Greg Manchess

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.

Notice how Mead Schaeffer uses 2 heads, 1 head, 3 heads, 2 heads to crump multiple heads into a vignette.

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.

A beautiful drawing by Sergio Martinez where repeating folds are varied by width and line weight. Do not assume this is done without thinking about it.
Again, Martinez clumps repeating forms together and apart…the jars, for one part. Classic still life.
Engaging composition by Bernie Fuchs, allows repetitive forms of the fence to repeat but gradually become solid shapes.

So many repeating forms here, but none of them are identical. Even the turned posts are not the same in this piece by Fuchs.
One of mine…notice how the folds repeat but are never the same shape.

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.

 Schaeffer glues the leaves together and decides which will show and which won’t.
Again, he controls the flow of the repetitious flowers to glide into the composition.
NC Wyeth groups the birds in a lovely pattern, overlapping them into clumps. The same with the reeds. 
Walter Everett gathers and designs the leaves to flow through.
Everett does it again by crumping seagulls…

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.

Sergio Martinez controls his values by crumping them together in the composition: table and stairs are the same as the pillar and figures, allowing the main figure to stand out.
Schaeffer holding the picture together by grouping values in sections.
And again…
Magnificent monotone by Martinez. Observe how the values are controlled. Even the face doesn’t have the same value from top to bottom.
And again, spectacular scene by Sergio, where the values are collected in areas to control the light.
Here’s one of my book covers for the Irish Country series by Patrick Taylor.  Notice how the values of the grasses are grouped and clumped across the scene.

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.

Study NC’s sky…notice how the colors vary across the sky patch. Various colors and clumping brushstrokes achieve this.
Here’s an easy one to recognize that flat surfaces can vary by clumping strokes and color you wouldn’t expect, by Schaeffer.
Color crumps and sculpts the background in this piece by NC.
Study the deck in this Rockwell. The color is unevenly bunched and crumped to give an aspect of age, use, and also a great way to break up monotony.
Look at the barrel strokes in this Rockwell, too. Different wood effects are achieved by varying and crumping color.
This wall by Norman feels believable because the colors vary, and not evenly. They crump.

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.

Such a simple composition, but powerful. Martinez accomplished the drama by collecting figures behind the main focus, establishing a fabulous diagonal.

One of many montages I’m working on for a short story series by Michael Swanwick, achieved by crumping different scaled elements together, pushing and pulling to allow for a rhythmic flow. This is necessary for every montage to maintain interest.
Crumping is an idiot-simple concept. 

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.

NC Wyeth designed these birds to float across this composition by overlapping shapes, and gathering those shapes in offset ways. Beautiful.
Robert Cunningham masterfully designs a flock flying through the painting without any overlap, but achieves a sense of timing by having some shapes closer than others. Simple, yet phenomenal.
Martinez yet again draws his lines with repetition and vigor but gives us so very much to be interested in. Even his lines are crumped.

The late Yan Nascimbene shows how falling snow has rhythm as long as it varies in gathered clumps.

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 I can’t recommend these stories enough. Very well told! It begins with The Mongolian Wizard.)