The Principles of Art Part 4:Movement

So far, we’ve looked at balance, contrast, and emphasis. In this fourth segment of my seven-part series about the Principles of Art I want to talk about one of my favourite tools in the composition quiver: movement

Instagram launched in October 2010, and for a few years took the world by storm as the epicenter of our social media worlds. Instagram held our interest for a few years until TikTok blew up in 2017—every other app has been playing catch-up ever since. There is a reason social media has all but abandoned still photographs for videos and reels: it’s hard to compete with movement. 

Movement draws us in, tells an unfolding story, and holds our interest. Unlike TikTok, our paintings and drawings don’t necessarily have the advantage of literal movement to tell our story, but the same elements can unfold and we can leverage them to the same benefit—we just have to be a lot more subtle about it. 

In Western civilization, because of the way we’ve learned to read, our brains have been trained to scan new information in a distorted ‘Z’ shape starting in the top left, across the top, down to the middle, and ending in the bottom right-hand corner. We do this to quickly assess the relevance of anything in the field or ‘page’ that might be important. This is relevant to artistic compositions because our viewers will instinctively do this when they see our work. Knowing that can help us plan our compositions to create a secondary movement that helps draw the viewer back into the composition. If there’s no movement, the viewer’s eye will go right off canvas at the bottom corner, and having found nothing of interest, they will walk on to the next piece on the wall. We can use movement to draw them away from the bottom corner and up into the piece to show them our unfolding story. But how do we do that?

In a study, behaviourists got volunteers to participate in a bogus questionnaire, but when they arrived, they asked them to wait in an empty room that had arrows on the floor all pointing to one corner of the room. Invariably the unwitting participants eventually moved to that corner of the room. In another study, city planners made the paint bars of their crosswalks diagonal rather than flat like a ladder. Without instruction, the pedestrians gravitated to the outside of the crosswalk on the right, and the streams of foot traffic passed with much less chaos than 
a ladder-bar crosswalk. The point is that we instinctively follow lines, and lines can be literal or implied groups of connected objects, so we can use that tendency in our art to create a flow of movement that directs and engages the viewer. 

The first task is to lever the viewer’s eye up from that bottom corner. If the work is a landscape, a few tall blades of grass or a couple sharp trees thrusting upwards can do the trick—have you ever noticed how much a pine tree looks like an arrow? A series of rocks, or other objects that form a ‘line’ will do just as well. Once the viewer is liberated from that bottom corner, we need to give them something to do. Think about your areas of focus (remember emphasis?) and how you might lead the viewer to one of those. Use brushstrokes, shapes, lines, and colour to draw the eye around the canvas. In our visual movement, there is a sort of implied mechanics that is related to the physics of our natural world; if you turn a corner too sharply, the inertia might send the viewer’s cart toppling in a direction you don’t want. If you jerk the eye back and forth with sharp corners and angular lines, it might create a feeling of agitation in the viewer. If you wind them gently around some areas of emphasis, they may be lulled into a happy place like a lazy river tube float. If you lead their eye off the edge of the composition with no way to draw them back, they may never return. 

Planning the movement of your composition is critically important. Over time it may become a largely intuitive process, but thinking about it at every stage is key to making works with depth and interest. I still like to stand back and analyze the movement in the piece as I sketch, wireframe, and paint the finished piece. I ask myself a series of questions about the composition; where is my eye drawn? Do I get stuck in one place? How does the movement make me feel and does it help me tell my story?

Unlike TikTok, we can only imply this movement, but we can still benefit from using movement as a tool to create a rich story and textural piece that engages the viewer—drawing them into our imaginary worlds of beauty for a little while longer.