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Category Archives: Composition

Sun and Light

By | Composition, Design | 3 Comments


This is a photo from the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper from this morning. At first I thought it was a painting. The caption was “The sun peeks over the horizon on Wednesday morning at Cutt Mill in Dorset. Showers are forecast later in the day however.”

Since the rising sun can be seen, it’s a good example to use in practising our sun and light perception skills. A rughooking teacher once told me that, when doing a pictorial, you should decide right at the start where the light source is, then take a sharpie and mark its direction with a big arrow on the outer edge of your backing – and then keep checking back to that arrow to keep your highlights and shadows consistent.

But first, it helps to train your eye in seeing the logic of where the highlights and dark shadows would be, based on the light coming from whatever direction it illuminates the scene. So just take a moment or two and look more closely at this photo. You already know where the sun is, so you can figure out what direction your “reminder arrow” would point. If you are unsure, look at the line of sunlight reflected in the water, and where in the field sunlight hits directly and where it is in shadow. Find the shadow created by the old mill building blocking the sunlight.

Then do this little exercise a lot, when looking at a photo or good painting – or, even better, in your own living room, garden or wherever else is right in front of you. Where does light from a window or lamp fall the brightest? And notice which sides of things are in deep shadow.

Draw that “light source arrow” in your head when you are just sitting and looking around. Repeatedly. And then, when you go to plan out a pictorial, you will have a more intuitive “light and shadow muscle” to rely on.

Ok, here’s another photo to practise on, of the sunlight coming in to my porch in late afternoon. Try to determine the correct direction of the light source:


If you practise pinpointing the direction of the light even from one or two clear shadows, soon you will know just where the shadows need to be added in your rug design – if you decide on a consistent source of light. And do this even if the light source (the sun, window, lamp) is not itself included in the design.

Here is a good reminder illustration:

You can find good articles about light and shadow online, from a more elementary one at willkempartschool.com to a bit more advanced piece at design.tutsplus.com.

The Cutts Mill, Dorset photo at top is courtesy of the Daily Telegraph,CREDIT: MARTIN DOLAN/SWNS, and the above illustration is courtesy of the design.tutsplus article mentioned above.

Clouds In The Sky

By | Art, Color, Composition | One Comment

image clouds1

When you are hooking a sky, adding in a cloud formation or two will add depth, movement and interest. I took the photo above yesterday, and thought it would be interesting to run the photo through waterlogue, an app that simplifies both line and shading. Here is how it came out:

image clouds2

It’s not that much different, but it does make me think that three shades – white for the bright highlights and a choice of much paler blues than the surrounding sky (to suggest a cloud’s transparency) or pale gray to add volume – would make a cloud shape better.

Of course, the white is where the light is hitting the cloud most directly, and the shades of color or gray would go opposite the position of the sun, even if the sun is not actually in your design frame.

In the first skies I hooked, I would just add a nice little blob of white in a blue sky:


Well, that’s ok, but clouds can offer more opportunity than that. I think I can do better than that.

Let’s look at another cloud formation – this one a painting by England’s renowned landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837):

image John Constable

A “Cloudscape”, like this Cloud Study by Constable, is a painting or rendition where the clouds are center stage. But any time you hook a sky, you can add mood. Bright sunny day, or storm on the horizon? In our real lives, we look up at the sky countless times to see what the weather is bringing us. That is part of what adding a cloud to your hooked design will add to your work.

There are beautiful rugs of sunsets I’ve seen, and sometimes, like with this Judith Dallegret design hooked by Debby Palmer of Hadley, MA, where the clouds are hooked in a more stylistic than realistic way, as part of the design:

image Deb Palmer Storms at Sea

Deb was the person who told me about the “Cloud Appreciation Society”, (online at https://cloudappreciationsociety.org) where you can look at hundreds of photos of clouds from around the world. Clouds are amazing things to pay attention to, whether in a hooked piece or just up above your head in the sky.

And if you’d like to get a better sense of how to go about drawing a more realistic cloud formation, there are good “how-to” sites online, like this one from naturalist and artist John Muir Laws:

I just heard thunder and looked up – yup, there’s a wall of dark gray clouds headed our way…

The photo of Deb’s rug is hers and hers alone, and used here with her kind permission. And this and other Judith Dallegret’s rug designs can be found online at www.gohookit.com.

My first try at Plein Air Hooking

By | Color, Composition, Contemporary rugmakers, Design | 3 Comments


On April 1st, I told you about the Plein Air Rughooking Artists, and thought their idea – of practicing the study of light, color and nature by hooking on location – was great. So recently I spent a few days hooking at an inn on the Connecticut River, and tried my hand at it. Above, you see my piece, just finished and steamed this morning.

And here is one angle of what I decided to draw – the foreground green grass, the straw-like tan of the two river banks, the river, three of the huge pine trees, with the hills opposite showing through them:


It was one of the freezing cold days we’ve had so many of this spring, so I went out on the inn’s screened porch to work. The idea of making a sketch directly from nature was the hard part, but I decided to trust that if I got a few simple lines of the landscape down on my linen, I could do the rest with my wool.


It was so cold outside, I did not want to spend too long drawing out the scene. And now I think this worked in my favor. I tried hard to get the basic shapes of the landscape, took most of the time getting the shapes of the tree branches right, and because I was cold, I did not get into the fussy attempts to get in every detail that usually makes my drawings go wrong. So here is the sketch I came up with:


Once I got the sketch down, I spent quite a bit of time matching the colors of what I was seeing to the wool I had brought along. And this, for me, was the most interesting part. My brain said tree trunks are brown, but in fact these trunks were mostly shades of gray. And I did use a brighter green for the lawn than I probably would have otherwise. Here’s a photo of the piece of wool I chose for the grass:


I went back inside the house after hooking some of the main lines of the landscape. Maybe that was cheating, but I really wanted to try this plein air hooking despite the cold day. And I am looking forward to trying this “hooking from life” again, on a finer day.

If you’d like to learn more, you can go back to my April 1st post, or just go to the website for the Plein Air Rug Hooking Artists at www.pleinairhooking.com.

A cold winter’s day

By | Color, Composition, History of Art | One Comment

image met museum dutch landscape

We haven’t looked at any interesting paintings for a while, so here is Sports on a Frozen River, painted in oil on wood in about 1660 by Dutch artist Aert van der Neer (1603/4–1677).

First, let’s read the description by the Metropolitan Museum’s curator:

Van der Neer’s special interest in effects of light and atmosphere found an ideal subject in the winter landscape. Here, the brilliant illumination of the sunset is diffused throughout the landscape by its reflection in the ice.

In this painting we can find applied all the rules of composition that make us improve our own sense of design. The feeling of a cold winter day is created (to me) by the dark colors everywhere except in the sky and it’s reflection. There are only three tiny dots of red or orange in the skaters’ clothing – all else, except the color of the sunset, is white, gray, brown, black.

Look at the repetition – in the people skating and talking, in the rooflines of the houses on both sides of the river. There’s repetition in all the upright poles, the patches of white snow, even in the curves in the clouds.

If you were to outline the major angles and lines (what I call “the bones”) of this painting, which would you pick out as dominant? And if you consider the “rule of thirds”, that tic-tac-toe grid, what do you notice?

And think about balance. What I notice is that the closest (largest) people are off to the bottom left, as are the brightest white patches of snow and these nicely balance the drama of the sunset, which to me is the major focal point. Even the angle of the river’s edges lead us toward the windmill and the sunset.

And finally, movement: there is a wonderful sense of movement here, from the skaters in motion to the small flock of birds in the sky. Your eye keeps moving to notice all the details, and yet the entire composition hangs together. And in a different sense of “movement”, you can feel time moving – you know the sun will go down momentarily, and the dusk will quickly turn to night, the skaters will disappear, and the river will be still.

As my grandmother used to say, “The more you look, the more you see…”

This Van der Neer painting is part of The Friedsam Collection, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, which is online at metmuseum.org.

A little exercise in looking…

By | Art, Composition | 6 Comments

image Eric Sloane

This painting is Stone Barn, by the wonderful American painter Eric Sloane (1905-1985). And it will be auctioned off at the American Fine Art Sale by Shannon’s, on Oct. 29, 2015, 6:00 PM in Milford, CT.

Here is a little exercise in looking at a painting that I often do.

Take a few moments to look at the painting as a whole. Then, think about its composition – how all the elements are placed. Why did he put the tree there? Why is the small shed where it is? What else do you start to notice? Where are the darkest areas, where is the strongest color?

Now look for what I think of as “the bones” of the painting. I took a copy of the painting, and just outlined all the strong lines and curves here for you to see:

image Eric Sloane bones

So. Where are the straight lines, where are the curves? How do they meet and interact? Where does your eye move around the painting? Which lines are close to parallel, and which of the strong lines intersect? And finally, what would you say is the main point of focus?

Now go look again at the real painting, and notice how Sloane’s use of color, and dark or light areas augment the scene. And how does your eye move to different areas? If you remember the “Rule of Thirds”, and place those imaginary tic-tac-toe lines over the painting, does that add to what you notice?

Maybe this is all obvious, but it’s what I do when looking at a painting. I’m hoping that I am training my eyes to see not only the painting as a whole, but some of the intricate underlying structure, the composition, that the artist brought to its creation.

And of course, I’m hoping some of this will rub off on me when I am designing my rugs!

The photo of Sloane’s painting is courtesy of Shannon’s Auctions, online at www.shannons.com. And Sloane’s Stone Barn is Lot 80 in the upcoming auction, with an estimated sale price of $12,000-$18,000. It’s a wonderful painting!

The Rule of Thirds

By | Art, Composition | 2 Comments

image bypeople.com

In photography, film, painting and virtually all graphic arts, one of the mainstays of composing a pleasing image is “The Rule Of Thirds”. It stems from a fairly well-established theory of how the eye moves around an image, and how it naturally gravitates in absorbing an image.

The Rule of Thirds basically holds that if you divide your image (canvas, photo shot, etc) into an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid, with two lines evenly spaced across and two lines evenly spaced down, as in the photo above, you then put your major elements of focus on or near the imaginary lines, or even better, at the points where the lines intersect.

So, more simply, the rule of thirds states that the centers of interest for any rectangle lie somewhere along those lines, and particularly at the intersections. Photographers and filmmakers refer to the intersections as “power points” or “sweet spots”.

Here is one example of the rule of thirds at work:

image jeffbrew.com

Look at these very similar photos. On the left, the horizon is in the middle of the frame, and the road and the clump of trees, the main focus, is also in the center. But on the right, a more dramatic composition, the horizon has been moved down to hover around the one-third grid line, the road follows one of the vertical grid lines, and the trees are now centered on one of the “power spots” on the right.

Here’s another example, this time a quite famous painting, Windmill on a Hill with Cattle Drovers, by the English painter, John Constable. Look at how the main focus elements are arranged along the lines of the rule of thirds:

image John Constable

As with most rules of composition, it’s probably better to think of this as a trustworthy guideline. But the next time you are thinking about a rug design, or even when you’re taking photos, experiment with the rule of thirds, and see where it takes you.

Top photo courtesy of bypeople.com, and the two landscape photos are from an article on gestalt principles of photography at jeffbrew.com. And there’s a great article on John Constable, (1776-1837) master painter of landscapes and skies, at www.artble.com.

The balance of a triangle

By | Art, Composition | No Comments

National Gallery of Art

Yesterday’s blog entry (May 28) was about “The Rule of Odds”. A corollary to the rule of odds is that a triangular composition is very elegant and powerful.

Look at the very famous painting, above. It is George Caleb Bingham’s “The Jolly Flatboatmen” (1846). It’s been in the news today because it has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

I’d been thinking about triangle-based compositions, and I can’t think of a better example than this painting. Look, it is a perfect triangle, made up of the back of the boat, the deck, then the assembly of the boatmen, with the dancing figure reaching upwards at the top! On either side, the river’s shorelines balance each other.

A triangle is made up of three points, and is an inherently dynamic yet balanced form. A triangular format creates a sense of stability and strength.

Here’s another very well-known painting with a strong triangular composition. This is by Paul Cezanne, “Still Life with Peppermint Bottle” (1890-1894), also from our own National Gallery of Art:

Paul Cezanne

I’m not saying you should design all your rugs in a triangular arrangement. But the more you start looking for triangle forms, from good photography and classic flower arrangements to, of course, nature itself, the more you will notice them, and why they work well. Just one more little tool in our designer’s mental toolbox.

Photos of both paintings courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., online at www.nga.gov.

And there’s a very good story about The Jolly Flatboatmen and its history, written by Randy Kennedy in the New York Times “Arts” section, here.

The Rule of Odds

By | Composition, Design | No Comments

MJ irises 3

So. Composition is how the elements of a picture are arranged. Not the subject matter, but the arrangement of the things that are shown. The elements in a design may be a little house, a birdie, a few trees and a few flowers. How you arrange them on your canvas (whether it is a rug on linen or oil paint on canvas, or through a camera lens) is what composition addresses.

One rule of composition is “The Rule of Odds”. In design, the “rule of odds” suggests that an odd number of similar things in an image is more interesting than an even number. An odd number of items just looks better, more involving. Thus, if you are drawing in trees, three or five or seven trees is more pleasing to the human eye than two, four or six trees. Same for the birdies – have one, three or five birdies, not two or four.

mj irises 4

Studies have shown that people are actually more at ease and comfort when viewing imagery with an odd number of subjects. Why? Well, everyone has their own explanation, but it has to do with human perception and how our brains process things. If you try counting a bunch of objects, most people count singly or by twos. If you count by threes, you’re odd! (heh heh…).

Some think it’s because a grouping of 3 like items allows a flat image to obtain depth. An even number of subjects produces symmetries in the image, which appear static and less natural in a composition. They get paired off in our brains, so our eyes lose interest. Three, five, or seven of an item is harder to categorize, so has more innate interest.

And the Rule of Odds is not limited to Western art. In Buddhist Zen gardens, rocks are carefully placed, but traditionally always odd in number.

buddhistchannel tv

So when you are looking at your whole design for a rug, or just deciding how many little flowers to put in one corner of it, use the rule of odds to create movement, and to avoid a static composition.

Photos of the irises are my own, and the photo of the Zen garden is courtesy of buddhistchannel.tv.

Working Small, Part 2

By | Composition, Contemporary rugmakers, Design | One Comment

Susan Feller

As a perfect follow-up to our discussion (May 14, below) about the benefits of working in small sizes, take a few moments to consider the Year Study works of Susan Feller, of Augusta, WV.

The photo above shows a few pieces from Susan’s yearlong undertaking, called Color Studies. Susan is a well-known rughooker, designer, teacher, and owner of Ruckman Mill Farm. But she wanted to keep challenging herself. So she set out a self-study program of designing and creating one small 5″ x 5″ piece, every day for an entire year.

It was quite an undertaking, but you can see, looking through her collection of very small pieces, how much she was able to experiment with materials and color, as well as design. What a creative journey this must have been for her! Here is the collection of December 2013 Year Study squares:

Susan Feller Year Study

Susan writes about these December designs, “The techniques explored during December include rughooking, trapunto, embroidery, painting, sculpting, beading (a rughooking term alternating loops with two strips of wool), appliqué. Materials include wool fabric, alpaca and novelty yarns, cotton threads, hand torn fabric, silk and cotton yardage.”

Did she learn more by doing several hundred small projects than she might have in spending the year doing several larger rugs? I would bet that the answer is yes. The number of design challenges and experiments undertaken, because they were each so small in size, must have been a wonderful and unique design exercise. And I mean “exercise” literally – she was really strengthening her design muscles!

I know Susan will be writing about her Year Study experience, but for now, learn and see more about her small-size design study at http://artwools.com/year-study/ or go here to see her month by month gallery of small images.

And her main website is at ruckmanmillfarm.com. Thank you, Susan for your kind permission to show your work here! It is so inspiring! Copyright is held by Susan L. Feller, all rights for reproduction reserved by artist(s). Contact artist for use in any form of media.

Scales of Balance

By | Art, Composition, Design | 4 Comments

Alexander Calder

Let’s talk a little about the structure that makes for a good design, whether it’s an oil painting or a rug design. I’m talking about composition. In Notes of a Painter, Henri Matisse defined it this way: “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.”.

Whether you are aware of it or not, when you look at a new picture (painting, rug, etc.), your eye moves around. Composition, the way the elements of the picture are arranged, guide your attention around the whole thing. Good composition leads you to wander around the whole picture, taking in everything, and then brings you back to the focal point.

Think of composition as the “good bones” of a design. There are a few different elements of good composition, but today, let’s just talk about one of them, balance. Symmetry (both side to side, and above and below the center) creates a feeling of calm. Asymmetry creates tension, but a balance can be asymmetrical and yet very powerful and pleasing. In Alexander Calder’s Mobile, above, he was dealing with the actual physical weight of the metal pieces in his sculpture to create real physical balance.

The “weight” of an element in a picture can created by lines, mass, color, even by lights and darks. The more you control the arrangement, the more creative control you have over the effect that is created.

In this design for a letterhead below, everything is symmetrical and balanced. A lot of rug designs are symmetrical.
Denise Bayers design

But asymmetrical balance is easier to think about if you picture a mobile like Calder’s, or an actual scale:

Jacci Howard Bean design

Here’s an experiment for you. When you look at a picture, find the physical center point. Where do the elements of the design fall in relation to this central point? Are they balanced, both left to right and above and below? Is a strong element in one corner balanced visually by a strong point on the opposite side?

Once you start looking for balance in all the pictures, patterns or designs you see, you’ll get better at creating balance in your own work. It’s like developing an artistic muscle!

Alexander Calder’s Mobile, c. 1932 is in the Tate Museum, London, online at www.tate.org.uk. Letterhead design by Denise Bayers, Letterhead Magazine, and scales illustration is by Jacci Howard Bear, desktoppub.about.com, both used here under Fair Use.