Dominance in composition: the area with the most emphasis.
Greetings! I’d like to tell you a story about the artist John Stermer; his son, also John Stermer; rock and roll music; and, the composition principle of dominance!
Story Time & Art Design Lesson.
The other day I was reminded of one of my earliest lessons on composition from my father, visual artist John Stermer. And, the visual art lesson came though another art form: music.
Brother: 1960s Rock & Roll Music.
Let me set the stage for you. This was the 1960s and the early days of rock and roll. My older brother was taken by the music and loved to play it on the record player. His desired volume was as loud as he could get away with.
Parents: Jazz & Classical Music.
Now, enter my parents. My Dad grew up with jazz. Both Mom and Dad enjoyed classical music as well. So, you might imagine, the new music of rock and roll seemed like noise. And, with my brother playing the music as loud as he could, the noise was sometimes painful to the ears.
Loud Music; Loud Everything.
However, there is a lesson to be had here. To my brother, this was the music of his “coming of age” years. And, the nuances and dynamics of composition weren’t important to him. To clarify, what was important was volume. That is loud guitar, loud bass, loud drums and loud vocals. I’m sure you get the picture.
One day, I remember my brother and father having a discussion about the music. My brother thought my Dad just didn’t understand the music. No, that was not the case. To explain, I remember Dad pointing out that the instruments and vocals were all at the same volume. And that volume was, as you know it: loud.
A Matter of Dominance.
Dad pointed out that the instruments and vocals were all competing for attention. As such, when all are competing, none are dominant. In order to achieve clarity, something had to dominate, be it vocals or the instruments. And, the rest had to support what was dominant. Otherwise, it was all noise.
Oddly enough, that conversation stuck in my brain. I must have been not quite a teenager.
What isn’t odd, however, is the fact that my Dad understood the composition issue of dominance. Because, as you see the concept applies to drawing and painting as well. Dominance is a principle of design (or composition) and relates to what receives emphasis.
To re-phrase, the definition of dominance is the element in a composition that the artist designates as most important. It is the subject of the artwork. For example, in this charcoal drawing, the figure is dominant and the background abstracted.
Take for example color; an artist may choose a particular color to be dominant for a painting. All the other colors will support the dominant color. In this way, unity is created.
You might notice, for instance, that many John Stermer paintings feature a dominant color and its compliment. As an example, the painting Sandia Peak Juniper comes immediately to mind.
So, you might ask, well, what about splashy, drip “all over” paintings like a Jackson Pollock? While a Jackson Pollock drip painting might not have a single area of emphasis, I do feel a sort of dominance. You see, with this kind of painting, it is the rhythm that dominates. The drips and splashes record the artist’s movements around the painting.
Back to my Dad and brother. I recall that they had several conversations about music. But, it was the Beatles and their song Hey Jude that finally grabbed my Dad. Here was rock and roll music he could hear and enjoy. And, the vocals clearly dominate in some passages and the instruments in others!
And, that is what intrigues me. All forms of art share some basic ideas. In this case, the concept of a dominance in composition applies across the art spectrum.
In the end, Father and Son came to appreciate each other’s music tastes. That is, music and art became an interest and passion that they shared.
Oh, and, this is my personal recollection of events.
About the Images.
I’ve included some family photos of my father, artist John H. Stermer and my brother John P. Stermer. Also depicted is my nephew Jonathon. The images are from the late 70s and early 80s. I chose them because I like them, plus you can see more of my Dad’s paintings.