Snow photos – compositional notes

This is not a great photo – I was housebound due to an foot injury because of a fall on icy ground. It was still pretty icy out and the ground uneven, so my photos were taken from an upstairs window through double paned glass.

Since I take photos as reference for paintings or illustrations, I don’t mind so much if the precision and clarity is not there in photos taken with that purpose in mind. The importance for me on this image was the idea of this goofy snowman. He had eyes and mouth that lit up in the dark; he leans precariously like the tower of Pisa and only remains standing because of his two props – the rake and the shovel. He won’t lose his Starbucks gift-card mittens because they are tied together by a red string. For the discussion that ensues, note that, behind the blade of the shovel, there is a small undefined red object.


I have several compositional theories that I adhere to. I didn’t make them up; they are classical theories from different periods that try to grasp with concepts of imagery that draws the eye in an aesthetic way,

This image meets my spatial relationship concept which I have not seen codified elsewhere and so consider my own. It leans on Paul Klee’s theories of Taking a line for a walk, so it’s an outgrowth of that.

Try this for yourself.

1. Take a normal 8.5 x 11 paper and fold it as if you were going to put it in a business envelope so that you create 3 separate and equal areas.
2. Draw three rectangles 2 inches by 3 inches, one on each of the areas you have created by folding.

3. Inside the first rectangle (A) place a quarter inch dot. Just one.

4. Inside the second rectangle (B) place two dots, not too close together

5. Inside the third (C), place three dots, fairly well dispersed.

You will get something like this:


Now look at each one of these separately and think about it with me:

In A:


Your eye has nowhere to go. You tire quickly of concentrating on this one dot. You don’t really see any point in staying to look at this image.

Now in Rectangle B:


Your eye is drawn between the two points as if there was a line between them. You are caught in the picture, but your eyes become bored fairly quickly of traveling back and forth on the same path. It’s an improvement on A, but your eyes can easily get stuck in the back and forth motion and they want to escape to a more natural activity.


Now consider Rectangle C:


Your eyes move more easily around the page. You are engaged in the greater part of the composition. You are not stuck on one point nor shifting back and forth to each of the dots. Your eye feels comfortable because it can travel around to each dot or go back and forth, shift position, or roam within the picture plane.


Now go back to the snowman:


See the red mittens and the hat, how they form this triangular relationship and keep you pleasantly engaged in the image. Put your thumb over the hat and see how the composition would not have worked as well without it. Or over one of the mittens. Same effect.

Note at the bottom that there is a little bit of red something. It doesn’t affect the three strong red areas in the picture, but it does give a little more on the red circuit to be taken in and so the eye is comfortable in exploring these points. The face ornamentation also serves as a quiet transition for these three focal points.

In a secondary way (since the black is receding to the red in importance), there are the rake, the shovel blade and the black pen (or is it a flashlight); or if you are willing, the rake, the shovel blade and the very dark and slender tree trunk on the right hand side. These make up another spatial relationship that carries your eye.

This is only one way of looking at composition. There are plenty of other compositional ideas that have become fashionable rules from time to time. They are all abstract ideas on the aesthetics of two dimensional image making meant to give the viewer an easier time of enjoying the image. Trouble is, when a rule gets established and the establishment insist on it, it’s time to break the rules. But if you don’t know the rules, you don’t break them effectively.

Now, you might say, “My image and what I’m trying to say is more important than anything. I don’t need these rules. I just draw.”

Yeah, right!

If you want to keep your viewers looking at your pictures and coming back to them, you need to understand the underlying abstract concepts of image making. They are tools in your arsenal for making a better picture, for engaging your eyeballing audience. This is only one of them; and you need to have them working for you all at once – form, shape, composition, tonal balance, texture, colour.

If you want to explore my ideas on spatial relationships, stay posted. I’m going to try to expand on this one and explain a few other ones. I ask your indulgence though. I’m surprised at the time it takes to draw the pictures in Paint and then modify them in Adobe, then upload them one by one in WordPress with the text. I don’t always have the time and concentration, so just give me a bit of slack, please, and I will deliver.


4 Responses to “Snow photos – compositional notes”

  1. Marsha J. O'Brien Says:

    Great article! Thanks. Love to take photos. I hope your foot isn’t too bad. Did you sprain an ankle or actually hurt the foot? If it is sprained – PLEASE, take it easy. I taught classes
    on a sprained ankle 30 years ago and today it still swells up sometimes and hurts like the dickens! Take care! Love to you and healing thoughts!

  2. forestrat Says:

    Thanks. I’m looking forward to learning more on this subject. Maybe this is why I prefer my photos when they are fairly complex with perhaps one main subject, but also little points of interest here and there at the sides or in the back lurking in a shadow.

    I hate to admit how much time I spend in front of a computer, but even I can’t stand trying to draw free hand type stuff with a stinking mouse. My M.O. is to draw it out on paper with a pencil and maybe a ruler and then scan it. I had to diagram the flow of one of my programming projects once so I purposely drew it on a napkin and scanned it – everybody got a chuckle and it still got the point across.

  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I too am a little daunted by the amount of time I spend in front of this millennium’s idiot box. Having said that, it’s a wonderful tool for so many things. If the economic structure ever crumbles and we can’t use our computers, we’re going to have an awful adjustment to make.
    I bought one of those stylus things to assist me with my computer drawing, but it didn’t make the difference that I had expected and it just sits there unused. I haven’t tried it enough to give up on it yet though.
    One thing that is marvelous about this blogging business- you don’t have to get lonely, not that I’ve had any problems in that quarter for the last quarter of a century.
    There are so many people to talk to out in cyberspace and I find it rather thrilling to be talking to people in Austin Texas, California, Germany and Austria, England and other parts of the world.
    I was out with some folks yesterday trying to explain a visual concept and resorted to a napkin myself. It’s not for the boardroom, that’s for sure, but any paper that works – back of a cheque, napkin, advertisement, corner of a newspaper – anything goes. I love those cafes that have paper table mats or table cloths that you can draw on.
    Have a great day. I hope your weather is good and by the time you have read this you have had a good forest walk.

  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for your comment and your concern. I’ll beat this one – am going to the gym to get strong!

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