The Spaces Between: Thoughts on the Nature of Composition

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

by Archer Dougherty  


     All creative endeavors have a rhythm. 
It is a natural sort of balance, a breathing; a combination of form, idea, and execution which constitutes a successfully composed creation. Whether it is based in sound, physical action such as dance, or a pictorial reality, this natural rhythm – a hum of pieces fitting, a completion of the mind and senses – is present in all manmade things that have continuously indicated landmarks of humanity’s creative brilliance throughout history.
It is this delicate motion that the senses recognize and follow, and absorb its effects during spaces of rest. When looking at a work of art, or reading poetry, or listening to music or watching dance, this motion requires a plasticity of thought – an organic and malleable way of internalizing the successive patterns between each beat. And, of course, this internalizing is subjective, and differs for each individual. Just as language can be interpreted in myraid ways depending on who hears what is spoken, why they think it was spoken, their relationship with the speaker and their individual associations with what has been spoken – so is looking at a painting and understanding the astronomical possibilities of connections between image, artist, and composition – however, these possibilities become smaller and smaller as the internalizing takes place. This ‘compounding’ of elements does not merely result in a direct, linear conclusion – rather, as Ernest Fenollosa writes: “In this process…two things added together do not produce a third thing, but [instead] suggest some fundamental relation between them.”
It is this relationship which comprises the flesh and soul of a work of art. It is the creator’s understanding of these spaces of observation between elements which makes it possible to direct the viewer to an almost inevitable conclusion, however subjective it always must be. In such spaces the mind must be in a state to accept alternative ways of thinking, so the creator can then introduce brand new thoughts completely unconnected prior to the experience. It is within this expanding of the mind that the spaces of rest and absorption become so very integral to the nature of composing meaning –  composing a visual language in such a way that it creates a mental map, leading to almost a single outcome. A great artist can compose a great work of art by consciously manipulating these successive beats to be taken in a specific order, or pattern – through whatever means necessary his chosen media offers.
In other words, sometimes it is simply about the spaces in between. Spaces in between conscious thought; spaces in between the beats in a visual rhythm – and the infinitesimal but crucial space between image, and word.


Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” ~ Simonides

     When I began painting not too long ago, I associated it very strongly with my tendency to write out ideas and thoughts, rather than sketch them as images. I used to feel guilty about not sketching. For some reason I had it in my head that it was what artists just ‘did’. I was bombarded through social media by artists whom religiously kept sketchbooks – had filled so many of them in fact, they published books of them, and insisted it was the only way they could work through the preliminaries of a piece.
But as for me – I wrote long lists. I filled not sketchbooks but journals, and if I happened to feel a guilty sense of obligation to do a ‘sketch’, it often consisted of a few uncertain lines surrounded by words, question marks, and phrases indicating the intention behind it.  I have always thought in words, and not given any consideration to the glimpses of images that must arrive prior to the words. Those vague lines on the page represented some sort of image – and the fact that I would pepper the paper around the lines with question marks meant I had the visual in my head, but was uncertain of its meaning.
And because I was uncertain of its meaning, I felt this strange urge – almost responsibility – to put ‘things’ in my paintings which were quite arbitrary but I thought were needed in order to ‘fill’ the composition. I was not aware of the guidance toward meaning, which is the artist’s ultimate responsibility. It has taken me a very long time to understand that I was betraying, not fulfilling, my obligations as a creator to the people who view my work. I was creating haphazard imagery, scattered and fractured, which did not lead my viewer through the steps necessary to come to a personal conclusion. This idea of conscious composing was something I had never, ever considered.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend and this concept arose quite casually – almost in passing in our conversation. He told me he had always thought in words as well, and that it took someone else, over a long period of time, to teach him to think in images. That thinking in images was necessary to work out a painting to its most potent capacity. It was the very nature of visual thought which enabled a work of art to communicate its creator’s intention to its fullest extent.

To me, that was not quite it – it is not the nature of thought, and whether it is in images or words, but rather the understanding of the nature of the beats of rest and action, and the relationship between them, which comprise the meaning behind a work and its effects on the viewer. It doesn’t matter whether the communication is thought of verbally or visually – in my experience, the two are so interconnected you cannot separate them. One does not trump the other in terms of  ‘what is best’ to make a painting. The answer is not “images or words” – the answer is in both, and in the linear quality of things.
Ernest Fenollosa, the co-editor (with Ezra Pound) and collaborator of “Instigations: An Essay on the Chinese Written Character”, writes:

“…Perhaps we do not always sufficiently
consider that thought is successive…because
the operations of nature are successive.
The transference of force from agent to object
which constitute natural phenomenon, occupy time.”

If anything matters in that quote, it is this: thought occupies time.
It can be very disjointed, jumbled, difficult to ascertain the what and even more difficult to ascertain the order of things in which you came to some sort of stopping point – or conclusion – but the time it took for these things to transform from unexplainable, visceral, instinctual images into phrases your brain could interpret, passed.
The true connection, therefore, lies not in our ability to think in terms of words or images  – but, rather, in our ability to recognize and interpret forms of meaning based on and throughout both, and understanding which comes first.

In very old Japanese poetry – a form called uta – anyone could write a poem. Some were more successful than others, but the more ‘aristocratic’, rigid forms of verse which were isolated within a specific rung of society, such as haiku, had not quite yet been established. There is a wonderful description of Uta poetry by Ikeda Daisaku which illuminates the essence of its nature:

“…the poems of the [uta] represent the sparks thrown off
by the combustion of the human spirit in early times.
The men and women who produced these poems probably had
very little consciousness of literary genres and, in most
cases, did not give any deep thought to what sort of social
function their works might fulfill. They simply found themselves
with a kind of rush of feeling that demanded expression.
They were possessed by something that welled up from deep within them.”

Consider this raw, unrefined nature of Uta poetry, and also consider the fact that Chinese poetry has the unique property of being both word and image, resulting in an incredibly rich and multi-layered emotional understanding. Its very nature is comprised of both the visual and verbal, and as a result,  the poetic language is rife with double entendres, generous word play, and symbolism. The characters themselves represent many layers of meaning – they are comprised of individual “verb thoughts” which add together to form its overall intent within the context of its verse – as most characters describe not a letter or sound, but an inherent property (or properties) in the thing which it illustrates. But underneath, so many mental connections which equal this “meaning” are hidden inside, around, and over each other that the characters represent not so much a single idea but all the natural actions and reactions which lead up to its final, inevitable, conclusion – just as in a composition in a painting.
Another quote from Fenollosa describes this nature more specifically to poetry, but enhances our understanding of the concept of  “additive” composition:

“A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in
nature. ‘Things’ are only the terminal points, or
rather the meeting points of actions;…Neither can
a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature.
The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion,
motion in things.The [pictogram of the] sun underlying
the bursting forth of plants = [the sign for] spring.
The sun sign tangled in the branches of the tree
sign = east….”Boat” plus “water,” = boat-water, a ripple.”

This way of thinking – this ‘compounding’ of concepts which formulate suggestive relationships, is key to developing works of art which clearly utilize this unique rhythm and balance between emotion and conscious thought, associations and new ideas – and in that order. Understanding this linear quality of thinking (and linear, here, is used as a “building” concept rather than an A to B concept)  is the only way to manipulate the plasticity of thought necessary to compose the connections the poet/artist wishes the viewer to make.
This is what makes the conclusions about carefully constructed composition so fateful – not necessarily concrete, and exactly the same for all who experience it – but an organic, subjective, and absolutely conscious manipulation of thought and time.     Mood, vividness, familiarity, and absolute economy; this is exactly what composition is. All those things woven together in specific order, compounding together to create an emotional conclusion,  is what composition does. And this understanding of action, of time as related to thoughts which pile upon each other with each successive word or mark and are gracefully directed to a final inevitable (but subjective) conclusion is behind the conscious creation of all great works of art. 


“In the autumn mountains
The colored leaves are falling
If I could hold them back
I could still see her.”
~ (Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro, 10,000 Leaves, 625-750 AD)

     What is most interesting is that the visual artist must recognize the words associated with his own images, and manipulate their additive relationships in order to fully control his composition. They can be his own words, remembered words, or even a poet’s words which come to mind after the pictorial experience, but the conscious understanding must be there. Visual art is image, and so it must come first – but the artist must be conscious of both image and word to fully be present in the viewer’s conclusions. Even if a painting, at first, seems a jumble of images without meaning, closer inspection must result in order, relationships – and conclusions gleaned from these. 
The artist must have led you there. As I said from the beginning, this guidance – which amounts to nothing more or less than responsibility – has to be understood from the creator’s perspective. How else must he have led you to a particular conclusion than first imposing this order consciously, which means words themselves – or, more appropriately, language – must come into play.

Images come prior to language. It is no mistake that, in the history of humanity, pictures preceded writing. They are organic, they are malleable, changeable – they are an expression beyond words.
Language, by its definition, is a narrowing of possibilities. Its very concreteness, its purpose in putting thought into the confines of words, undermines intuitive understanding. It is humanity’s attempt to be universally understood.
Great pictures have captured our imaginations throughout history because they don’t need to be understood universally. They don’t ask to be understood universally. However we feel them, we connect with them without having to explain or understand, and each and every individual experience with that picture is unique from all others before and after it. It is ironic, then, that the greatest works of art are indeed universally understood – but on a dichotomic, individual level. Because images are not confined by the need for specificity, they reach any and all.  It is this microcosm/macrocosm effect which is so much more difficult (not impossible, but difficult) when dealing with language. The connection with visual art is a connection which goes beyond the confines of words – of hacking off information until the best statement is made. That particular plasticity of thought necessary to formulate nonverbal conclusions exists only in that portion of the human mind which is subconscious enough to bypass language entirely.

The artist Iliya Mirochnik wrote in his lecture on artistic composition:

“…language is not merely an expression of our thoughts.
Instead,it actually plays an active role in the development
of these thoughts. One need not develop a vocabulary to
better express oneself; needs to develop [a vocabulary]
in order to think new thoughts…The very nature of the
flat surface and the compositional developments which have
taken place in exploring the pictorial potential of a
[painting] surface…is that visual language, when studied,
will bring about ideas and potentially new variations and
developments in painting.”

In other words, new creative possibilities only exist through the development of a deeper understanding of the historical creation of images – which, in turn, create these additive relationships specific to each individual creator; which then, literally given the number of artists at any given time, generate an infinite number of pictorial possibilities.
The study of language, as Mirochnik stated above, is necessary to think new thoughts. That is an interesting phrase. How are these “thoughts” being thought of? In words? Or in images? Or in both simultaneously? Is the constant study of art necessary to think in new images? For me, personally, this is true. The growth of my pictorial vocabulary has been exponential since I delved deeper in to the psychology of what we call ‘art history’ – but is really a mental record of these ‘new thoughts’ as landmarked by history, constantly building upon and overlapping one another through each individual artists’ interpretations. However, as discussed previously, language itself is a mental suffix. It is a post-script to what is already going on in the human brain.
Pictures developed in order to express – language developed in order to explain.

Hitamaro’s piece earlier is a brilliant example of composition. I do believe Japanese poetry, along with visual art, is the closest we can get to a marriage of the instinctual with the intellectual. The explanatory with the expressive. But the explanatory, in any artistic language form, arrives first. In visual art, the expressive is first. It opens up in ways, and affects in ways, which are – foremost – unexplainable.
The creative process necessary in manipulating thought to successfully compose visual art is, I believe, far more complex than language – as it deals with the reverse construction of the associations behind an image, rather than using words to formally narrow the understanding of a concept. Iliya Mirochnik wrote in his lecture on artistic composition: “the understanding of the idea of a painting is greater than its [formal] explanation.”
It is this, very succinctly put, that gets to the heart of the matter. Language – however pictorially explained – still needs to be consciously processed  in order to absorb its effects. The actual words, first, have to be read. Again, there is a specific action here which occupies time. The most important understanding of the differences in composition between language and image is this specific chain of thought and in what manner the mind is receiving this information – thus affecting its processes. In the book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes:

“The poetic image is not subject to an in inner thrust. It
is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the
brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with
echoes,and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes
will reverberate and die away. Because of its novelty
and its action, the poetic image has an entity and a dynamism
of its own; it is referable to a direct ontology.”

The image itself, to Bachelard, has its origins simply in awareness. The purity of this image is directly influenced by the thought processes which consciously mold it, after its inception – memory, associations, expectations. But it is precisely this awareness in which artists can discover and express an unadulterated and completely visceral “phenomenology of the soul” (Bachelard, Poetics of Space).


“Sometimes, it is more about the spaces in between.” ~Giorgio Morandi

When I would draw all those question marks and vague lines on pieces of paper, I was, literally, thinking way too hard about it. There is a conscious awareness, and a subconscious one. Bachelard, again, puts it very succinctly:

“A consciousness associated with the soul is more
relaxed, less intentionalized than a consciousness
associated with the phenomena of the mind.”

I have always been way too involved in my own head. I am always very aware of the past and future, and too little in the present. My expectations of my own work involve abstract “what ifs”, running the spectrum from a single brush stroke to gallery exhibitions and sales – all before I start a piece. When I was painting in this way, I was composing with the mind, rather than the soul. As existential as this may sound, one must remember creating great art is an existential act. It is, quite literally, an extension of oneself.
The image that has its origins in awareness is, itself, a source for multiple levels of action, reaction, and branches of consciousness. It can be formed by a multitude of things: culture, environment, societal impressions, education, etc – and so its level of existence is directly a reflection of the things which have formulated who we are. These images, or perhaps ‘source images’, can lead to entire strings of associative thought, developing into a narrative that naturally communicates the things which are important to us, and the relationship between them.
I don’t really worry about keeping sketchbooks anymore. It’s simply not how my brain is wired. To me, a sketchbook is similar to the ‘intentionalizing’ of a true source image. When I do draw in them, the images are derived from photographs I find interesting, words, phrases, and abstract patterns. It amounts to meaningless motion, when I need to clear my head and simply perform the actions.
Sometimes, drawing in this way may lead to a stirring of associative images which I try to pay attention to. But I believe my truest work begins much earlier, and has its origins in something much deeper, than when my hand finally begins to create an image on a flat surface. By this point, it has gone through the filter of the psyche – it has been compressed, reworked, and refined into something the conscious mind can interpret and comprehend on a level with language, with poetry, and with that specific reality which comes about only after the brain has been directed to a specific path of understanding.

In an attempt to understand the importance of this ‘deeper’ well of sensation, I must bring to the table a term which has been greatly misunderstood in more contemporary times; even spoken of with derision:


What exactly is it? From where does it arise? Do some people have it, and some don’t? How can you use it to create things? How can some people seem to have tapped in to it so deeply, and others not?
The term imagination, simply put, is this: “the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses such as sight, hearing, or other senses.”
Sound familiar?
This is the very essence of the source image. I believe everyone is capable of forming these new images and sensations – it is the level of awareness of each individual which determines how well he can grasp them, and retain the purity of his intent. This requires, among other things, a heightened consciousness of the mind, not the soul. But it is the consciousness of the soul, or imagination, in which all these unadulterated images come into being; first and foremost, before words, before language, before all the things the brain has learned as sensory explanation – molds them into a cognizant order.
The same friend who spoke of ‘thinking in images’ also brought up the term, a long time ago. He said he wanted to work more from imagination, that when he first saw Matisse and Picasso he believed he understood exactly what imagination is, and how it translated into great art.
For me, the correlation lies not in what imagination is, exactly – how can one describe a phenomenon of existence? The correlation lies in the awareness of the abstract, the imagined image, and the final product resulting from that awareness.

The path between imagination and great art – the additive construction, the associative relationships, the understanding of language and how the mind assigns words and emotions to the things it sees – lies in great composition.

And  remember, I am speaking of composition as building upon all I have discussed earlier. It is not simply the utilization of specific techniques, nor arrangements on a flat surface or pictorials on a page. Those are all simply tools manipulated by someone through which great composition is already thoroughly understood. Great composition is not a linear path but an entire mental construct. Retaining the integrity of the source image, of the imagination of the artist, cannot be done singularly but through an entire complexity of rhythm, of balance, personality, dedication, intent!
When I added things to my paintings because I felt the narrative wasn’t complex enough, I was not dealing with imagination, I was dealing with explanation. Mostly to myself, as well – how can I simply depict a person? Wouldn’t it be too ‘boring’, too simple? Forget composition, rhythm and rest, psychology. Forget that some of the most powerful images in history are portraiture. I decided ‘things’ must be added, so the work kept its ‘energy’. That was the word I always used. I hadn’t yet discovered it shouldn’t be ‘energy’. It should be ‘honesty’.

Great works of art take time to absorb. They take plasticity of thought, a willingness to let the piece open up, a feel for the rhythm between the lines, or the images, or the notes. Poetry, painting, music. The kind of honesty required to make work that is to be remembered is not easy to look at. It can hurt, it can frighten, overjoy, overwhelm.

Indifference is the greatest indicator of badly composed work. 

Honesty arises out of an artist’s ability to stay true to his own vision – that phenomenology of the soul in which true images exist. But composing the work so the viewer comes to the necessary conclusions – that is the greatest challenge of all. Like Uta poetry, the end result must be a successful marriage of word and image, suggestiveness and association, and happen in such quick succession the viewer only recognizes the immediacy of the piece. So that whatever is felt is powerful, and lasting. The artist must travel through his own composition step by step, and plan it out to the last degree in order to keep the spontaneity and integrity of his own imagination – and realizing it in actuality is the most beautiful thing in this world. 
A successful composition is truth, in all ways. It unravels intention and ends up pointing directly back at the person who composed it. Great composition is like a fingerprint. I don’t need “things” in my paintings to tell people they are mine. I don’t even need a signature. What I do need is to understand that I can’t make things in isolation, or that are arbitrary. I need to understand that, like Uta, my own images are the “sparks thrown off”, that deep well of feeling without regard to form or restriction; but like anything learned throughout history, a careful molding of those images will strip them down to their most bare, raw, and powerful – and yet filled with something indefinable, immediate, and unforgettable.