Countering Diagonals, a Composition Workhorse.

Finding your own voice in art is a process not an event. One thing you can do is to pay close attention to your predilections. Most people are actually casual observers and respond to a subject’s content rather than its form As artists we need to be intense observers. When you see a painting you really like, ask yourself why you are drawn to it. Something besides the subject strikes a sympathetic or complementary note in your own personality. Is it the simplicity of its statement, the transitions of value, the use of contrast? It will be one or more of the formal aspects of the painting, not just the content.

During my student days, I found that many of the paintings that drew me into deeper study contained countering diagonals as a compositional element. I mentioned in the last post that one of the early influences on my artistic development was Ted Kautzky. Here is a drawing by him entitled, “Gulls and Shadows”.Ted Kautzky

Kautzky directs my eye around the format through a  series of countering diagonals. From the lower left up through the rocks to the pier, down the pier toward the left side, stopping at the building gently dancing across the masts to the powerful diagonal posts on the left side, down the post to the water and a floating board that returns me to the beginning. Perhaps because I grew up always countering my older brothers, countering diagonal thrusts appealed to my personality. For whatever reason I was drawn to this kind of movement in paintings, and I began employing it in my own work. Artists like John Marin appealed to me because he seemed to understand the countering thrusts of energy that animated nature. 

I explored this dynamic energy in pencil doodles like the ones below.


Each line was a response to the previous line, redirecting the energy like the bumpers in a pinball machine. This little exercise also proved helpful in getting me through boring lectures and speeches.

In this one I responded to energy moving upward in a vertical format. Try this and drawing will take on a new aspect. You will be directing energy in a format instead of merely copying something you see. Learn to feel this dynamic energy. It will also breathe life into your paintings.


As I became more aware of this dynamic force I also discovered how infinite the variations were in its application. So many great artists had utilized it and I had been blind to its power. But like everyone else, I did respond to it.

Here is another painting from Philip Jameson.


See how he stops every diagonal line as it nears the edge of the format, and re-directs it. The result is that our eyes continue cycling around the format on this course of dynamic linear movement.

Here are a couple of mi own uses of this compositional devise.


This one is of Zion Canyon, and although I may have gone too far with the zig-zag of the stream, it nevertheless leads back to where it meets the diagonal thrust of the gap in the canyon walls.


This one, based on the strata and crack patterns in a road cut shows just how dynamic countering diagonals can be in moving the eye around the enclosed space of a format.

Share some of your ideas or favorite examples of this concept of opposing thrusts, and tell us what you have learned about it.


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