Lines and colour – Mondrian had it right

Every true artist has been inspired more by the beauty of lines and color and the relationships between them than by the concrete subject of the picture.

Piet Mondrian
Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow. Piet Mondrian
Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow. Piet Mondrian

I just love Mondrian’s art. And his quote above expresses exactly what I have been trying to articulate to myself in the past years. His words express what I love about art – what I now realise I have always loved about art – and what I also love about photography. The beauty of lines and colour and the relationship between them.

Lines and colour are all we have to work with to create 2D images, so it’s the last part – the relationship between them – that’s the real key. These relationships are all about creating balance, and I would go so far as to say that an image in which these relationships are just right alters my mind, as though it changes the activity in my brain. While the chaos of the world seems to create unsynchronised waves of activity that clash and cause discomfort, it’s as though an image with perfect balance pulls these waves into phase with each other, as though activity in my brain becomes synchronised at the resonant frequency of my mind*, and it feels comfortable. It just feels right.

That’s where the joy and satisfaction in creating images lies for me – creating balance in an inherently unbalanced world, creating perfect order from the chaos. And for me, the medium of photography has a special magic in this respect. With drawing and painting, you start from nothing and you have the power to create balance, and that is fantastic. But with photography, you need to find balance in what is in front of you. The order you create comes directly from the chaos – it’s part of the chaos. This is why it’s so difficult, but also why creating a photograph that hits that balance is so satisfying.

*I’m a neuroscientist, I know this doesn’t make sense, but it’s how it feels! 

V&A tunnel, London

Artistic notes

  • The diagonal lines and the perspective are what drew me to this scene – they result in a great sense of depth.
  • Also like the pattern that repeats into the distance, and how this is broken by the person, who is big enough to recognise but not close enough to be the subject.
  • I had another version without any people in, but it lacked interest.
  • In processing, I cropped to the widescreen format, which gives a move-like feeling.
  • I also increased the contrast and desaturated the colours.

Technical notes

  • Sony A7s
  • 35 mm
  • f/8
  • 1/60 sec

Bryan Peterson – composition and colour with impact

Scrolling through Instagram, as I do these days after effectively ditching Facebook, I was stopped by this image.

Look at those lines! The contrast of the colours. The composition. It’s so simple, but so striking! This is the work of Bryan Peterson, a photographer you might be familiar with. I was, but I hadn’t even realised until I learnt that he’s written several really well-known photography books, including Understanding Exposure, Learning to See Creatively and Understanding Color in Photography.

The image above drew me in to look further at Peterson’s Instagram profile, and I was captivated. His feed is a fantastic fest of colour and composition, and it really got me excited! He’s a photographer who doesn’t take the sickly picture-postcard landscapes and coastal scenes that saturate photographic social media, but who has his own style. What’s more, he creates the kind of images that I want to create!

The first thing that stands out for me is his bold use of colour. You can see it in the image above, and look at the one below!

Complementary colours is a theme you can see in lots of his images – in this case, it’s beautiful use of yellow and purple. Yes, it’s a sunset, yes it’s water – it’s not an original subject, but you don’t often see landscapes with such strong colours, and I love it!

Lines are the other strong elements in many of Peterson’s images. At the top we’ve got the horizontal lines of the steps, and above we’ve got the verticals of the trees and the diagonals of created by the perspective. The image below is an abstract composition in just one (still strong) colour, but it’s again the lines that make it.

The thread that ties Peterson’s use of colour and lines together is composition. His sense of composition and balance really resonates with me, and the image below is a great example of this.

There are very strong lines and the person with the umbrella – the main focal point, but not necessarily the main subject – is offset a long way to the left, much further than would be dictated by the rule of thirds. It’s the strong red that offsets the black on the right to create balance in the image, and the placement of the elements makes this balance dynamic because it creates doubt about whether the real subject is the person or the structure and the lines that it creates.

In fact, composition is at the centre of Peterson’s philosophy, and he’s perhaps the first photographer I’ve found who shares my opinion that composition is more important than light. He says this unreservedly on his website:

‘light’ is not Holy Grail. Rare does a scene with great light salvage a poorly composed image, but rarer still does a truly compelling composition NOT salvage a scene with poor light!

For me, Peterson’s approach validates my views about composition, and the balance and look of many of his images are very close to what I intend to create with my photography. Finding someone to provide this kind of vision that aligns with your own is inspiring! I hope sharing his work with you has inspired you too!

If you are inspired, then Peterson also has a website called You Keep Shooting, through which he offers online educational resources. Through subscription to his website, he offers educational videos, webinars and critiques. Here’s a taster that Peterson has allowed me to share.

I’m off to watch some more of his videos!

All images copyright © Bryan Peterson and reproduced here with permission.

Stairway to art (or, why I photograph staircases)

My name’s Ian, and I photograph staircases.

It’s not really an addiction. But if I see a ‘really good’ staircase and I don’t have my camera with me, I am annoyed. Quite annoyed.

It’s a longstanding project that’s been going for almost as long as I’ve had a camera (almost 9 years). It started out subconsciously as I just photographed what I like, but it turned out that I like staircases a lot and has become very much a conscious project.

Why staircases? Good question.

Lines. It’s the lines.

Stairs at Hyde Park Corner Underground station, London, UK
There are so many lines in this photograph that create geometrical shapes, depth, form and an incredible sense of perspective. It’s all about the lines!

The longer I’ve been taking photographs, the more I’ve realised that what I really love about it is the composition of lines and geometry. And where better to find lines and geometry than staircases? If they’re straight, they’re beautifully uniform. If they’re a spiral, they have wonderful geometric curves and contrasting straight lines. If they’re wonky, they’re unusual, but the lines are still there. With staircases, you just cannot get away from lines.

Arranging these lines in the frame to create balanced compositions and striking images is what this staircase project is about. Stairs also necessarily involve surfaces in different planes, and this usually means that the light plays on them nicely to create form. Of course, if you’re at one end of the stairs or the other, the staircase also goes into the distance, creating yet more diagonal lines and a strong sense of perspective. The lines are so simple, yet so complex in the way they can be arranged in the frame.

Stairs are everywhere

Yes, this means that no matter where you are, there’s always a staircase available to photograph. That makes it pretty easy to accumulate material for this project, but that’s not what I mean.

Staircases have been made by humans for centuries, in every culture in every corner of the world. They are a symbol of the intelligence that is universal among our species, and they demonstrate how we use this intelligence to manipulate our surroundings. Whether it’s a few rocks on top of one another, steps carved into a mountainside, or a wooden staircase constructed in a modern house, the simple idea of creating stairs to reach otherwise unreachable elevations is a triumph of human history.

Stairs at the castle in Lisbon, Portugal, have been there for hundreds of years.

One step at a time

Finally, stairs are symbolic of a concept that is crucial in the human condition. When faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable, you need to break it down. Into steps. And take one step at a time. And that’s precisely what stairs do. They break down an insurmountable leap into small steps and put the unreachable within our grasp.

Staircase in Naxos, Greece, that appears to lead nowhere

Not only that, but they take us to a different level, and this physical ascent is symbolic of the progress that can be made when we take steps towards an ultimate goal.

In short, staircases are symbols of human achievement, advancement and of hope, and they create wonderful compositions of lines and geometry. What better photographic subject could you hope for?

Here are a few more images from my staircases project – take a look at the whole collection on my portfolio site.