-By Howard Lyon

I love the Baroque. From Rubens and Caravaggio to Bernini and Bach. I love the passion and the movement.  I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was taking with my wife about composition in paintings and explained how the baroque movement took spaces that were normally very solid and stationary and put them on a diagonal, giving them dynamic movement. We went into one room full of great pieces from the era and every single painting in the room had the same basic composition.

I made a simple diagram to show the primary lines of this
composition.  It was basically a strong
diagonal (blue line) going from one corner to the opposite diagonal
corner.  From that, extending out, often
at 90 degrees from that main diagonal, were lines to the other corners (red
lines).  It creates a series of triangles
that don’t ever appear at rest.   It is
used flipped or rotated and sometimes with only one distinct secondary diagonal,
but you will see this used again and again.

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Of course there is a lot going on outside of these lines in
any great work of art, but think of composition lines like coat hangers.  They are the form upon which the painting
hangs.

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In this image, there are two paintings depicting similar scenes.  The one of the left, by Raphael, is from the
Renaissance, and uses a time tested triangle for its composition.  It conveys stability and strength, as well as
some religious symbolism.  The image on
the right, by Rubens, uses two diagonals and a more dynamic composition. 
Notice how the shapes create a triangular frame for the child.  The main diagonal is often reinforced by lines
running parallel to it.  Look at all the
lines made by the legs, the arms and the cloth that all echo the main diagonal.

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This painting, of Mars and Rhea by Rubens, is a great
example.  Look at how obvious the
volumetric light coming in from the upper left is in establishing the secondary
diagonal.  The darker area of Mars’ cloak
against the lighter portion continues the line under the armpit, over the
cupid’s head and down to Rhea’s hand. 
Rhea’s arm, the statue in the upper right, Cupid’s arm and Mars’ leg in
the back all follow the same line, driving in the main diagonal of the
composition.  Around these shapes are
place beautiful curves and accents that play against diagonals.  Great stuff.

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Guido Reni is another of my absolute favorites.  I love this painting of St. Sebastian.  I love the movement of the shapes.  Here, the diagonals are implied, your eye
continues them out to the edges of the painting, following his gaze to the
upper left, and the leg to the lower right. 
Those lines both branch out from the main diagonal.

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Another Guido Reni. 
Powerful!  Here are some more quick examples:

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Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy
Caravaggio, St. Matthew

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Anthony van Dyck varies the composition a little here,
creating less regular triangles, but still using the same basic approach.

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We’ll finish by jumping forward a couple hundred years to a
great romantic baroque piece.  Solomon J.
Solomon’s painting of Samson.  Look how
Solomon has twisted and bent the bodies to fit into his composition.  Delilah on the right is compressed into her
space as she taunts Samson.  Even the
axis of the overturned table in the lower right lines up perfectly with the
main diagonal.  The cowering figure in
the lower left helps to start the diagonal the runs up the spine of the balled
up figure on the left.  There are no
happy accidents here.  All of these
shapes and lines are clearly planned. 

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This is also interesting. 
I dropped in a Fibonacci spiral on top of this painting and I think
Solomon must have paid some heed to the concept of designing around it.  There are many elements that are bent around
the spiral, or echo it.  I love how the characters shape in the bottom left reenforces the spiral shape, as does the rug.  Samson’s tormented face falls right on the primary vertical dividing the painting by the golden ratio.  

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So why did I focus on one composition with all of these
paintings?  Well, for one, it is a great
one.  But also to raise awareness in
general of how simple the underpinnings of a successful painting can be.  There are endless solutions to how you can
compose your work, but you might want to give this particular one a try
sometime and see if you have a little more insight to the great painters that
came before us.  I know it has for me.  I will sometimes take the opportunity to really study an old Master when doing a commission.

I love the beautiful painting by Caravaggio.  I was given a commission that called for a group of figures to be seated at a table and decided to turn in into an unlikely homage.


You can see from the lines I overlaid that I used the same composition as the in the Caravaggio, and the other paintings in this post.  It helped me to gain a little more appreciation and understanding.  If you decide to give it a try, I hope you will let me know.  I would love to see it!