Elements of Composition: Movement

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Leading the Viewer's Eye on a Journey

Elements of Composition in a painting by Vincent van Gogh

Movement in art can relate to several different concepts:
(A) There is the general term 'movement' as in style and school of art.
(B) There is movement as depicted in a painting which implies the physical motion of an object by superimposing snapshots in time. (As used in the particular style of the Futurists and Vorticists for instance. An example being Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, now in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York).
(C)Then there is movement as a part of the composition.

Movement is the creation of a sense of an ebb and flow through a painting which turns it from passive wallpaper to a dynamic extension of the viewer’s psyche, the creation of a inter-reaction that takes the viewer on a path of discovery. Movement in this case is the opposite of static, bland, unemotional, and uninspiring. This is what we're interested in when we're talking about movement as an element of composition in art.

When creating movement in a painting, think about the choreography of the process, what you are revealing to the audience, what is being left to the imagination. A painting should be a question, not an answer. Calling to the audience's imagination allows different viewers to interact in different ways, which is why it’s recommended you always leave something unsaid in a painting, to give the audience the chance of a unique interaction.

The painting should reveal itself slowly to the audience, it should offer nooks and crannies that lead off the main path. In other words, the painting should be a journey not the destination. A painting which offers only a static viewpoint is no better than a holiday snap (it would provide the photographer with a key to their memories, but merely be an arbitrary image to anyone not emotionally involved). The artist should encourage the viewer to interact with the subject, to learn and grow. The painting can be a simple anecdote, or an heroic tale, but it should speak to the viewer with the joy of a story being unraveled.

The artist is a conductor, bringing the viewer’s eye through the painting using a myriad of techniques which give the painting a feel of motion, either through space, or time, or even emotion. Movement can be given in a painting through a strong fundamental image, say the flowing of a river; by the light of a gentle evening sun, which implies the passing of a day; or through the emotion of a portrait embellished by surrounding iconic symbolism, that shows how the figure arrived at that feeling. Movement can also be achieved through the effect of growth or decay. A vibrancy that infuses the subject, and says to the viewer, this is life, this is motion.

So what can you do? The first point is to think in terms of the overall composition, where would you like the viewer's eye to start (remember that in the West, the viewer usually starts at the upper left corner of a painting, since we are taught from an early age to read in that manner). Left to right, top to bottom is the norm, but a strong composition can pull the audience's eye against such conditioning.

Movement can be indicated by the flow of objects in the painting, their arrangement and pattern; through the use of perspective. Movement can be implied by the direction that figures face -- a passive painting would have a synergistic grouped direction, whereas randomness in the direction of figures will give a wildness, and energetic vitality to a painting.

Next the artist can consider the use of color (including such optical effects as blue moving away from the eye, and red approaching it); brush stroke (mark making can add to the flow of the painting through their direction, as well as giving a velocity to the movement through variation in the size of brush stroke); the pattern of light and shade; and tone (which is important to peripheral vision, and therefore can draw the eye away from a central subject). Consider reinforcing the main directions of movement by echoing (for example, making the clouds in the sky flow in the same way as the waves on the sea) and cycling (bringing the eye back to the starting point, so the journey can begin anew).

Looking at the painting by Vincent van Gogh above, the most overt sense of movement is in the waves, the row upon row of breakers (marked as #1). Then there’s the bank of clouds (#2), which seems to be blowing towards the right, created through both the shape of the clouds and the direction of the brushmarks. The shape of the clouds echoes the form of the wave. In the foreground the clouds have cast a shadow (#3), giving a sense of changing light in the scene. The postures, positions, and relative sizes of the various figures (#4) gives a sense of some being further away from us, walking towards the boat. Look at how the figure on the right (#5) seems to be bent over, striding into the wind!

All the little things add up, working with one another to create the overall atmosphere and sense of things happening and moving. Look at how the red flag at the top of the mast is flapping in the wind (#6). Its color is repeated in a few other places in the painting (starting with the shirt the figure in the boat is wearing), working at that other element of composition, unity. The color red also surges forwards out of the painting against the dull blue sky, it tells us that the boat is the center of attention and that the figures on the beach are playing their part in its launch. Pause for a minute to think about how much information you read into that small flick of paint: wind direction, wind strength, that it is windy (or the flag would be limp).

Always remember movement in composition is an expression of the journey that the audience undertakes with you, the artist, as guide. Even the smallest component can give a painting movement.

• If you enjoyed reading this, you might like: The 8 Elements of Composition