point—the more eye-tracking there isthe more of our piece is absorbed by the viewer. And that's always a good thing! Often times people don’t know quite what appeals to them about a sculpture or paint job, but more often that not, it’s a subtle manipulation of their eye with sophisticated eye-tracking that entices them. When the eye is engaged in a piece so are the emotions, and that draws a person into a piece in welcome ways.

Looking Good All Over

How ever we apply flow, we shouldn't forget that it applies to all angles. That means we have to consider flow from every view. In other words, flow has to be activated and consistent from every possible angle of our sculpture or paint job, integrated as one cohesive design. So it shouldn't "stop" or "shoot out" simply because we changed our viewing angle—it should flow continuously regardless.

It's a common mistake to forget about this aspect of flow, which is why on some pieces certain angles look more interesting and appealing than other angles. We may not be consciously aware of it, but flow definitely influences how we interpret a piece from any angle.


It’s the eye that perceives visual art and it's the heart that interprets it. Both like to be teased, seduced, played with, and invited to participate. When we offer this then, we have a happy marriage of visual stimulation and emotional response that celebrates the experience, and that not only brings us closer together, but also closer to our beloved subject. This is why art isn't a spectator sport—it's something we participate in with our emotions, senses, expectations, inspirations, dreams, reactions, and sensibilities.

It's through the use of flow that we can amplify this effect, heightening the pleasure of the experience. We also intensify the communication pathway our art offers, giving the experience more meaning, depth, impact, and appeal. Truly, when we inspire the eye to engage our composition, we improve the inspiration generated by it, and that leads to deeper emotions that lend greater substance and meaning. 

And we don't have to be choosy—flow applies to all of our work regardless of media. We can "wake up" any sculpture or paint job with its application, and it's fun to engineer a piece that will thus engage and beguile. That said, however, it's also true that the use of flow is particularly important for sculpture that has to stand on its own, such as bronze work, stone work, or bare ceramic. Here's the thing—truly great sculpture stands on its own merits, unpainted, unglazed, or unpatina-ed; great sculpture is great all by itself. And one of the ways we accomplish this is through the adept application of flow in our composition and design. 

For that, applying the ideas discussed here will go far in adding interest and energy to our work while at the same time keeping the eye engrossed in our efforts. Give it a try—and have fun! It's a new level of design with many curious options so we should approach it with a lively attitude. When we become as absorbed in our piece as we intend another eye to be, we not only learn more about composition and structure, but we reaffirm our dedication to our craft and our beautiful subject. As a result, our inspiration flows through us more freely, and we become more energized in what we're doing. By and by, applying the use of flow becomes second nature as our eye becomes more practiced in its application, and that opens up new possibilities in composition and design, expanding our creative options and goals. All of this culminates together to give us more satisfaction in our studio and opportunities for new ideas to develop, and so creativity flows through us not only with greater ease, but with renewed dedication and gratification—and that's always a good thing! Enjoy!

"Developing a composition is a continuous flow of ideas, where the artist combines, adds, reduces, adapts and discards the various elements in an unending discovery of new possibilities."
~ Alessandra Bitelli

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