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Over the Shoulder - Abstract Art by Jane Trotter

Over the Shoulder

‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ – that’s the usual refrain you hear when someone’s describing what makes a good triptych. But what does that actually mean and why make triptychs anyway? It’s challenging enough producing a really good single image let alone dealing with three individual panels! Why? Because creating triptychs will not only help you to expand your ideas about composition and structure, but also encourage a reinterpretation and re-evaluation of your images.

In this article I’ll be revealing the creative process behind my ‘Over the Shoulder’ triptych. This is not a technical ‘how to’ guide about what procedures you should follow in a photo editing programme. I’m far more interested in sharing the ‘art’ of creating a triptych – my design concepts and creative process – how I approach an image (or series of images) and how I experiment with the component parts until they are ‘complete’ and unified.

Approach creating your Triptych with an open mind

One of the most important pieces of advice I can give is to approach making your triptych with an open and enquiring mind. Just because you’re used to seeing and interpreting an image one way, doesn’t mean there aren’t many other alternatives and viewpoints. I will be the first to admit that being an abstract photographer has certainly helped me a great deal in this regard as I’ve become accustomed to looking for different and unfamiliar ways of presenting an object.

Corrugation - Abstract Art by Jane Trotter

This is the original image which ‘Over the Shoulder’ was made from. I call it ‘Corrugation’ and enjoy the curving undulations, complex interplay of diagonal lines and the sense of layering and depth within the image. I do like this photograph as it is, but felt there was still much to explore, and trying a triptych design would open up many compositional possibilities which otherwise wouldn’t have been available to me.

Where to Cut?

So, where to begin? Firstly, when dealing with a single image, there’s the all important decision of where to cut! There are always options – the vertical cut, horizontal cut or even a ‘T’ cut.

Triptych cut examples

These examples contain fairly standard cuts at equidistant points in the image. However, none of them really give us a sense of embodying or imparting anything ‘more’ from being in a triptych format than we couldn’t already experience from the single, original image itself. The triptych layout hasn’t ‘added’ anything or made a point of difference.

Thinking outside/inside of the square

In the examples above, each panel is distinct from the other – in other words, it contains a separate and different part of the original image. But where is it written that each panel in a triptych must contain completely different material? If you’re working with a single image, don’t feel constrained that each of your panels should have no overlapping content. Don’t assume that you can’t have some part of one panel appearing in another. I’m perfectly happy using this technique as long as there’s a strong compositional and structural reason for doing so, and it enhances your triptych.

This is what I’ve done for ‘Over the Shoulder’.

Three panel cuts for Triptych 'Over the Shoulder'

The images above show where I’ve cut to make the three triptych panels. In the left panel I’ve taken a horizontal cut, focusing on one of the more interesting sections of the image. But for the middle and right panels you can see I’ve cut at an angle. These two panels overlap to quite a large degree and both, in turn, also share content with their horizontal counterpart.

Putting the Triptych together – knowing what to do with what you’ve got

Now I had three panels ready to be assembled into triptych. And here’s where the real fun began! The dimensions of the panels meant I could choose to have three long panels presented either horizontally or vertically. I chose a vertical orientation as two out of the three panels were from a (diagonally) vertical cut.

So this was my starting point.

Triptych panels for 'Over the Shoulder' in original orientation

It needed some work! There was no sense of connection or flow between the panels. For a triptych to be successful the way in which three panels interconnect and relate to each other are vitally important and like any single image, need to communicate something to the viewer. The compositional strength and coherence of a triptych is reliant upon the three component elements working in harmony, each reinforcing and expanding upon the other.

Time to get Creative – be open to where your imagination takes you!

Having decided on the vertical format, there was only one thing left to do – get creative and start to rotate and flip the panels to see what different patterns and connections I could make. This was the opportunity to discover hidden possibilities and surprising connections. When making a triptych, I’ve found many good ideas spring out of ‘creative play’ – just experimenting with no agenda and no preconceptions – being open to where your imagination takes you.

As I progressed, shapes began to take on greater meaning and significance. I was starting to look beyond what was in front of me and visualise potential relationships and interconnections between the curves, lines and colours.

I began to see the outline of a person in the left panel – a head, shoulder and arching back. I then expanded this idea into the adjacent panel – providing an arm and hip. The final panel suggests another person looking on.

You can see below just how much rearranging from the original orientation took place in order to have all three panels of the triptych working in a unified way.

'Over the Shoulder' Triptych panel orientation explained

The final step in the process was to slightly elongate the panels so they would fit the standard aspect ratio of my Fine Art Prints. I actually prefer this as the ‘figures’ in the triptych now have more height and poise.

Try a Triptych for yourself

I hope this has given you an insight into how I approach creating my triptychs. I love making them and find the whole process incredibly rewarding and satisfying. I’m sure you will too.

So why not try them for yourself? Just imagine what you can do.

  • You’ll enhance your visual creativity and compositional skills.
  • You’ll expand your way of seeing and open up many new possibilities.
  • You’ll learn to reinterpret and transform your photography into something new.

And you’ll definitely have fun along the way.

Wanting More?

If you’re not exactly sure about where to begin, my How to Make a Triptych article shares some tips and advice on composition and design to help get you started.

The Triptych Cut – 7 options for arranging your panels explores the many creative ways you can assemble your triptych and The different types of Triptychs looks at the different ways artists and photographers can use the triptych format.

Curious to know what the subject matter was for ‘Over the Shoulder’? Visit my Exposed No.3 article to find out.

About the Author

Jane Trotter is an abstract photographer living in Dunedin, New Zealand. Reimagining everyday objects found around the home, Jane transforms them into colourful and dramatic pieces of contemporary art.

Jane Trotter