All About Tangents

Tangents have been one of the most difficult concepts for me to understand.

I’m not talking about your great aunt’s story about your second-cousin’s-best-friend’s-step-daughter’s graduation from military academy that’s somehow supposed to circle back to what we’re having for dinner (though, who else can relate with these meandering family tales?).

When is comes to design and composition, tangents are places in your composition that have awkward tension between two elements. That tension draws us in subconsciously and steals our focus from the surrounding scenery.

Visually speaking, whether it is two elements that almost touch, but not quite, or part of the design touches the edge of the painting but doesn’t go over the edge, it creates an awkward tension. Like a train wreck, it’s hard to look away.

The easy fix?

I’ll preface by saying tangents are easier to prevent than to fix. Rarely is all hope lost though. If your painting needs a major overhaul, I offer a simple fix to clear the slate

Starting from the top, make yourself a checklist of elements that will set your composition up for success:

  • Overlap layers or give elements space: Overlapping elements, or clearly defined space between elements help to establish perspective that the mind can understand. When two items are abutting or almost touching, it creates an awkward tension. Embrace the overlap, or give them some space.
  • Over the edge: Objects should extend past the edges on at least one side. When an object touches the edge of the painting, the eye is immediately drawn toward it and stops moving across the composition. You don’t want viewers to glaze past all of your beautiful hard work in favor of an avoidable mistake. (see the picture below)
  • Crowd control: Be sure to not overcrowd your composition with too many elements. The more players you have on the field, the harder the area is to read, and to avoid a mess.

This is an awkward cropping of a painting where all of the umbrellas “kiss” the edge. Have them run off the edge of the painting, or give them more space before the edge. Below is a much stronger composition with less awkward tension.

Planning to avoid these mistakes will keep your painting free from tangents.

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