There are many tools available to the artist to aid him. But one needs to find the tools that really fit one’s way of working- tools that aid and intensify one’s ideas. These tools must remain what they truly are- aids that assist the artist’s creative process. One compositional method that I use pretty consistently is rabatment. It was used broadly in the 19th century by many artist out of the Paris ateliers as well as the academy. You see it in Delacroix, Ingres, David, Degas as well as in the American artists who studied in Paris- Sargent, Henri, Cassatt, Beaux and Thayer. It was later adopted by American students of those that went to Paris- Sloan, Bellows etc.
Rabatment consists of creating a relationship between what lies within the canvas to the proportion of the sides. These two aspects create an interdependent-relationship. The sides of the canvas themselves need not be in any set proportion. The golden section works the same way, but the sides must be related in a specific proportion regardless of what lies within the canvas. I have always found rabatment a much easier tool to use because of its relative simplicity as well as its flexibility.
Rabatment consists of taking the short side of the rectangle and placing it against the long side (rotate), creating points along the edge that can be connected directly across the canvas as well as a diagonal from these points to the corners. When beginning this process it will appear to be two overlapping squares. David used these verticals to give his compositions a formal look, ie. how he envisioned the classical model of the Greeks. But what I like about this method is that one can achieve an underlying structure of diagonals. Delacroix, who was enthralled with Rubens sweeping curves and diagonals, found this method satisfied all his needs.
The best demonstration I have seen for its use, I found in Charles Bouleau’s book, “The Painter’s Secret Geometry”. He shows a sketch by Gericault for the Raft of the Medusa. It is an initial sketch of his working idea. It is evocative in its own right but not as powerful as after he applies rabatment to the composition. It no longer becomes a historical painting but a painting of man in all his longing and desperation. It reveals his eternal sense of hope. Rabatment takes his idea and gives it force and emotional impact. It transforms the piece through an emphasis on an underlying framework, that is not readily noticed, providing the image with a monumental capacity both emotionally as well visually.
I like to refer to rabatment as the structure of a tree with all its summer foliage. We know that under the leaves there is a trunk that tapers to the top and that there are branches that grow at specific intervals as the tree ascends. And that each of these branches again tappers till it reaches its furthest end. Rabatment is this aspect of the tree. But when we observe it in all its summer fullness we cannot see these underlying things. We only sense them as we observe the leaves. Rabatment should be used as such, as an underlying structure that can be felt but remains unseen. It should only be used after the creative idea is formed. The idea/ image and the inspiration that gave it form should preceed any use of a compositional system. And that any structure must conform to fact and visual phenomena. Theory must be of secondary importance.
Most times, I use this system to decide the proportions of my canvas and how my figure will appear within it. I manipulate the size of the edges so that my figure falls within a diagonal relationship to the outside edge. I often radiate diagonals from these points of rabatment to achieve a more forceful composition. In a more subtle way, I also include the direction of the gaze of the figure- that this too falls in the proper relationship of diagonals. I also find it useful to break up a large relatively empty space within the background- using it to vary color temperature or value to create a more dynamic sense of space. And lastly, it can act as a tool for giving the color composition its proper relationship and balance- that the most intense colors fall on these lines.
Rabatment has given me another tool for my toolbox. But I am always conscious not to let it enslave me. That would certainly take the “life”out of my work. It is always a temptation to hand over the inherent freedom that lies in the creative act- it would be much easier that way because the journey is difficult. Use only what is necessary for each image and let any system that you use be subservient to the whole.