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  • by William Pinney

An Appreciation of Good Composition

Many JAF and the Jonathan Club paintings are displayed in the Jonathan Club. Each of us probably has one or two favorites that we look at frequently. Unlike more modern art forms, paintings are two dimensional, static and silent, so what is it that makes them appealing? Subject, emotional connection, technique, rarity, fame, familiarity and composition, all play a part. This article explores the value of good composition and uses for example, a painting called “The Tenderfoot” and painted by Fletcher C. Ransom at around 1925.

In representational (and frequently in abstract) painting, composition is used to tell a story by guiding the viewer’s eye through the work. This process transmits information, meaning and perhaps a message, so that as the viewer moves away, they have been engaged and enriched by the artist.

Observe the chaotic scene in the Tenderfoot, which must be set in an old hunting lodge. Your eye cannot avoid a first glance at the intense red hue of the subject’s hunting coat. This garment “shouts” skill, experience, respect and leadership. This young lad has none, and the artist tells us so by making it several sizes too large for him. Judging from the shocked look on the faces of the three seated men, we learn that the hush of a poker game has been shattered by the accidental discharge of the gun. All their eyes are locked on the gun’s trigger as you follow their gazes across the table.

However the gaze of the Tenderfoot, the remaining two participants, and the posture of the seated players, all direct our eyes at the shot crater on the wall. In addition, a keen observer might notice that the Tenderfoot’s torso directs us to the stuffed moose head on the wall, representing his ultimate intended goal. Also his gun is actually pointed directly at head of the standing player. We hope desperately that it has no magazine.

Therefore, I cannot resist finishing with a salutary (and perhaps today an ironic) poem from my youth in the UK. We all had to learn it before venturing armed into the fields for what the Brits call shooting.

“Never, never let a gun,

pointed be, at anyone.

All the pheasants ever bred,

Will not make up for one man dead.”

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