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Design in Art: Directional Force

Design in Art: Directional Force

Author: Lucy Lamp
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What is Directional Force?

Directional force is defined as paths created or implied within an artwork that lead the eye through the composition. This creates interest and keeps the viewer engaged in the work. It also emphasizes all of the aspects of the artwork and their relationship to each other, because as the eye is continually led through the artwork, the viewer notices the various relationhips between the features or subject matter of the work.

The example below is a simple illustration of how directional force works. The yellow triangles draw the viewer's immediate attention because of the contrast in color between them and the rest of the composition. Then the viewer notices the turquoise circles, which strengthen the path that the tirangles create. Because the turquoise circles are analogous in color to the background, they do not fight for attention with the triangles, but rather support them, allowing the path to be reinforced.



Prince Eugen The Cloud , 1896
Oil on canvas, 119 x 109 cm
Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Stockholm

image courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts (

In this painting, the path for the eye to follow is an actual path. it leads to the subject of the painting, the cloud. Because the path is wider toward the bottom of the composition, and narrows as it approaches the cloud, space is implied between the viewer and the cloud. It suggests that the path to the cloud is a twisting journey that takes some time before arriving at the destination.

Examples of directional force in art

Examples of directional force in art.


A path to the moon

Harald Sohlberg  Flower Meadow in the North, 1905
 Oil on canvas, 96 x 111 cm
The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design - The National Gallery, Oslo. NG.M.00692

According to the title, the subject of this painting is a flower meadow.  The meadow is the largest and most emphasized element. However, the flowers point directly to the farm, which points to the river, which leads to the moon. A connection is made between the flower meadow, which is tangible and close, and the moon, which is beyond our reach.


The strength of a gaze, and the connnection it implies

Sandro Filipepi called Botticelli    Annunciation 

Tempera on wood, 150x156

Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy

Commissioned in 1489 by Benedetto di Ser Giovanni Guardi for the church of Cestello (today Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi). At the Uffizi since 1872.

image source: Virtual Uffizi - The complete catalogue of the Uffizi Gallery of Florence

There are two paths for the eye to follow in this painting. The first, and by far the most important, is the gaze, or eye contact between Mary and the angel. The subject of the painting is the anunciation, one of the most significant moments in the history of Christianity. It is that moment  when the divine and humanity meet.The close proximity of the two figures and the arms reaching out and almost touching each other strengthens this connection even more.

The second path is the path between the room and the town (presumably Florence). Here Botticelli brings the moment to what was the present day in his time. Everything surrounding the figures resembles Florence during the Renaissance, a time when the city-states of Italy were competing for prominence. Botticelli also shows his understanding and expertise in what was a fairly new concept at the time: linear perspective.



The angst within a soul

 Auguste Rodin Pierre de Wiessant  (detail of study for figure from "The Burghers of Calais") 1884-1886
 bronze   Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

This figure is a study for a large group of life-sized figures called "The Burghers of Calais", which is a memorial to a historical time in 1347, during the Hundred Year's War, when the town of Calais, France was under siege by the English. Rodin chose to emphasize the leaders' humanity, with all of their emotion, rather than glorify them in an almost godly manner, situated high above the viewer, which was typical of memorials at the time. This group of sculptures is purposely situated on the same level as the viewer.

The path here is from the figure's bowed head and downcast eyes, to his strong neck and arm, to the expressiveness of his hand, which is larger in proportion than the average human hand. This emphasizes the expression of both the hand and the face and the emotion they portray. The close triangle of the figure's head, arm and hand keeps the viewer locked within his inner turmoil, as if his expression alone tells the story.


The fight against injustice

Kathe Kollwitz Never Again War  1924
charcoal on laid paper
Private Collection

image source

Kollwitz' work eloquently expresses her empathy and compassion for victims of poverty, hunger, and war. Her use of graphic media such as drawing and printmaking make the subject more immediate, as she exposed the injustices in the world during the first half ot the 20th century.

Here the path is from the figure's face and expression of struggle and defiance through the outstreched arm and hand. leading directly upward, in a position of strength. Its upward direction suggests heaven, and that there is a hope beyond this world and its suffering.  Taking  the path back down to the figure's face, the hand on the heart becomes more noticeable, which reinforces the subject matter.


The call of death

Kathe Kollwitz  Call of Death  1934
charcoal on laid paper
Private Collection

image source

Kollwitz did many self portraits during her life, from her youth until just before her death. This is a compassionate and heart rending portrayal of the moment when one faces death.  The path is very direct, from the hand of death to the pain ridden expression on the figure's face, to her upraised hand, pointing away from death, as if to say, "just a moment longer". The right arm creates a strong line with the left forearm, which leads directly to the hand of death.



Expulsion from the garden

Masaccio  The Expulsion Of Adam and Eve from Eden 1426-1428

fresco208 x 88 cm      Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy

image source wikipedia commons

This is another defining moment in Christianity, when Adam and Eve fall prey to sin and are forced to leave Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Masacio's portrayal is filled with emotion and regret, as well as an inexorable force, the angel with the sword.

The path away from the garden is unmistakeable and reinforced by a number of elements. Most powerful are the figures of Adam and Eve moving away from the garden, with the positions of their bodies strengthening the sense of moving away. Then there is the angel, clothed in red, a contrast to the rest of the painting , with arm outstretched pointing the way, and a sword that leads to the determined expression and back to the arm pointing the way. The gate of the garden is only partially revealed, which emphasizes their moving away. In addition, black lines emerge from beyond the gate, which lead to Adam's arm, up to their facial expressions, and down Eve's arm to their legs and feet, moving away from the garden. This is perhaps the most emotional and painful portayal of the expulsion from the garden.


The heroic killing of a king

Artemesia Gentileschi Judith and Holofernes  c. 1620

Oil on canvas 1.99m by 1.625m

Uffizi Gallery, Florence., Italy

 image source  The life and art of Artemesia Gentileschi Website,  creation, design, and maintenance by Christine Parker. © 1999-2011.

This a powerful portayal of the heroic act of Judith saving her pople. the Israelites, from an evil king, Holofernes. According to the story, Judith seduced Holofernes, then produced a sword  hidden in her clothing, and with the help of her handmaiden, cut off Holofernes' head. (later they thriumphantly carried the head back to the Israelites' camp). This is a tight triangular composition, with the strong arms of the women continually leading to the sword yielded by Judith, and king's head in agony. The eye is led through this tight triangle again and again, and the viewer is forced to look at the grisly moment over and over again. It is by far the most realistic portrayal of Judith's action, in which her powerful strength and force of will is undeniable.