Archways In Composition

As a framing device, arches, archways and arcs are useful to illustrators. Below are various examples of archways in art and illustration.

If you look up symbolism of the arch, you’ll be taken to the underworld of tarot readings and superstition. These days, the archway is considered a practical and aesthetically pleasing architectural structure, but in fiction and art still functions as what academics might call a boundary into liminal spaces. Fantasy enthusiasts might think of it as a kind of portal.

These ideas around archways (and similar structures) transcend time and culture.

Kawase Hasui, The Great Gate, Shiba, in Snow, 1936
Kawase Hasui, The Great Gate, Shiba, in Snow, 1936
Sarah Louise Kilpack - Coastal Scene
Sarah Louise Kilpack – Coastal Scene
Kay Nielsen East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914)
Kay Nielsen East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914)

In some cities and towns, street architecture offers many beautiful views.

The examples below are two-point perspective, using the archway as a simple frame, or a diptych (almost a triptych) in the example by Franklin Booth.

Franklin Booth

When illustrating The Sleeping Beauty, Trina Schart Hymen made much use of archways in framing. Aside from the compositional reasons, we can pinpoint the practical: a storybook (Medieval) tower features archways for windows. But the arches of Sleeping Beauty are equally symbolic, functioning as a ‘keyhole’ view of the world. This is another young woman cossetted in an attempt to keep her safe. See also Rapunzel and many other fairytale princesses.

The arch is a strong structure — a ‘pure compression form’ in engineering terms, and often the last thing standing after a castle ruin.

See: How Bridges Work from How Stuff Works.

East Gate, Winchelsea, Sussex circa 1807-8 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D08167
Trina-Schart-Hyman-1939-2004-1977-illustration-for-The-Sleeping-Beauty
Another illustration for The Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hymen.

The archway isn’t always a simple arc. Here is a decorative example, with a mise en abyme arch-within-an-arch effect. The rich people in the gallery are as removed from the plebs below as the plebs are removed from the fiction playing out on that stage.

The Rossini Opera House in Pesaro (Rossini's hometown) - Illustration by Achille Wildi, 1969
The Rossini Opera House in Pesaro (Rossini’s hometown) – Illustration by Achille Wildi, 1969

Trees can form a natural, beautiful arch, turning a natural scene into a type of dwelling, almost a cathedral in this case. The forest is nature’s cathedral.

And an arch isn’t always an archway at all. Garth Williams uses the arch in a compositionally similar way to how the artist above drew the audience in the theatre. Two girls, emotionally separate from the parents, but with parents guarding their safety. Though this family occupies the same space, the girls are having a different experience from the adults.

Garth Williams (1912 - 1996) for Little House On The Prairie 1953
Garth Williams (1912 – 1996) for Little House On The Prairie 1953

Archways are a common feature in landscape design. Below is an example illustrated by Beatrix Potter.

Beatrix Potter, Fawe Park Garden, 1903 arch
Beatrix Potter, Fawe Park Garden, 1903

The garden arches below are functioning more as an umbrella might function, to draw attention to the character, who might otherwise get lost in this busy birds-eye composition.

Punch cover, May 1961, by Norman Thelwell

But the viewer isn’t always meant to notice the arch. Sometimes the arch frames a character. In the illustration below, Thumbelina and the rat each want something different. There’s a border between them. It’s subtle, but it works.

Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Vittorio Accornero de Testa
Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Vittorio Accornero de Testa

Certain types of bridges make perfect framing arcs.

Fantasy illustrators can find any number of ways to incorporate an arch into composition.

(A virtual trip) From Milan to the Moon and back ... Cover by Walter Molino, 1958 archway
(A virtual trip) From Milan to the Moon and back … Cover by Walter Molino, 1958

Archways are used in home architecture and interior decoration. The canopy bed also offers a natural arch and framing device. There are many, many examples of canopy beds in art and children’s illustration.

An Art Deco bathroom from the 1930s
An Art Deco bathroom from the 1930s

In the comical illustration below, the eye is drawn to the man trying desperately to get out of his parked car. Artist Dick Sargent makes use of the rule of thirds, and intersects the man’s head with the beam of an archway. The archways also insert distance between the man and his car, and the people catching the train. He struggles; they get onto their public transport without fuss.

Dick Sargent, 1960
Dick Sargent, 1960

Naturally, cinematographers make much use of arches.

Header illustration by Russian artist Boris Zvorykin (1872-1942)

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