Lines, Shapes, and Composition in Traditional Art
Classical composition is an important application for primary shapes, employed by the Old Masters to influence the aesthetic qualities of an artwork. What is classical composition, and why is it such an important artistic tool?
Classical artists would compose their paintings upon a system of lines that were designed to guide the viewer's eye around the image. These line-based compositions helped to organize elements in a painting -- making the image easier to read. But, as we know, primary lines and shapes also have an aesthetic value, which relates to a composition's second purpose.
Diana and Her Companions (c. 1655), Johannes Vermeer
In the painting above, Vermeer has used a composition based on a curving line -- giving viewers a visual impression of delicate and continuous movement. Each element -- from the central figure's right arm, to the cloth on the ground -- has been deliberately placed and shaped to reinforce this round composition. Take a longer look at this painting and you'll discover many more composition lines echoing this concept.
Such line-based constructions were designed to be implicit -- the artist's hidden secret -- affecting viewers on a subconscious level. Viewers could then explore the painting seemingly at their own will, unaware of the composition's influence. The impressions these implicit pathways projected were capable of telling a visual narrative in themselves.
Now contrast Vermeer's painting with that of Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611-1612) below. Rather than use a system of delicately curving composition lines, Rubens has based his painting on angular lines to communicate the violent topic of the painting. Rubens has skillfully placed the majority of the male figures in the upper triangle, trampling the females in the lower portion of the painting. However the lines alone describe a collision of forces.
Take a moment to appreciate the complexity and details of both the Vermeer and Rubens paintings. The beauty of classical composition is that it enables artists to reduce complex images to more concise visual statements. Now imagine setting this complex arrangement of visual elements in motion, as in a typical video game, and a simple composition becomes even more necessary to deal with the increased visual noise.
The simpler a visual statement, the easier it is for audiences to engage with your artistic message.
Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611-1612), Peter Paul Rubens
The type of composition an artist designs -- whether it's delicate or angular, for example -- should reinforce the emotional message of the artwork. Imagine substituting the compositional lines of one painting for the other, applying Vermeer's curved lines to Massacre of the Innocents, and vice versa. What we'd find is that each artists emotional intent would be significantly weakened, with Massacre of the Innocents becoming more elegant, despite its brutal theme.
The Baptism of Christ (c. 1448-1450), Piero della Francesca
The composition of The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492) aligns itself with the straight upright and horizontal lines of the square -- which is located in the middle of the shape spectrum of emotions. Although there are some curved lines within the image, it is dominated by the verticality of Christ, and echoed in the tree, secondary figures, and the horizontal lines of the white dove. This vertical motif is largely responsible for the impression of stillness that we feel when looking at the painting.
A useful analogy to understand the effects of composition is to liken the technique to intonation in speech. Irrespective of the words in a speech, the rhythm and tone of delivery can completely alter the emotional message of what somebody is saying.
Black and Violet (1923), Wassily Kandinsky
With the invention of the photographic camera in more recent times, the emphasis on line-based compositions shifted, as artists became influenced by the way in which the camera registered reality -- in terms of light and shadow shapes. Wassily Kandinsky (1866), who was very much a Modern Artist, did away with representational art altogether and yet his classical training meant he also appreciated the importance of composition:
"The content of a work of art finds its expression in the composition [...] in the sum of the tensions inwardly organized for the work."
- Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane (1926)
Throughout art history, basic shapes and composition have been a primary artistic tool used to organize a work of art, and shape the aesthetic qualities of images. We should therefore find a way to apply this technique to video games. We have a conceptual problem, however, in translating classical composition to video games: the player.
The above paintings represent a static medium. Although society and cultural tastes change over time, the artwork and the experience of looking at a painting remains relatively unchanged. Not so with video games. There is no one single point of view in video games, because the medium's interactivity allows players to move within virtual environments at will. So how do we go about translating classical techniques from a static medium to the dynamic worlds of video games? The answer, as hoped, is very simple.
Finding a solution for translating classical composition to video games is made simple if we consider the basic components of the technique. Composition is nothing more than the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole. As you will recall from the previous section, the basic elements of classical composition are little more than lines and shapes. If we can identify where these elements are to be found pervasively in video games -- so that the player is always aware of them irrespective of where they are within the virtual world -- we can begin to define dynamic composition, as is applicable to video games.
The answer is revealed if we conceptually take the lines and shapes found in a classical painting, lay the composition down flat on the ground, and treat the image like a top-down map. The lines that we would implicitly trace with our eyes when looking at a classical painting, now become pathways along which we can travel through a three-dimensional environment.
Logo, multiplayer map, and in-game screenshot from the Gears of War franchise, by Epic Games.
The meticulous design that has gone into the Gears of War franchise is an excellent example of translating classical design concepts to interactive experiences. In the top-left we have the Gears of War logo that, just like every good logo should, embodies the experience of the game in one poignant visual statement. The artists at Epic have then projected the skull motif onto their level designs (notice the abstract eye sockets, nose, and mouth of the multiplayer map).
Conceptually this multiplayer map is very close to a painting, in that our eyes can trace implicit lines around the level's corridors without the ability to physically interact with the artwork. However video games go one step further, in that the projection of the skull motif also represents a three-dimensional environment -- visual lines on the multiplayer map, become pathways in a 3D virtual environment.
Pathways within an environment are only one part of dynamic composition. To fully understand dynamic composition, we must take into account the five elements in the illustration above, and their relationships to each other:
- Character shape
- Character animations
- Environment shape
- Player gestures
Player gestures are not so much a part of dynamic composition, which relates to on-screen images. However, video gaming's interactivity means that a player's actions are closely bound to the visual experience, and must also be considered in this context.
Over the course of the next five sections we will examine each aspect of dynamic composition, with the help of our primary shapes: the circle, square, and triangle. We will additionally examine the player's role in a video game artwork, before applying the combined knowledge to game design. We will begin with character shape, and simultaneously explore the narrative possibilities of dynamic character shapes.