Integrative Approach to Composition

An Integrative Approach to Composition

©Rohini Ralby, 2022 

When I look at an artwork, I use all my faculties: senses, intellect, emotions, deeper feeling, and kinesthetic response. As these vehicles take in the work, I see where the work takes me – where I land within it, and within myself. Does it allow me to travel? Can I go deep into the work or am I kicked out of it at some point? Am I not allowed even to enter?

A work of art reveals where the artist was internally while making it, and what the artist wants the viewer to experience. It reveals how willing the artist is to share, and what they had to share – which is inseparable from the depth within the artist where that sharing begins. That interior depth is what distinguishes an artist from someone who just paints, or a true appreciator of art from someone who just looks at its surfaces.

No artist wants to have skillful technique but nothing to say. Neither does any genuine artist want to have something to say but insufficient technique to articulate it. Ideally, we want to respond inwardly, with a nonjudgmental openness, to both the art we encounter and the expressions that arise within us, and to develop the skills to communicate what arises in a way that reaches a corresponding depth in the people who encounter our art. The best path for integrating these two imperatives is through developing a deeper understanding of composition, as a process and a finished product.

I define composition as the arrangement of elements to convey an intended experience. Crucially, each element within a composition has its own composition, which should contribute to the whole.


Technical Proficiency as Building the Instrument

Gaining technical proficiency is learning the language. Having linguistic competence isn’t the same thing as having something to say, but you can’t say anything meaningful without it. An integrated, experiential understanding of composition brings these two aspects together.

I have devised my own, integrated definitions of key terms related to composition in painting. Here is a list, starting with “composition.” Some of the definitions will become clearer in light of what follows this list. These definitions can serve as starting points; artists aiming to develop their own integrative approaches should reflect on how they might define key terms, and what terms they might delete from or add to this list.

Composition: the arrangement of elements to convey an intended experience. Each component within a composition has its own composition, and the elements of a composition conflict or are harmonious, or are harmonious in conflict.

Rhythm: the musical sequencing of elements, stressed and unstressed, in a composition.

Light: how things call forth different kinds or levels of attention and consciousness.

Tone: the spirit/attitude/flavor of the whole composition, and of each part.

Value: the degree of saturation with significance.

Space: how and where an artwork opens up to allow the audience to enter into it and move around within it, on many levels.

Color: the vibration of white that expresses the tone.

Line: a series of marks that expresses form of some kind.

Speed: the pace at which an artwork moves and reveals itself.

Texture: the actual and implied quality of grain in a piece.

Kinesthetics: the bodily feeling/sensing experience an artwork gives rise to; the sensory presence of an artwork; sensation/proprioception/haptics/tactile sense in relation to an artwork.

Stroke: the touch with which a mark or marks are applied; it has weight, intention, and a place of origin within the artist.

Form: the sign of manifestation into our shared experience.

Mark: a point that expresses intention; a series of marks makes a stroke or a line.

Underlying vibration: the subtle sense of feeling at which an artwork resonates.

Plasticity: the tension between what is manifest and what is unmanifest, between two-dimensionality and space; not flat yet not space.

The definitions should make clear how our experience of art, whether we are making it or encountering it, should consciously be at once outward in communication with the artwork and deeply inward. Note how many of the definitions have to do with certain qualities of attention. Value isn’t just about light and dark but about significance in a broader and deeper sense. Light is itself a kind of attention. Rhythm is about a poetry or musicality of stress – again, attention being paid, and directed, by the artwork, and therefore by the artist. Every mark or stroke is about intention, depth of origin, communication.

Of course, none of this works without technique, which is facility in different languages. To take the musical aspect further, each artist’s growth in technical skill is the construction of an instrument, one that is finely tuned and can play many styles of music. Through that instrument or vehicle of technical skill, artists learn to articulate what they want to say. Done right, this allows the seemingly outward acquisition and refinement of technique to be also an interior journey about what it means, on the deepest level, to make a mark.

My artistic background is primarily in dance, with additional training in Chinese calligraphy and martial arts as well as art history. All these disciplines require the same depth, and the same integration, as any other art, and each of them contributed to my understanding of form, movement, rhythm, and space. While learning dance, some of us were clear that we had to be technically proficient so that we could eventually go beyond technique. I learned to be fluent in a number of dance languages, which made me agile and adaptable as a dancer, but those of us who understood integration knew that if we wanted to truly dance, we had to let go. If we were focused on technical proficiency alone, we were not dancing, and we did not call ourselves dancers.

One story I share with students is of the moment when Annelise Mertz, my undergraduate dance professor and a relentless enforcer of technical precision, watched me let go in a pass across the studio floor and said, “It’s great, isn’t it?” She knew she had seen me integrate my technical training with my inner experience. Similarly, my training in Chinese calligraphy taught me how each stroke is always an expression of the calligrapher’s inner state in that moment. It also has meant that I still prefer to work with the painted surface lying horizontal. My years of one-on-one instruction with my Guru, Swami Muktananda, developed in me an inner groundedness that informs and brings together all these seemingly disparate disciplines.


Interior Openness

“Letting go” has to do with a nonjudgmental, inward-turned sense of what arises within us as we view art, and as we make art. In this light, every encounter with art, our own or others’, is an occasion to integrate outer skill development with inner attentiveness.

The classical Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once described a Daoist doctrine of how the universe comes into manifestation:

[T]here was a time before there was a life. Not only was there no life, there was a time before there was a shape. Not only was there no shape, there was a time before there was energy. Mingled together in the amorphous, something altered, and there was the energy; by alteration in the energy there was the shape, by alteration of the shape there was the life. (transl. A. C. Graham)

In terms of art, this model can apply to how we attend to our internal experiences and give them outward form. If we trace our experiences back towards the stillness from which they arose, we arrive at abstract, undifferentiated vibrations of what once, externally, had name, form, and meaning. Remove form, which is the outer manifestation of a vibration, and we still have name and meaning. We can still feel the vibration, know its name, and understand its meaning, but we do not have to give it the form we habitually recognize. This is the freedom art gives us, and in order to explore it we have to ground our technical skill in precisely this kind of inner openness.

Zhuangzi’s quotation conveys in words what I have sought to communicate in my own Foursquare paintings. The principle behind these paintings – and arguably a great deal of painting – is a kind of synesthesia: what is felt as a vibration is given expression in color. The vibrations are of qualities. For each Foursquare, there is what I call a fourchotomy – the two terms of a dichotomy, but each of those terms having a positive expression (in the case of the negative term) or a negative expression (in the case of the positive term). The four qualities in each Foursquare are connected; they share in their vibration. Accordingly, for each of these four-panel compositions I use a limited palette of three colors and white.

That approach is clear in the Foursquare painting below, Brave. The four panels depict the vibrations of the qualities in the fourchotomy – brave, cowardly (brave’s opposite), foolhardy (brave’s negative), and cautious (cowardly’s positive) – in a visual form that communicates the experience. The palette of cadmium medium yellow, Egyptian blue, cobalt green dark, and titanium white allows the viewer to see, and experience on a preverbal level, how seemingly distinct or even opposing vibrations are in truth inextricably linked expressions arising from a common root, such that there is no escaping any one of them apart from owning, mastering, and transcending all of them. This process of being inwardly attentive at a preverbal level and then giving inner experience outward form – however abstract or figurative that form might be – is at the heart of my work.

Brave fourchotomy: brave / cowardly (brave’s opposite) / foolhardy (brave’s negative) / cautious (cowardly’s positive)

This approach also makes a crucial distinction between subject and content. The subject of a painting is really the occasion for the artist to bring forth content from within herself. That content from the artist gives the subject life. In this sense, the subject seems not to matter, though of course it does, as it is a vehicle for the content the artist wants to share. It follows that every painting, whatever else it may be, is also a self-portrait.

So it is vital for an artist’s inner experience to be expressed without being blocked by a fixation on technique. Technique, like the subject, is a vehicle, not an end in itself. Technical skill is simply our fluency in the painterly languages available for expressing whatever arises from what Zhuangzi might describe as the stillness underlying all experience. In creating a painting, or even a practice sketch, we are bodying forth a kind of universe into which we are inviting viewers.

The process is evident even in paintings that, on the surface, appear representational. Constable may seem like a counterexample, but his work exemplifies a movement from inner vibration to brushstroke. That process is implied in his famous insistence that “painting is but another word for feeling.” Constable even wrote that, when he began to paint from nature, he would first “forget that I have ever seen a picture.” That commitment, as well as his unconventional choice of richly textured surfaces, speaks to how he fused technical skill with deeply felt experience: he was fluent, and also knew how to let go.

Constable’s 1822 painting Yarmouth Pier, for instance, illustrates how each stroke, originating in inward attentiveness, conveys both depth and space in a way that goes beyond a solely technical mastery of paint and brush. His use of the color white, for instance, has its own composition, and each stroke of white contributes to the depth, in every sense, of the moment depicted. Removing any one of those marks would destroy the balance, and the drama, of the scene. Many of Constable’s white marks are obvious and make immediate representational sense. But the balance, drama, and depth are also achieved through a distant sail captured in one stroke, and a subtle white touch on the sand in the foreground. That last touch is not “realistic” in the sense most viewers would expect, but without it the composition of white, and of the entire canvas, would not hold together.

John Constable

Source: WikiArt


The work of Constable, or any other painter of landscapes, still lifes, or portraits, reveals how the subject of even a seemingly representational painting isn’t the work’s actual content. Even the routine sketching of an object can and should be a venue for self-discovery and self-communication. After all, the content of a Berthe Morisot rendering of figures in a light-drenched landscape, or even of a radiantly restrained Giorgio Morandi still life, is what those two painters brought to the subject.

Integrative Exercises

This integrative approach to composition is not just something I share through my art. Over the years, I have also developed a number of exercises that create the conditions for students to study composition while linking their inner, felt experience with every stroke of pencil, pen, brush, or palette knife. Composition then becomes something more than mere arrangement; it becomes the means by which students consciously bridge their inner experience and outer expression. Here is a partial list.

  • Students are not to make a mark without grounding their attention in the center of their chests. The point here is to get them out of their heads and turned inward on a different level, making marks that originate from deeper within them than just ideas about the subject, or technique, or painting in general.
  • Set up a still life using random objects placed in perfect compositional harmony as a way to teach composition to a beginning painter. Have the students work on technique as they paint the still life over a relatively long period, and then give them a short window (as little as one class period) to paint the entire still life again. The second painting, because of the speed of execution, and from the prior stretch of study, allows the students to let go and execute without thinking. Design each still life as needed, based on the elements the students need to master – for instance, bowls with water inside, drapery, etc.
  • Assign a limited palette painting using three colors plus white, and have the students paint either landscape or still life. This requires and teaches the mixing of color without a rigid “map,” and allows for creative use of color.
  • Have students switch repeatedly from landscape to still life to abstraction, to teach the principle of name-form-meaning. They should reflect on how the subject is really only a vehicle for the content that makes up the actual meaning of the piece. A written reflection on this exercise might be beneficial.
  • Have the students use actual everyday objects to create sculptures—small studies—in three dimensions as a way to understand composition in two dimensions.
  • Break down for students key elements of composition, and require them to give each element its own composition, with all the elements forming a larger compositional harmony. The point is for students to learn how composition is not ever just the placement of marks on the surface, rather that every element of a work of art—in this case, painting—has to have its own compositional integrity.
  • Have students draw every day from the same subject according to three vibrational principles (based on the three gunas of Indic cosmologies) that function like the primary colors: inertia, activity, calm. As the students progress, have them do a fourth study of the same subject combining all three vibrations. This will allow the students to make decisions about the composition of each vibration within the final piece.
  • Have students undertake two-minute studies to combine physical movement and painting. This encourages them to have a more expansive understanding of movement, rhythm, and space in their paintings.


A Wider Sense

Not only artists should have an integrated experience of composition. Anyone who values art can cultivate within themselves this inner, experiential openness and responsiveness. It is the only real entry into a work of art; any other “way in” never really gets beyond surfaces, be they sensory, intellectual, or emotional. While those surfaces offer their own pleasures, ultimately, art should also go beyond them. Even what may appear on the surface as lacking intellectual or emotional content might, to a truly discerning eye, convey something of that deeper life where meaning and significance exceed what the eye, or the mind, can get hold of. Fluency for an artist ultimately means being able to integrate that life into art. For anyone else, it means being able to recognize when an artist has done just that.