Friday, November 18, 2011

Vignettes 101

I've seen this photo of my sea-inspired vignette all over Pinterest so I have to assume that there are at least a few people that connected with it.  So I thought I would talk a little about it and hope it helps shape your ability to critique your own vignettes, compositions, arrangements--whatever you want to call them.
I don't claim to be any kind of expert on the subject but I have developed some clear ideas and I've gotten a lot of positive feedback; in fact, to quote one of my design (and comedy) gurus Sherry Hart,"Dude, what are you, the vignette angel?" I take that as a huge compliment coming from this pro.

I like to--well, okay, I have a need to--analyze these compositions.  Sometimes I can make sense of everything and sometimes I can't.   I also like to name them.  If they're easy to name, they're usually well done.  I know, it's crazy; but I'll get to that in another post.  Sometimes I just can't figure out why I'm attracted to them or why they work.  I guess these are the abstract paintings.  I
 don't know why I like them, I just do. 
The simplest way to create a successful vignette is using a theme.  Here's another vignette inspired by the sea that I really like.  Everything in it belongs.  The pieces all speak the same language.  They tell a story. The rope, the whaling that a blow fish in the front?  The book could be a ship's manifest.  Even the beaten up dark wood table seems perfect.  
I would imagine this vignette started with the engraving of a whaling scene.  It just takes being inspired by something.
The inspiration for my vignette came from a rather unusual place.
The legs of the little table I set up.  After looking at the beautiful turnings for a while, I was getting the vibe of...

...a ship's wheel.  So I used that "language" that the legs were speaking to me as my inspiration and started to pull things together that spoke that same language.

The frame I used for the table top was lined with paper that had a watery color palette.  I also thought the pattern was reminiscent of waves without being too literal.  So this became my "sea."

And then I scoured the house--the prop supply in my basement--for items that fit.  Most are obvious.  The pond boat, the coral, the tortoise shell (which is gessoed and painted).  The bottles (although handmade) are something that might have been thrown into the ocean and a coral grew atop.  The old Chinese bowl perhaps something from an China Trade shipwreck.  I'm not sure a new Chinese bowl would work.  It speaks a different language.

I needed the coral to sit higher just for a variety of heights so I used some old books to raise it up.  I've seen some people criticize the use of books as platforms for other objects but I think these old books fit the story.  They could be old passenger lists or ship's manifests.

The modern artwork, at least in my mind, fit the story. The collage, by Marblehead artist Bernd Haussmann, could be an abstracted seascape.  I upper beige field has the same color and texture as the sails in the boat.  There's angular line in that color field that also repeats the shape of a sail.

Here are some other things I like to take into consideration.

Size of the shapes.  Notice how there's variety in the size of the shapes.

Dominance.  I think a dominance of one quality over another is important.  In this vignette, there are more straight lines than curved lines.  There's also a dominance of hard surface over soft surface (the sails).

So let's just recap a few things that I consider when putting a vignette together: 
  • Inspiration or idea, theme or story.
  • Do the objects fit the story.
  • Variety of shape sizes
  • Dominance of one or more aspect
Next time I'd like to take a look at some vignettes using some of these criteria and see how they stack up.


  1. Hi. Happy Friday. Beautifully said. Of course! I love this lesson. I imagine, though, it comes much more easily and freely in reality than your analysis. I love your detail to help people who don't do this everyday have a step by step. Bravo!!

  2. I agree that a theme is a great way to build a vignette. I think that the theme does not always have to be apparent to the viewer. For instance, I have several vignettes that are comprised of my grandmother's art and belongings but if you did not know their origins they might seem unrelated.

  3. boats, bottles and quilts....
    in your basement?
    i'm planning on scouring your basement and robbing you.

  4. Great deconstruction of why a vignette works! I have one vignette at home that I have been working on that never seemed quite right... then it dawned on me that the objects were all too small and similar in size. This confirms it! It's hard to find objects to fit in the space I have b/c it's only about 6 inches deep.

  5. Karen,
    A six-inch shelf would present a BIG challenge!

  6. Good stuff. You need to write a book. I'm terrible with vignettes so I hope this will help me.
    I also have a seriously narrow mantle in the living room and it's so hard to do anything with it except to line things up. Boring!

  7. Reading these other comments reminded me of the vignette challenge that is driving me crazy--my mantel is only 6 3/4 inches deep. Right now its all about varied heights and texture.

  8. Great advice about vignettes. I have a few of them in the cottage, but, let's be frank, there's not a lot of table space available!


  9. This is incredibly rain main and wonderful!

  10. the silver foot on that bowl is great.

  11. Thanks for breaking it down. I love to think about things like this...

  12. You're still pushing my envy button with that bowl.
    I always called them Still Lifes, but I never gave them as much thought. Something to consider.

  13. I tend to do it instinctively. But if something is wrong it will drive me crazy till I remove it or boost it or replace it.

    Then the housekeeper comes and cleans all surfaces but has no clue how to reassemble. Even a half and inch off can destroy ones serenity, right?

    This was all well written and instructive as expected. looking forward to another.

    xo Jane

  14. Jane,
    I agree that it's instinctive for a lot of people and further than when it's wrong, it can drive one nuts. The thing that's interesting for me is figure out what's wrong. That's the hard part.

  15. The color and textures are pleasing, too.

  16. For me it's instinctive too. What you've deconstructed is the composition but I never thought it through so deeply. You're a real master of color too. The artwork, shell & pattern of the "sea" paper are all so perfect and ties it all together. I hope to hear more about that in your next post!

  17. I often struggle with vignettes. I believe it is because I typically arrange them intuitively (if that makes sense.) Someone else called this a lesson-- I echo that label. SO SO helpful. THANK YOU for breaking this apart in helpful instruction. I look forward to your next post on examples of using your criteria.

    All the best!

  18. Forgot to say that I love the collage and I think it really completes the scene. Like Jane, I usually work instinctively, but tomorrow when I'm noodling around the store I'm going to put one together thinking about the elements you've suggested.

  19. I think this will make it into your book...this is great. I will be referring back every time I even think about putting together a vignette. Love the recap checklist.

  20. Oh my lord, this is blowing my mind. I can't even comment because I have no idea where to start. I think I will have to read it at least three times, there is so much to think about. But one thing. The shapes of the vignette that you drew. BRILLS. Reminds me of the little explanation pieces you see next to a piece of art in an art museum.

  21. Whatever the day job is, give it up and become a stylist!

  22. I wouldn't know a vignette if it came and bit me on the backside.

    I just can't pull them off! I'm hoping your advice may be helpful with my constant re-arrangement of items hoping that one day it'll all look nice.

    You are an angel. Why aren't you a full-time stylist?

  23. hey steve,

    this is v nice, not too contrived like most vignettes i see. i think that's why they drive me so crazy.

  24. I really need to start working on my vignettes. I sometimes get them, but by fluke. Other times, I just struggle. I need more tall stuff...and your talent.


    xo terri

  25. I knew are the "vignette angel"...this little lesson proves it. See how observant I am :) Nothing gets by me.
    I always say that some creative people see large and some see small. architects and small like visual merchandisers...which definitely use merchandise to tell a story...which makes people want to take that story home....which is why we shop right! You have that eye that can see composition ....a photographers eye. There I was really serious for a minute....I'm sweating.