St. Thomas Aquinas identified three necessary conditions for objective beauty to be present in something. These conditions are: “integritas, claritas, and consonantia.” For our purposes, namely fine art, they translate Integrity, Clarity, and Composition. Others have used “harmony” and “due proportion” in translating consonantia. “Composition,” standard in fine arts, encompasses their meaning. “Good” is obviously implied by Aquinas here, but the question of good composition is practically as big as the question of beauty itself. This is where my personal story comes in and why my interest in these three conditions is great. I had read about them once upon a time, but not finding any substantive elaboration, had honestly forgotten them. It was a conversation with a priest-friend that rekindled my curiosity. I had just spent four years developing, teaching, and practicing a method of comprehensively dissecting composition. This, following a period of 18 years of professional art practice, the last half of which were primarily focussed on composition. Taking a second look at the Three Conditions, I immediately realized that Aquinas’ “consonantia" was my “composition.” I was hooked. While Aquinas, himself, did not expound on his conditions, they nonetheless provide a vital structure for aesthetics.
Aquinas further believed that beauty is both objective and subjective. Objective beauty exists outside of the mind; it has sensory perceptible form. Subjective beauty, or taste, on the other hand, is “in the eye of the beholder.” Our experience, perception, and the development of our senses are influenced by countless factors. Aquinas’ conditions, which categorize actual physical characteristics, are built into the nature of human experience in the created world. It is inconceivable for people who function in the world to completely avoid using these three conditions as criteria for judgment, unless their senses be dead. The conditions are learned subconsciously, from the moment we open our eyes… and even before. It is, however, possible for a person’s taste and appreciation to be underdeveloped. Children often do not like certain fine foods or have an ear for classical or jazz music; yet these acquired tastes are appreciated by connoisseurs. Senses can also be more dominant in some individuals. One might have an “ear for music” or “an eye for design.” While some senses can be more naturally attuned, their full development requires specialized effort and education. Aquinas also describes another critical factor: humility. Simply, a person must be detached enough from their own agenda and vanity to be capable of appreciating the world with a sense of gratitude and wonder. Prompting contemplation, these lead to what Aquinas calls dilatatio, the dilation of the mind. It is with this opening of the mind that one can not only see, but participate in the fullness of life itself, the fullness of truth, beauty, and goodness.
This essay approaches the Three Conditions primarily from a visual arts perspective. Additional examples are included for the sake of enriching understanding and aiding extrapolation. While the Conditions can be applied in any field, it is important to maintain recognition that they are attached to physical creation. They are sensory-perceptible. A goal of this essay is to present substantive content that is immediately applicable for the artist, designer, collector, and connoisseur. It leans more to art education than philosophy.
That said, beauty is so simultaneously rich and fundamental that these concepts can, by analogy, be applied to everything; and fully understanding them requires some sense of their larger reality. Tying into the broader conversation of theology and philosophy, briefly consider the intersection where the physical, mental, and spiritual connect. Writing about beauty and the three “transcendentals”, beauty, truth, and goodness, Hans Urs von Balthasar emphasizes the importance of their distinction (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics)(read excerpt). When we refer to the “beauty” of something intangible, the human spirit for example, we speak figuratively, often meaning one of the other transcendentals - truth or goodness. They are fundamentally linked, but it is crucial to comprehend their difference and equality. Balthasar, referring to them as “three sisters” goes so far as to warn us that the disregard of beauty will lead to the loss of all three. Together the transcendentals make up the revelation of God to man. He’s revealed to each person as beauty - through the senses and creation; as truth - in the mind or intellect; and as goodness - in the spirit and through virtue. They are ultimately united as one in the beatific vision, God Himself. To summarize this from a human perspective, all value is encompassed in and perceived as beauty, truth, or goodness. There is no other value outside of these. Value that is sensory perceptible = beauty, mentally discernible = truth, and spiritually perceivable = goodness. As humans we can only understand and experience beauty in creation, the medium in which we exist. Creation, experienced through the senses, is thus the arena for this analysis.
Juxtaposing Aquinas’ Three Conditions alongside the three transcendentals reveals interesting correlations, and there are other "trinities" that compare. While not meant to draw definitive conclusions or constrain components, these comparisons highlight rich relationships not otherwise conspicuous. They also provide an overall snapshot of the subject at hand. Here I mention two as a starting point. First, the transcendentals (beauty, truth, goodness) correspond well to the human person trinity (body,mind, spirit); for it is with the bodily senses that we perceive beauty, the mind that we apprehend truth, and the spirit that we grasp goodness. Second, the human trinity (body, mind, spirit) can be compared with the Three Conditions of beauty (integrity, clarity, composition). Integrity is the “body” of a creative work, referring to physical materials and their application. Clarity is the “mind”, communicating identity and idea. Finally Composition is the "spirit” of the work, dealing with formal relationships, order, harmony, and balance.
Another way to grasp Aquinas’ Conditions is as three lenses for viewing all that we see. The visual world is formally composed of the Five Static Visual Factors from which everything seen derives (color, shape, size, location, edge condition).** These Five Factors are the “alphabet” which combine to make a complete image vocabulary. Context attributes meaning to this vocabulary, allowing us to understand this language of color and shape. This basically sums up our visual experience. Now, about the three “lenses” - Integrity deals with actual substance, material and it's construction (the physical door itself, i.e., the swinging, hard, thing.) Clarity looks at the idea and meaning of the visual stimulus (“I see a painted, wood door.”) Lastly, composition deals exclusively with formal vocabulary (the door is not identified as a door, but as a “colored rectangular shape," for example).
This essay assumes the purpose of art, and vocation of artists, as Pope St. John Paul II stated, to be beauty. It is not my intent to make a case for beauty. That case has already been made by great minds throughout the ages. My hope is to develop the understanding and “language” of beauty, as it is more complex and more concrete than often credited. Fine art is an ideal field in which to do this as it exists solely* and entirely for beauty’s sake. This fact allows us to classify every aspect of an artwork using the three conditions of Aquinas, which also demonstrates the comprehensiveness of his trinity. All three conditions of beauty present themselves in obvious ways as well as subtle nuances. Nuances are often registered subconsciously. Humans have an amazing capacity to catalog millions of pieces of sensory data without thinking about them. There is a great difference between one’s conscious awareness and knowledge versus what one actually takes in through senses (much more). This is precisely why, when we are confronted by objective beauty, we can be inexplicably moved, often to tears. The combined effect of realizing all the Conditions expressed is powerful. It resonates with our being. For artists, creators, and makers, the Conditions are an invaluable guide to approaching your best work.
“Beauty will save the world.” -Dostoevsky
Again, it’s imperative to view objective beauty from a purely objective and concrete standpoint. Anything else is self-contradiction. Aquinas only gives three conditions. I bring no additional and, in the spirit of Aquinas and the golden mean, avoid polarized debate. The terms “tradition, classical, modern, contemporary, continuity, historical, style, period, era, genre, etc” do not apply here. They are relative, subjective, or loaded. We start fresh with Aquinas and with what we can objectively observe and experience in the world and in fine art practice. The sole agenda is beauty. It’s important to recognize that “she” is complete. There is no sensory-perceptible value outside of her. This is a comprehensive system. Whatever other terms or concepts one might associate with beauty, if objectively valid, will flow organically from Aquinas’ conditions.
* Beauty, as the Three Conditions describes, encompasses much more than generally realized. Aquinas presents both a high bar and a vast field. All this considered, art that appears too far removed from the Three Conditions to comprehend is most likely not made for the purpose of beauty. It’s not my aim to question legitimacy, but to equip those who wish to grow in their own ability to see, judge, and appreciate objective beauty.
** The Five Factors are the starting point for my instruction on composition. As “static” factors, they do not include movement/speed/time/direction, etc.
Integrity (the “body” of an artwork), is the quality, soundness, and wholeness of an object’s component physical materials, the methods of their combination, and their condition. Some adjectives that describe material integrity are: sound, stable, pure, whole, complete, solid, incorrupt, healthy, vital, virile, robust, etc. Common questions that reveal a search for integrity are: “What’s it made of? Is it done? How is it constructed? What’s the process? Is it hand-made? Is it durable/archival/museum-quality?” Fine, quality materials, used appropriately, have a beauty in themselves. It comes from integrity and clarity. It is why they are desired by artists and craftsmen. It is why they are considered “fine” or “precious.” Yet materials that aren’t considered fine may also have integrity. (Some examples might be concrete, cob, aluminum, steel, glass, ceramic, etc.) Materials that are sound, suitably strong, and have qualities which make them good to work with, have integrity. Materials lacking integrity are those which have a cheap, vulnerable, or flimsy nature. Materials made to look like other materials nearly always fall into this category. (Some examples might be formica, laminate flooring, sheetrock, particle board, vinyl siding, plastic composites, foam and pvc architectural details, acrylic, cast resin, etc. There will be disagreement and individual bias, especially with man-made materials.) “Real” and “authentic” things are typically and historically preferred to replicas and reproductions. A continuum exists with integrity, and with all three conditions. It’s possible to have some amount of a particular condition or to have a certain condition but lack the others. Some people are more attuned to particular, favorite, conditions. One person may be all about materials (integrity), while another seeks good composition. It’s valuable to recognize the importance of all three, discounting none, even if one has favorites.
In addition to physical qualities, integrity also reflects how materials are used, constructed, and combined. This includes, but does not demand, painstaking, expert workmanship, and refined application. While these are often highly praised, it can also be the simple case that materials are well-suited and used in sound and appropriate manner. Stone, wax, clay, ceramic, masonry, or paint, for example, may be worked in a primitive manner which nevertheless highlights material qualities and reflects sound construction. Integrity argues not for a certain style but for an approach that compliments the qualities of good materials. That said, loose and spontaneous work which appears effortless is often only achieved by artists who’ve mastered their medium. Integrity, which is subject to nuance, can be elusive, especially in technique. It’s helpful to distinguish between fine technique and gimmicky, nit-picky, "stylee", or "techniquee" processes. Technique should suite the artist and develop organically, while serving clarity and composition in the artwork. Technique should be subordinate, not precious. This is not because it is unimportant. This is how one discovers their best technique.
Integrity can be temporary. Good art materials are archival for this reason. The value of art and antiques reflects their condition. Deterioration of materials is a loss of integrity. For the creator, every aspect and detail of materials, process, and presentation is significant. If you don’t love your materials and methods - the look, feel, texture, finish, workability, etc…if you envision a more ideal process, but compromise for some reason… these issues should be reconciled in pursuit of your best work. Composition or clarity may be your primary concentration, for example, but don’t ignore integrity and all it encompasses. Sometimes a material change or experiment can lead to significant breakthroughs all around. The three conditions should be developed together over time. Integrity implies that the methods and process organically produce the visual results. The Handmade and Artisan movements are a direct response to this reality and perhaps to a state of over-industrialization, where losses in integrity and beauty outweigh, in certain fields, the gains of mass-production.
Clarity (the “mind” of the artwork) refers to visual content and its delivery - how well the identity/idea/purpose/message of a work is communicated. It answers the questions - “What is it? What is it about? What’s the point? What’s the subject? Does it make sense? Is it saying something or just making noise? Is it clear?” You’ve probably heard people ask these questions at a gallery or museum. They reveal a search for clarity. Clarity also deals with self-revelation and special attributes of materials of process, material, and the na and their Clarity is both a measure of the worthiness of content and of how clearly it is communicated. Clarity has no preference for style or genre. It is possible for an abstract composition made of shapes, color, and pattern, for example, to have as much clarity as a classical realist painting. The content and idea are simply different.
Even dust and dirt conceal the material qualities and therefore lower clarity. Food is a very sensitive, example - temperature, freshness, and moisture levels are conditions which affect clarity and drastically influence the food’s appeal. You may wonder if this is a stretch. Do these temporary conditions really have anything to do with the concept of integrity? Consider: if you order a meal at a fine restaurant, your assumption is that it will be served hot, moist, and cooked correctly. These conditions are unstated but implied…even guaranteed. For your food to knowingly be served cold, dry, or overcooked would seem shockingly inappropriate and disingenuous - the opposite of integrity.
Walking into a building, an architect immediately sees visual clues and details which reveal materials and construction. We’re not all architects, but every person comes into contact with walls, doors, paint, wood, etc. Through experience a person subconsciously learns the differences between wood, stone, concrete, sheetrock, metal, laminate, etc. and recognizes clues which distinguish them even from a distance. Although it is impossible for us to articulate the dozens of clues hitting us at every glance, we respond to our greater awareness. A steel door in the sun may be very hot. A damp marble floor is probably slippery. Considering that our sensibilities far surpass conscious recognition, one can ponder a multitude of examples of how materials and their application affect something's beauty. This is all the arena of clarity.
The previous examples also show how experience and expectation influence perception, and thus subjectivity enters. Another case: Americans often think ice-less European beverages are anything but beautiful, while Europeans may prefer them. Same beverage, different expectation, different ideal. Ideals are the preconception of the beautiful, the imagined perfect state of something. They can vary across culture and according to a person’s accustomed taste, but are also often widely shared, as all three objective Conditions play into their formation. While temperature may be an arguable point in the integrity of a beverage; cleanliness, for example, is not. Similarly, it would be difficult to find a person who prefers mealy apples to crisp. Because of the limitless number and combination of aesthetic qualities in things, and the relativity of a person’s taste and perception, it is impossible to perfectly pinpoint ideals that would suite every individual. Despite this possible uncertainty at the individual level, the Three Conditions present an indispensable, proven guide to excellence and beauty in every area of culture and endeavor.
In some artwork, the subject content is rather standard and accepted, so we take it for granted. In traditional painting, categorizations of still life, landscape, interior, portraiture are examples. This gives an immediate level of clarity, as the established general themes lend a familiar reference point. From general category down to minute details, all elements should contribute towards a clear idea. Painting a portrait, for example, the first task is indicating the painting is about a person. Scale has a lot to do with this. Edgar Payne writes that it is important not to divide a picture equally into halves or thirds, as this makes the subject of the picture uncertain. In landscape work, the subject often makes up the majority of the image. In portraiture, the artist takes an intent look at a particular person. How close would one be when getting to know someone better? The best rule for size or distance is what makes sense. The next step would be capturing a likeness, expression, and person’s character. Highlighting a specific character trait(s) gives a mood - a primary direction for nuances of expression and body language. Finally, subtle details - in hair, clothes, their condition, cleanliness, complexion, skin tone, etc - add clues as to occupation, age, lifestyle, financial status, mental/emotional state, etc. Any number can be added. These don’t have to be spelled out, just consistent with the identity being portrayed and the theme. As the artist progresses through visually developing the work, content goals should already be fairly solid. An artist must simultaneously deal with issues of integrity and composition, so content questions should not preoccupy.
As well as intended idea, clarity requires successful delivery of a message. Proficiency and mastery of fundamental skills do matter. To be clear, they are not, themselves, clarity. They simply enable the artist to communicate. Over-emphasizing technique, however, buries clarity. Artwork should not exist to display skills, as writing should not exist to display vocabulary. Again, no stylistic preferences are inferred. A loose, impressionistic work may communicate a message better than a smooth, realistic one or vice versa. Knowing how to visually communicate is deeper than technique and style. It’s about recognizing what’s appropriate and understanding how to use the critical visual factors at play. In art, "stylistic" characteristics of materials/mediums/processes (integrity arena) must be distinguished from those intended to represent and communicate content (clarity arena), just as in speech, accent and voice type are distinguished from pronunciation and meaningful inflection.
While representational artwork employs the formal vocabulary to suggest ideas and content, non-representational, abstract, art deals directly with formal aspects. Shape, size, color, pattern, etc - these are the content. In abstract art, formal aspects become the subject of the painting. If this is understood by the viewer, clarity can be present. Recall formal relationships are the arena of composition, which, itself, is a significant field of study. Formal relationships are worthy subject matter. They are, however, not familiar to everyone; as composition, generally subconsciously perceived, requires education for thorough understanding. You’ve likely heard people say, “I just don’t get art.” and, “I can’t explain it, but I know what I like.” Indeed, appreciating composition is separate from apprehending it’s language. There is much variety in abstract art. Some isolates particular formal aspects or relationships (color field, Rothko), while some allegedly suggests emotional or conceptual content. Because these inferences are secondary, not objectively visual, they’re not included in clarity. An artist wanting to communicate anger, for example, might paint a “vigorous, bold, dynamic, high contrast" image. These terms can be visually translated. "Anger," however, isn’t directly implied and could only be a secondary inference. Abstract art is analogous to instrumental music. The crux for the abstract artist is composing well enough to have worthwhile formal content. Abstract work that lacks in composition is empty, as instrumental music lacking composition is a mere grouping of notes. As the category of "abstract" has become as standard as "landscape" and "figure", composition needs to be a major focus of art education.
For a different perspective on clarity, we consider the discipline of writing. Progressing from broad to specific, we might first look at general types (poetry, short story, essay, novel, etc). Choosing essay, we might think of a subject, then a specific topic, and finally a thesis. The content details we generate next help support and enrich the topic and thesis. Saying too much, getting off topic, and adding unrelated information detracts from clarity. It communicates poorly. The goal is to be decisive, clear, and eloquent. Remember the KISS principle of design (keep it simple, stupid). Clarity applies equally to simple and complex themes. It’s scalable. A short poem about the rain can exhibit clarity as well as an epic novel of adventure, war, and love. A well chosen phrase can say more than volumes. The same is true in painting.
However, while clarity likes simplicity, it eludes the simplistic. The dangers of being vague or trying to say too much are opposed by another: overstating - contriving - trying too hard to make a statement, connect with a certain audience, be stylistic, etc. This can prevent an artist from seeing the formal visual aspects of beauty altogether. The surest way to fail in clarity is to preach an agenda. Beauty can’t be force-fed.
Visual/verbal brain mode paradigm - It’s not necessary to explain in words the purpose and message of a visual artwork… at least not before the work is done. Say what!? For the artist even thinking about the message of the work can be dangerous. Sound crazy? - “Achieve clarity by delivering a clear, simple, well-understood message. Do it without thinking.”
To explain - After receiving an inspiration (visual) an artist can fall prey to verbally defining, ultimately limiting, its subject and message. A visual artist’s medium is visual! Putting words around a vision truncates and minimizes. Consider that artists don’t paint emotions, ideas, or even things. They paint only colors and shapes which suggest. An artist must distinguish between the subject of a work (the vision) and non-visual thoughts about content. Understanding first and foremost how to see abstract beauty in relationships of color and shape, and employing this formal vocabulary, an artist works from the visual mind, setting aside ideas about communicating meaning and representation. Later, when these surface - after being subjected to the visual inspiration - they’re often more rich, with unexpected intrigue and nuance. Truly, the subconscious, the heart, and the spirit…are tapped via the aesthetics! This points to the mysterious, subtle nature and power of beauty - and the artist as conduit, receiver, and translator of inspiration. The greater power and depth in art is short-circuited when the artist attempts to drive message. A picture can say a thousand words… unless reduced to a generic tagline.
So when you’re viewing artwork that feels preachy, trite, generic, simplistic, saccharine, sentimental, politically correct, overly confrontational, sterile, or over-stylized (regardless of whether you agree with the political or sentimental slant), you are seeing a failure in clarity. Why, if the message seams all too clear? It’s a facade, like a person wearing a front, carrying a sign for a polarized party, or afraid of exposing the soul. Clarity demands true self-revelation, not slogan.
The whole truth - artists can and must think about subject, content, purpose, meaning, and message to a great extent… just not while creating! They must already deeply know themselves and their subjects. They must fully grasp the larger message they hope to communicate - a message which lies beyond their thoughts and words - a message they can only envision.
Artists must work directly from the visual mind. This happens as a result of observation, presence, awareness, and emptying oneself of bias and agenda. It requires prioritizing aesthetics and trusting visual inclinations. Clarity works on many levels from greater concept to slight nuance. A musician’s ear hears when the mood and spirit of a piece sync with intonation, tempo, and dynamics. To see inspiration and purpose carried through in slight detail, the artist must first be moved. Why paint a landscape? Because the light, atmosphere, mood and life of a place speak. Why paint an abstract? Because relationships of color and shape bear a vision of possibilities which captures. Why paint a figure? Because in it is seen a landscape of humanity, emotion, passion, senses, textures, faith, and commitment. Through the medium of vision the artist is moved by beauty. Through the same it must be conveyed.
When visual characteristics are artificially forced, contrived, or manufactured (as opposed to organically arising) clarity is lost. In this way replicas, copies, imitations, and reproductions clearly lack. Forgeries are yet another case. While the materials, content, and even methods are the very same as in the original, and have genuinely produced the results, the simple fact that inspiration has been detached from material application is a loss of clarity! While this is perhaps peculiar to fine art and a few other arenas, where “creating” is assumed versus “making”, it is why hand made items, with unique character and “imperfection”, are valued over mass-produced goods. It is also why “originality of design” is significant. The idea of inspiration being directly connected to processes and material application may seem to stretch the scope of clarity beyond tangible, observable qualities. I mean, “Can we really see a difference, or is it just the idea that makes it special?” Artists and critics will attest, however, to the visible character achieved in the union of inspiration and creative effort. It is often referred to as “spontaneous, lively, fresh, confident, dynamic, alive”, and a list of other descriptives. There is a reality to the presence of an immediate product of this marriage. It’s clarity. While this particular distinction of clarity may be the most subtle, the most elusive, it touches the very essence of creating.
Composition (the “spirit” of an artwork) encompasses the relationships of formal visual elements in a picture. As mentioned, these formal elements are products of the Five Visual Factors - shape, size, color, location, and edge condition. Composition concerns the hierarchy and order of the picture, the relative visual strength of elements. It demands organization and balance. In composing, an artist decides the visual subject, where the focus should be, secondary points of interest, and so on. He/she chooses the visual factors which will be the parameters or “vocabulary” for creating contrast and dominance. Various schemes are harmonized. They can be few or many - think of the members of a string trio versus the sections of an orchestra. The language of composition can and should be thought of as strictly formal (even measurable, if one had the right instruments).* Because there is such variety in visual elements and seemingly endless ways to arrange them (position) and then order them (dominance), the question is, “What makes good composition?”
To make a set formula or recipe for good composition would only be disastrous, limiting creativity, and resulting in generic, unsophisticated work. Instead, consistent with Aquinas’ thought, there are principles and qualities, derived from our human perception, which form an understanding of good composition. It’s much like good writing and storytelling, or good musical composition. Often called “rules”, these are nothing constrictive or loathsome. They are, more accurately, keys unlocking infinite possibility and freeing the artist from creative bonds. As an author uses the rules of language and grammar, choosing to employ and, at times, break them as it serves a manuscript; the “rules” the visual artist wields are the very powers of sight!
So what are they? Interestingly, composition happens to have its own “trinity” of qualities. They are the result of grouping and distilling rules of thumb and widely acknowledged principles. Derived from the study of countless works from art history and contemporary creators; from the writings of Edgar Payne, John Carlson, Andrew Loomis and other great teachers of composition, from over twenty years experience and application in professional art, and from working aside veteran gallerists and living masters of painting, these principles have been repeatedly proven over the history of painting. Artistic recognition, professional peer acknowledgement, art sales, and other artistic fields similarly attest to their efficacy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as these qualities are used, and proficiency in their application is developed, they become self-evident.
Comprising this trinity, the Three Qualities of Good Composition, are Interest, Hierarchy, and Balance. They apply to every composition and creative work, regardless of style, media, or subject. Even at first consideration they are fairly obvious. Regarding interest, well, lack of it is certainly not good. Hierarchy implies that everything should not “play at the same volume.” Rather, something should take focus/emphasis and the rest be supporting, harmonizing, or providing counterpoint. Lastly, Balance is an intuitive response of artists and creators. Work that’s not balanced gets dismissed, seeming unfinished. You may have noticed that interest, hierarchy, and balance echo ideas and principles discussed in the previous sections, integrity and clarity. This is because composition is like a microcosm of beauty, reflecting, in formal qualities, similar ideals.
Interest seems obvious, but what does it actually mean (captivating, absorbing, holding or catching attention)?The key character of this Interest is that it is particular, special, singular. Interest stands out. We create interest in general by highlighting the formal visual qualities of the medium. “Ooh, look at the colors…the shapes…the detail! What a cool design! What a beautiful face!” You might call it the “sensory stimulus” or “visual candy.” This is, however, too general of a description. In the context of a painting, contrast and uniqueness are the essential determinants which control interest. And unless it is controlled - composed - it doesn’t work. Backing up to the determinants, I’m not only referring to value contrast, but all types of contrast employed using the visual factors in combination. Picture a black and white checkerboard. It has maximum value contrast, but the repetition creates a field with no particular interest. Place a red checker on the field, and now you have interest. It’s the introduction of something unique in this case. In the case of a charcoal drawing, interest could be created in a particular area by raising value contrast, using hard edges, finer, sharper details, and unique shapes. But the reverse could also be done. The background might be high contrast, hard edged, designs; and onto it you place a shape with soft edges and delicately modeled form. The visual depth of the modeling immediately stands out. You could take it further by then adding colored (chromatic) elements which would also jump out against the black and white. The key with adding layers of interest is to maintain the hierarchy, understanding where primary interest should be located, and then balancing secondary and tertiary interests as they are added. (This is a good place to remember KISS. Simplicity done well is better than complexity that falls apart.)
Hierarchy refers to the visible plan of dominance, or order, in a work. It requires organization and must be readable. Dealing strictly with formal qualities, Hierarchy involves the ordering of various schemes (value, hue, intensity, contrast, detail). While the formal content of hierarchy is very different to consider than the conceptual content of clarity, they correlate on the canvas. The key to successful hierarchy is that it be organized, make sense, and be clear.
Composition’s third quality, balance, does seem rather obvious and intuitive. You’ve likely heard an artist say, “It just needs something over here.” There is one stipulation. This “balance” is, exclusively, asymmetrical balance. Perfect symmetry has issues that will have to wait for another essay. For now, just consider that a canvas can’t be divided equally without causing questions about subject and hierarchy. Or think about having two thesis statements for an article. Returning to topic, the artist’s natural balancing instinct is good, but must be tame. A wild desire to balance every element in a composition can potentially nullify hierarchy and interest, leveling things out too much! Yes, everything should be balanced, but strategies of hierarchy and interest must always be considered. There are multiple ways to balance, so use what works best in the specific case. About dominant points of interest (ex: focal area**) - these are unique elements, and the general rule is to locate them away from edges. You simply can’t balance a dominant element located too near an edge without making it less dominant. This relates to natural experience also. If a painting represents a person’s visual field…well, it’s not normal for the focus of one’s vision to be way over near the edge of the visual field! It’s painful. Concerning secondary/tertiary points of interest, these can be placed anywhere and are usually balanced by similar elements - meaning elements of the same color, shape, design, or other distinguishing character (helpful hint: not size). It can be helpful to use triangular strategies, or threesomes, for positioning elements. Triangles are easy to balance asymmetrically and can also imply perspective and direction. Furthermore, multiple triangular strategies can be overlaid. The purpose of helpful strategies and rules of thumb is not to create formulas. No, the opposite! By employing these simple strategies (the good ones) and fundamental skills, like linear perspective; the artist learns to see the composition, in all its complexity, unfold. Like the conductor of an orchestra can pick out a single instrument amidst an onslaught of sound, the artist can envision compositional layers, adjust, and reconfigure strategies in the mind to determine the course of his/her work. In the end, this is the goal, the sweet reward of practice and study. This is composing.
In application, the Three Conditions of beauty and the Qualities of Composition, are different ways of looking at the same visual thing. When we look for clarity in a painting, for example, we look interpretively at the elements, deducing meaning and purpose. When we look for balance, on the other hand, we view the same elements, but see only their visual factors and potency. The idea of different lenses was mentioned in the introduction. As another example, consider the construction of a building. The process focuses on different phases of construction - framing, wiring, plumbing, sheathing, insulation - but it’s all in the same walls. The only sensible way to build it is to separate the phases into layers and then order them in the most efficient way. Can you imagine building one wall at a time, from framing to paint, then moving to the next? What would happen if the wiring plan had an error and needed redesign? The amount of rework would be insane. Painting isn’t much different. Learning to understand and see the phases, or layers, of composition, the artist gains control, freedom, and efficiency. As the process of erecting a building is ordered in a particular way which makes it easier to manage and less confusing; so too the layers of composing can be ordered to create a coherent painting process. The ideal process moves through layers without unnecessary backtracking and rework. The creative effort of experienced artists, those adept with materials and subject matter, is primarily spent composing. While much time may be spent in other areas, the critical stages of image creation are compositional. Grasping the compositional layering process is critical.
*There is a point where exception occurs. People have a learned, involuntary response to some representational elements in a picture (a hand, face, letter, or arrow, for example). This instant recognition can affect visual potency and be relevant to composition, as it influences visual dominance and directional eye movement. While this visual pattern recognition is associative, it is based on formal factors and remains in the formal arena.
**A common rule is to place a focal point 1/3 the canvas length or width from the edges. It's flexible, depending on other compositional factors. There are several interpretations of the “rule of thirds”; this is the only variation I find beneficial.
The value of Aquinas' three conditions can't be overstated. Beauty is a large subject. Having an organizational system and goals with which to frame and direct the educational process is invaluable. The trinity is a true key to knowing beauty. While I've spent more than twenty-five years in the process of discovery, lucky to have known enlightened minds who've shared their crucial insights, learning does not need to be so difficult. I hope you agree that the concepts are understandable and applicable. Immediate goals for the Academy are developing course work for the Three Conditions and Levels of the Composing Process, incorporating illustration and video.
Cameron D. Smith