The brain wants to organize the chaos of the world. It wants to clean up clutter by reducing things to flat pattern, especially in two dimensional paintings. Repeating pattern can be interesting, and this is fine for certain types of graphics such as wallpaper, floor tile, fabric designs.
But to gain a sense of depth to an image, elements need to be returned to their chaotic state to reflect their source in reality. Randomness needs to be reapplied.
The term ‘crumping’ came from a lecture of mine at the IMC where I inadvertently misspelled the word ‘clump.’ It sounded awkward and funny, but turned out to be an easy way for the attendees to remember this very important aspect when composing.
When we turn difficult learning into fun experiences, we learn to remember much more easily, like learning complicated lists by singing them. Like kids do with the alphabet song.
The idea behind this is to clump forms together to make a pattern that reads rhythmically. Alternate repeating forms so that they push and pull the viewer, driving them in and out to create an easy path for the eye to follow.
When you get to a tough spot while composing figures, landscapes—almost anything repetitive—and you need the composition to get stronger, more interesting, then think of crumping elements together.
1. Break up patterns.
The brain wants to arrange chaos, and it’s easy to allow it to happen when we paint. Look for similar patterns in the elements of a painting and break them up by adjusting the space between them. Some close together, some farther apart. Break it up.
2. Clump them together.
Now pull them back together, clumping them a little here, a lot there, a bit more here. Don’t worry that we can’t see all of each individual form. A few isolated forms will allow the viewer to understand that shape and will be able to easily decipher, yes even be intrigued by, new shapes that grow from repeated ones.
3. Two’s & Three’s.
It’s easy to remember to pull repeating elements apart in two’s and three’s. Three heads closely composed here, another two there, one isolated, two more again, etc. You can go as high as five, but odd numbers of elements tend to work well.
4. Crump repeating forms.
Shirt sleeves. Dress fabric. Hair. Light rays. Tree trunks. Cloud shapes. Rocks. Waves. Dunes. If you are seriously trying to understand painting, tell me you haven’t encountered trying to get these repeating forms to look interesting. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Uh huh. I thought so. It’s exasperating, I know.
Look, push some forms close together while separating others farther apart. Simple.
5. Crump repeating objects.
Birds. Leaves. Fence posts. Bubbles. Mountains. Grass. Flowers.
Flying birds? Pull some together, push others away. Overlapping forms is key (another 10 Things topic to come…). Works the same for each of the items mentioned above.
6. Crump repeating values.
Interesting paintings create depth by varying the values in the elements of the composition. A grey sky does not have the same value all the way through. Or a grey building. The variations can be so subtle they are only ‘felt’ by the viewer and not detected.
Lots of grass in a scene? Vary the values in the greens by crumping values together and apart to vary the passage and gain interest.
7. Crump repeating color.
Sky color does not have to be pre-mixed and applied evenly. This tends to flatten the illusion of depth. Trees tend to repeat the same color across a landscape, and certainly skin repeats similar colors across a bodyscape. The idea is to break up repetition by adding subtle variations in the same color. For example, warm flesh against cool, or warm greens against cool greens.
Mix the color as you go so that the color is ‘broken.’ You can pre-mix colors, sure, but mix piles of the same color in varying temperatures and values. Then, crump strokes of these colors in varying degrees.
8. Deal with space.
Many average painters do not understand how to break up space. They worry that an object needs to be completely seen in order to be understood by the viewer. It usually leads to an uninteresting use of space. Nothing hangs together.
I tripped over this concept initially, too. My early compositions appeared ‘spotty’ and I was told so by seasoned professionals. Art school never talked about this concept in my training because the instructors had no clue about its basics. (They were “rebelling” anyway so they had no use for it.)
Try this: Sprinkle seven elements, perhaps figures, into a new composition. They are static until you allow the forms to bunch up in places, and spread out in others. Crump them.
9. Design across the page.
Composition works from top to bottom, side to side on a page. It also works from front to back, as in foreground, middle ground, and background. Crumping objects from side to side will give you clues about developing depth from the picture foreground to the picture background.
10. Rhythm, through Crumping.
Breaking up the space in a composition creates a rhythm for the eye to follow. This can be made to drive the eye forcefully, or to allow the eye to comfortably travel through the image.
Crumping multiple elements in sporadic clumps allows this to happen easily and swiftly.
Once you try it, you’ll be elated as to the number of different combinations that create not only a rhythm to your compositions, but exquisite depth as well.
(top montage image is another of the Swanwick series available on Tor.com. I can’t recommend these stories enough. Very well told! It begins with The Mongolian Wizard.)