Composition In Art: The Techniques of Félix Vallotton
A case study in how artist Félix Vallotton used shape and contrast to build up compelling picture compositions
As both a painter and art historian, I am always trying to understand the techniques of great artists. Recently, I’ve been looking at the painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton, who’s singular style made extraordinary use of form and silhouette to create compositions that are both compelling and elegant.
I’ve been especially drawn to Vallotton’s technique of using flat blocks of colour to create bold pictorial layouts. In this essay, I want to look at these techniques in more detail, to discover what this unique painter can teach a visual artist about composition.
Born in Switzerland in 1865, Vallotton showed a precocious talent in painting and drawing from a young age. At 16 years old, he moved to Paris as an aspiring artist, determined to position himself within the contemporary art scene of the French capital.
Always a painter of the realist mode, he especially admired the artist Ingres for his lucid, neo-classical style. Vallotton himself became associated with a group of artists known as the ‘Nabis’, alongside key members such as Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard.
Vallotton’s satirical vignettes of bourgeois society brought him his first success in the 1890s. More than just an fine artist, Vallotton also wrote three novels and eight plays, and made set designs for the theatre too.
As an artist, Vallotton was both a printmaker and a painter. He made his prints using the woodcut method, making detailed drawings at first, and then simplifying the composition to arrive at a more bold, graphic style. His paintings achieve much of their extraordinary impact through similar methods: the isolating of forms using areas of flat colouration.
A work like Moonlight, painted in around 1895, shows the early development of Vallotton’s style and his preference for strong blocks of colour and silhouette.
In this work the composition is elevated by a sophisticated use of rhythm. A prominent band of silhouetted land swells across the painting in black, bulging downwards just at the point where the moon and clouds above flare brightly. This inverted symmetry is given delicate relief by the appearance of the moon and clouds in the water’s reflection.
The placing of these points of visual interest establishes a rhythm, moving from left to right, that expands and contracts about the painting’s horizon. Whilst the exact nature of the rhythm is difficult to pin down, I’ve tried to suggest the way the different parts combine into an elegant, flowing movement across the picture space.
Orchestrating the path followed by the viewer’s eye
Vallotton sometimes used more direct compositional effects to create visual animation within his paintings.
This work, On the beach, painted in 1899, is a beautifully simple painting of three figures sat on a sandy shore. It has an obvious diagonal movement, constituted by the angle of the water and the manner in which the figures are sitting. In fact, if you look more closely, the actual shapes of the figures are quite strange and unnatural, since they appear to slant, leaning awkwardly to one side.
The internal composition of the painting uses this awkwardness to create a successful flowing composition. In terms of perspective, a single vanishing point is located far-off the canvas to the left, leaving us with a tightly cropped snapshot that is replete with internal movement.
Most of all, the lines that the viewer’s eye are encourage to follow move diagonally from left to right; the angle of the woman’s shoulders and child’s red hat provide a subtle and beautifully weighted counterbalance to this movement, meeting with the yellow circle of the umbrella. In many ways, such a simple painting, but what a forceful impression it makes.
Shapes within shapes
Two further artworks by Vallotton, both painted in 1898, show couples embraced in a romantic clasp, and demonstrate how he used shapes overlying over shapes to elevate the composition. Whilst the colour palette is different between the two works, there is a clear point of comparison in the way that Vallotton has organised the picture space around the similar subject matter.
In both images, the foreground and background colours are flattened into blocks of colour. This gives the pictures an appealing abstract quality, where the act of looking on the part of the viewer also becomes an process of exploring and deciphering shapes.
The two couples are made up of overlapping forms. In The lie (left) the man’s leg overlays the woman’s red dress to create an S-shape in both figures; the effect is subtly echoed in the furniture, in the way the purple sofa overlaps with the red of the table and armchair.
In The kiss (right) it is the man’s shadow that most noticeably overlaps the woman’s form. Both of their shadows appear on the back wall, visible as two heads blended together in a kiss. To some degree, this is a more perplexing picture because the exact details of the couple’s embrace has to be peered at through the darkness. There is also the strange detail of the shadow that descends down the woman’s dress like a claw. Looking more closely, it appears to me like a creature — a dog perhaps — which may give some indication as to the indecent intentions of the man depicted.
The startling thing about these paintings is the use of curving shapes that overlay other curving shapes, flowing around each other and forming vivid contours, applied in way that yields a sort of musical dynamism across the space of the composition.
Contrast, silhouette and negative space
In his printmaking, Vallotton enjoyed to make dramatic use of the contrast of black ink on white paper. His preference for large areas of black has the effect of placing additional emphasis on the areas of pictorial detail within the composition — often using negative space to achieve this — and was a technique he carried over to his many of his paintings.
The two images shown above — At the Cafe and Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady — make startling use of contrast, managing the effect of shadow to provide vivid areas of contrast: white against black in the first, and yellow against black in the second.
In Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady, significant areas of the painting are taken up with this elemental yellow-black contrast with the divide running along the diagonal. The figures themselves are made up of minimal details, simply sketched suggestions of faces and clothing amid the shadows. I particularly enjoy how Vallotton has emphasised this with the detail of the woman’s white-gloved hand extending over the balcony, and the oblique angle of the shadow it casts.
I hope this brief exploration into the work of Félix Vallotton has proved interesting. Without doubt, he was an experimental composer of pictures. Many of this works contain superb and surprising details that reward a patient closer looking. Where his greatness resides, I believe, is in his handling of these details within often bold and highly stylised compositions.
If you found this essay useful, then you might like this piece on Raphael composition techniques: