Composition and Negative Space

Seeing, charging, and using negative space

Let's examine Picasso’s painting Guernica (1937) for compositional and various design elements. Aside from the power of the shapes (positive elements), there are more design elements to the painting that enhance the strength and impact of the work.

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Guernica - Pablo Picasso, 1937, Reina Sofia National Museum, Madrid

Color Use: The use of color is somewhat monochromatic. It has sepias, browns, whites, blacks, and perhaps Paynes gray. This limited and somber palette adds to the torturous imagery and the visual impact of the painting.

 

Values: A great range of values broadens Picasso’s limited use of color. There seem to be 19 to 20 values present within Guernica, with 0 being the lightest and 20 being the darkest. Another aspect of the values is how they are spread out over the painting. You find an almost equal proportion of each of the values over the entire image, balancing the use of the values in the overall composition.

 

Compositional Path: Picasso created a “primary composition path” to lead your eye around the elements of the painting. Your eye tends to start in the lower left corner, where the powerful out-stretched arm and hand of the figure are. This element then carries your vision along the bottom of the painting to the distorted knee and foot of the woman. The angle of the woman’s shape and her pointing face leads your eye up to the left, to the horse’s head. Your eye moves out of the horse’s mouth to the bull’s head and then down to the gaping mouth of the woman, then to the infant. Your eye's visual path is directed by the hand of the woman back to the head of the man in the lower left and then to the horse’s tail, which leads your eye into the center of the horse. I have mapped out this compositional path in the diagram below.Traditional compositions help the viewer to move around the painting in a planned path, always drawing one's attention to the main content elements of the painting. There are other compositional elements in Guernica that help you read this image the way the artist intended.

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Primary Composition Path

Shapes: In order for Picasso to create his compositional path in this painting, he had to distort the shapes of his figures to help lead the viewer's eye around the canvas and into the center of the composition. An example of this distortion is seen in the female figure on the right. Her distorted leg/knee, stretched neck and face gazing upward, create a path up to the horse. Another example is the horse’s saliva flying up towards the bull’s head almost like an arrowhead pointing the way.

Negative Space: Picasso's use of negative space is as powerful as his use of positive space. In the example below, the black areas represent the negative space and the white areas the positive space (objects). His use of negative space is so strong that it is almost equal to the positive space. These interesting negative space shapes add an additional level of strength to the image.

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Negative space to positive space