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Studying past Masters - Gerrit van Honthorst, pt2

The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst
In the previous article, Studying past Masters - Gerrit van Honthorst, pt1, I introduced you to the chiaroscuro style of painting and discussed how light is used to direct the viewer's eye to the main subject. I also explained how studying the works of many of our great art masters can help improve your photographic education.

In this installment we will analyze the compositional choices of the painting and comparing them with well established photographic practices. So dust off your rule of thirds and let's take a look at The Matchmaker through the eyes on a camera lens.

Visual composition refers to the placement of parts that create a whole in an aesthetically pleasing, harmonious or narrative manner. Unfortunately there is no standard formula that works for all photos but we do have some well established guidelines and one hard rule. That rule is, there are no rules.

Guidelines, on the other hand, are just that. Established techniques and practices that have historically produced positive and consistent results. So why wouldn't we put those guidelines to work for us? One reason is not fully understanding them. I see this all the time. The excuse of breaking rules to justify an image in order to validate poor craftsmanship. That can fool some but it won't fool the ones that matter.

Using light to direct the eye
The first guideline to learn is controlling the viewers eye. You want them looking where you want them to look. There are many tools at your disposal to help you achieve this. In the previous article we discussed how light can be used to direct the viewer's attention to the main subject.

The singular source of light van Honthorst paints in The Matchmaker creates a natural looking vignette that keeps the viewer within the frame of the image while maintaining continuity with the overall scene. As discussed, light is a principal method of establishing composition. The second is placement of the elements within the frame.


Rule of thirds
A common tool used by photographers for subject placement is the grid. There have been a variety of compositional grids developed over the centuries. The most commonly used one today is the Rule of Thirds grid. This grid subdivides an image into a 3x3 grid where each intersection creates a strong visual anchor. These are the points of strongest visual impact of balance within the frame.

Taking a close look at van Honthorst's composition we can start to see that he placed the subjects carefully within the boundaries of the frame. One main subject and two supporting subjects. Let's apply some compositional grids to his arrangement.

Fibonacci spiral
In the first example we see that the girl's face is placed at one of the intersections putting the main subject in a visually dominant position. Between the light and the placement it makes it difficult to look anywhere else.

While the Rule of Thirds is the most common, it is not the only one. An older method uses a Fibonacci Spiral to determine the visual strong point. Some editing software, like Lightroom, comes with this grid as an option. Applying this to the painting we see that the visual anchor of the composition is at the start of the spiral.

Flipping the spiral horizontally or vertically and we get the other intersections found in the Rule of Thirds grid. Awkward, but is gives the same results.

Triangle grid
The last grid I'll introduce is referred to as the Triangle grid and it too show the main subject at a strong visual anchor point. In this example I have superimposed a Rule of Thirds grid (dotted lines) along with the Triangle grid. You can see this grid also needs to be flipped to show the other two anchor points. In my opinion, the Rule of Thirds grid is the better of the three, requiring no flipping around.

Well, this is a long introduction to show how different grid developments have resulted in the same result. Mathematically, the areas of visual dominance are very similar in all three grids. Just keep in mind that these grids are used as compositional guides and are not a hard rule, regardless of what the name suggests. However, applying these grids to paintings and photographs you will start understanding the compositional thoughts that went into them. Deconstructing images that appeal to you will help you construct your own images.

Leading elements

Placement on a grid alone will not make for a strong image. Other elements have to be at play. In this case the scene is strengthened by the interaction of the three people in the frame. We have already seen how the main subject is shown to us due to the way she is lit. Now let's take a closer look at the posing.

In portraiture, one of the elements that makes a composition strong is having a strong foundation for the face. One technique used is to create a pyramid shape between the head and shoulders. The illustration at left clearly shows that van Honthorst utilized this compositional element in a very bold and deliberate way. Coupled with the lighting, the pose of the girls dominates the scene.

A secondary, and more subtle, triangle can be found in the angle of the subjects. Specifically the two outer figures. All three are angled into the frame creating a triangle with the apex above their heads. Lighting-wise, the girl's angle is defined by the flow from face to breast. On the other side, the angle is established by the edge lighting on the standing man. The central figure echoes both with one angle reflected along his back and the second flowing from face through the shoulder to the elbow.

I will also make note of another well established formula used in portraiture and that is the breaking of joints. You can see how every subject has some form of angle going on; bent waists, elbows and wrists, heads tilted slightly, etc.

You can see these rules at play in the individual subjects but together there is a strong interplay as well. As light is used to direct the viewer's eye so too is the action within the frame. Notice how both men's attention is on the woman. Their gaze helps pull our gaze in the same direction. We, as the viewer, are curious as to what they are looking at and will want to follow suit. It's a semi-conscious action we all do habitually.

As you can see in the illustration, there are also other elements that draw the viewer's eye into the central subject. The standing man's finger is pointing in the same direction as his eye. Likewise you can see the sitting man's arm points towards the main subject as well. A little more subtle but the girl's own hand holding the lute, in line with her shoulder, gives a directional pull inward.

Symbolism in Posing

The story behind this painting is that these gentlemen callers (one possibly a sailor) are making arrangements with a madam for the sales of services by her prostitutes. Without getting vulgar in the imagery van Honthorst has to be able to convey the meaning, or the story, of this painting to the viewer. As with many paintings deriving from the Dutch school of art, paintings were rich with symbols and they often had double meanings.

On close inspection we see that the central figure has a coin purse in his hand and his gesture is that of haggling a price. The mood is lighthearted as represented by the facial expressions. There is also a very obvious undertone of sexuality in this painting which adds to the theme. The most obvious is the man's outstretched hand, palm upwards. Alone it is a pose of inquiry, he is asking for something but, when seen in line with the girl his hand, is in a very suggestive position, cupping her breast.

Another obvious pose is the hand on the neck of the lute. While not common in this day the symbolism of the lute, at that time, was for the vagina, giving the sale a more direct meaning. The use of the feathered cap is also indicative of the man's baser character as well as that of the woman's.

Finally there is the ever so subtle interplay of shadows on the lute itself, the symbol of femininity. We see that the shadow of the man's and woman's hands come together on the face of the lute, almost as if they were holding hands. A foretelling of things to come?

In conclusion

By analyzing the works of past masters we can see how many of the conventions used in modern photography have their roots in more traditional art. A study of how painters, like van Honthorst, achieved such strong and lasting images will help you understand how to compose the various elements that go into your own photos. Like paintings, a great photographer takes into account every element presented in a photo. From light to composition to posing, everything comes together to create a memorable image.

While we can't always directly control every element in a photo that does not negate the need to understand how each of those pieces influence our image making. The more you understand their influence on your photo the better you can direct, adjust or manipulate those elements to your advantage.

Hope you found this series interesting. Share your thoughts below in the comments section.


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