There are courses and numerous books that tackle the subject of design in painting, so I can’t possibly put together a small blog post that will spell it all out. But I will try to focus on an area that is seldom explored in art blogs or even art books: Tension as a design element.
Round Hill Road, John Twachtman
When I want inspiration for design, I usually explore the works of John Twachtman. He was a true master of building tension in a painting. Tension as an element of design is something that few art books explain well. Granted a lot of artists instinctively feel it and build it into their work, but few have learned it formally.
If I were to teach someone the concept of tension as a design element in painting, the first thing I would do is to take them to an old 70’s style arcade hang-out and have them play a few pin-ball games with an eye to understanding the equilibrium point in the game. In painting, that point between two hills or the intersection of a slope and a trunk for instance, these are what I mean by equilibrium points; The points at which if you would imagine a ball rolling through the picture, would stop and rest in that nook. That point is the area of least tension. Kids instinctively put the sun rising or setting in the nook between two hills. It is a peaceful place to put something in. Whatever you place there comes to rest. It does not compel movement.
Now, up to a certain point, the further you pull an imaginary ball away from the equilibrium point on the plane of the picture, the more tension you load into the picture. To continue the analogy, that is because the ball will want to roll down from the spot you place it at down to the equilibrium point. I say up to a certain point because there is a distance beyond which the relationship between the ball and the equilibrium point becomes too weak and the theory falters, but in general it holds true.
So if you want to paint a restful picture of a couple picnicking in a field, positioning them right at or near the equilibrium point would be perfect and would exude the perception of rest. If, on the other hand, you wish to paint a picture of a boat battling the rough seas, lifting the boat away from the equilibrium point will create the tension you desire. The eye wants to move the boat to the equilibrium point to create stability and in so doing it completes the story. The tension is held in the picture and its resolution is in the mind of the viewer. By understanding the concept of tension, you can be in control of the anxiety or comfort that you want your painting conveys. I hope this helps you either enjoy art more, or apply tension as an element of design in your paintings.