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Add People To Your Painting.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ADD PEOPLE TO YOUR PAINTINGS

As a beginner watercolor painter, you probably avoid painting human figures at all costs.  After all, you don’t want to ruin your painting!  Unfortunately, some of the strongest attractions you can add to your paintings are people.  Even when the figures are small, your eye is drawn to them.  On the other hand, every picture does not need signs of life, and you may want to leave a scene quiet, serene, and uncluttered.  Nevertheless, in many cases, the inclusion of people (or animals or images of man-made objects or of everyday life) brings a picture to life, adds interest, and invites a viewer to look more closely by suggesting a story.  Figures in a painting can also help you suggest scale and perspective.  Figures or man-made objects can increase contrast by introducing a man-made color not found elsewhere in your painting, like the color of a cobalt blue car or the red coat of a person walking.

Unless you are painting a portrait, chances are that any human figures you add to your picture will be relatively small.  As Frank Clarke says in Simply Painting, “What I would like you to do is forget people and paint CARROTS!” (p. 69). The carrot is the body of your figure, wider at the top than at the bottom.

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After painting twenty carrots with watercolor paint, “put dots on top of the carrots . . . . Don’t make them too big” (p. 70). The carrots now have heads!

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Some carrots can have longer hair. Some carrots can be facing the viewer. Some carrots might even wear dresses. “Baby carrots” look like children, having “smaller bodies,” but with “heads as big as a fullgrown carrot” (p. 71). Once you have practiced the basic shape and feel comfortable with it, it’s time to vary the shape and make it a bit more nuanced.

These figures are too far away to see facial expressions or features but close enough to see body language and gestures.  Capturing body language is what transforms your “carrot” into an interesting person.  Try to paint your figures with the least number of brushstrokes possible.  There are a number of ways to suggest body language.  First, where you position the head on your figure determines the direction it is looking or moving.  A head can tilt quizzically to the side or can indicate an aged figure leaning. Then, the width of your torso depends on whether you want a front/rear or side view.  The shape and position of the torso determine body language to a large degree.  Is the figure sitting, running, waving?  Also, when you vary the shape of the lower part of the body, you suggest more body language and information about your figure.  If you divide your “carrot” in half, you can create a rectangular shape for an upper torso and then create legs with long tapered strokes.  You can have a bend at the knee if you wish.  Legs in a side view should overlap.

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            And now, turn your attention to adding some simple arms.  (You don’t need to add hands or feet unless they are an important part of a gesture.)  Keep in mind that one arm is often hidden in a side view.  Make sure you attach your arms at the shoulder, not in the middle of your body, with a long tapered stroke similar to though shorter than that used for the legs.  You will want to make the arms long enough to reach mid-thigh.  Sometimes arms and legs are bent; paint arms in two strokes in this case, perhaps one part smaller than the other, or alternatively, paint in one stroke and blot one part of the arm lightly.  (Blotting will help you create a 3-D effect.)

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For a standing figure to appear balanced, the feet must be located close to or on each side of a vertical line drawn from the head to the ground.  You can imply movement, however, by placing the feet so they extend beyond a vertical line from the head to the ground; for example, if the body is leaning, you will need to counterbalance with an arm or leg extending, or the figure will appear to be falling or defying gravity.

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To suggest a figure is walking, simply shorten one leg or bend a leg to make it shorter and tucked behind the closer leg.  This makes the shorter leg look farther away.  A slight gap between foot and shadow can also suggest walking, as the foot will appear off the ground.

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Add colorful clothing to your figures by (a) letting the original color dry and then painting the clothing color on top, (b) dropping in the clothing color while the original color is still damp, or (c) painting the whole figure one color, then blotting the area you want to be clothing.  Paint the clothing color either when this area is still damp or when it has dried.  Remember that clothing and accessories often determine the shape that you paint your figure.  Is your person wearing a hat, holding an umbrella, carrying a heavy bag, or wearing a heavy winter coat?

Although one or two figures look good in a painting, figures tend to look better in groups.  (If you plan ahead, figures can be carefully masked with masking fluid to protect their shapes.)  To suggest the feel of distance, use several figures in diminishing sizes.  If you reduce the size of figures into the distance, it is important to remember that all heads need to remain on a similar (eye) level, no matter how far away they seem to be.

The most important concern in including human figures is to get the shape and proportion of the bodies and heads to look correct right at the beginning. I would suggest drawing the figures carefully with pencil before applying masking fluid to preserve them and before adding any paint.  It is also possible to add a figure part way through a painting. Draw a simplified, tapered figure shape on tracing paper and try positioning it to see how it looks the painting. When you have chosen the spot to place your figure, place this tracing paper on a cutting mat, and cut out the shape of the human figure with an X-acto knife.  Place the tracing paper on the painting again, and carefully lift with water and brush to remove the pigment, using the tracing paper as a stencil. When the paper is dry, paint the person with feet tapering to a point if you want to suggest walking.  Leave a gap for a collar to avoid making your person look hunched.

When painting a figure, it is tempting to try to paint eyes, noses, and mouths.  However, too much detail is often a mistake, making your people look overdone or even clumsy and ugly.  Minimal detail is better.  If a figure is sufficiently distant, don’t try to paint facial features at all because we can’t clearly discern distant details, even in real life.  When figures are closer, sunglasses can be a very useful device to help the viewer read a shape as a face.  Remember: it is the shape and scale of your figure that gets across the all-important body language of a human being.

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II)…

Continued from 10/30/18 post “Formats for Effective Compositions (Volume I).

Use the STEELYARD (also called the SEESAW or BIG & SMALL) format when you have a large element and a second similar but smaller object (for example, a large and a small rock or a large and a small building).  Tension and eye movement exist between the two, with the smaller mass often being a good location for the focal point.  The line or space between the two images becomes a visual link.  Since the two images are similar visually, their values also need to be similar.

Steelyard format:

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If your focal point is near the center of the picture and you have arranged somewhat equally two other shapes similar to each other on either side of the picture, you are using the BALANCE SCALE format.  An island with shoreline on each side would be an example of such a composition.  (Remember, however: the focal point should never be at the precise center of your painting!)

Balance Scale format:

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On the other hand, when you have NO discernible center of interest, as with a landscape vista, you could create an interlocking pattern of hills and vegetation to create eye flow using the PATTERN format.

Pattern format:

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A DIAGONAL format is useful when you want to emphasize strong slanting lines, such as steep hills or a mountain or cliff balanced by an opposing diagonal shape.

Diagonal format:

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Use the RADIATING LINES format when you have numerous lines radiating from a common vanishing point (for example, in a row of buildings on a city street or in a fence line).  (A variation of this format is the VARIABLE REPETITION of a line by repeating it, but each time making a progressive variation of it.  This pattern could be used in a billowing cloud formation or in a series of waves.  In this format the line variations can be different lengths or can be spaced unevenly.)

Radiating Lines format:

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Variable Repetition format:

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An “S” composition relies on line mass or value to lead the eye to the center of interest.  It uses graceful curves to suggest rhythm and movement between one area of the painting and another (for instance, in a river or path or road leading the viewer’s eye to the center of interest).

“S” format:

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The ZIGZAG and HOOK/SPIRAL FORMATS are variations of the “S” composition.  Many variations are possible when you enter the picture space from different directions.  Plant foliage or a branch could lead the viewer into a painting and point toward a focal point of flowers or fruit.

Hook format:

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These formats can add energy to your painting by moving the viewer’s eye around the picture.  You may find yourself using one or more of these formats at a time, and you may even develop formats of your own.  Whatever format you choose, its name doesn’t really matter.  A format’s goal is to keep the viewer’s eye moving around your painting and thus maintain the viewer’s interest and involvement in your art.

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume I)…

Before artists pick up their paintbrushes, they must create a composition (an arrangement or an organization) in two dimensions for their painting.  To do so, they look for shapes, values, edges, and color changes instead of things or objects like “a tree,” “a table,” or “shadows.”  Design and composition provide the framework for any painting.  By using the following guidelines and formats for placing elements in a painting, you will become a better painter.

Rather than letting a complex scene overwhelm you, use one of the following formats to help you to arrange elements in your picture (or even eliminate unnecessary elements) and to create a more strong, effective, successful painting.  Decide which of these organizational formats best suits your purpose.  Choose the format that is the closest to your inspiration; then rearrange and modify elements as necessary to make the format work.  For instance, depending on your choice of format, you can confidently move a tree or change its shape, adjust a horizon, or move furniture around in your picture.

In designing a composition, pick a format that helps create a path to move the viewer’s eye toward your center of interest.  Try to keep this focal point away from dead center or the corners or edges of your picture space.  Avoid having major shapes or lines that run parallel to the edge of the paper (with the exception of the level surface of a body of water).

One format to use in designing a painting is the RULE OF THIRDS or TIC-TAC-TOE plan.  Dividing the picture plane into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, creates intersections of these lines; those intersections are good spots for effective focal points.

Rule of Thirds format:

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The PYRAMID or TRIANGLE composition will give your painting a feeling of strength and stability.  The center of interest, perhaps a building or evergreen tree, should fall within the triangle or near its top.  This triangular shape moves the viewer’s eye around the composition.  It is possible to combine this format with a THREE SPOT or CIRCLE composition.

A THREE SPOT composition is useful when you need to organize repeating shapes of differing sizes, such as rocks, trees, or buildings of diminishing sizes.  Repetition and continuity are a major part of the THREE SPOT format.

In a CIRCLE or “O” format, a circle surrounds or frames the center of interest (for instance, overhanging trees surrounding a path).  The focal point will be located on or inside the circle but NOT in the circle’s center.  Framing the main subject keeps the viewer’s eye in the picture.  This format can work well with the RULE OF THIRDS or TRIANGLE composition.

Circle Format:

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The CROSS format can help you solve the problem of having mostly horizontal lines in a painting.  By adding a vertical tree, you can effectively break up an overemphasis on horizontals (for example, in a painting of a sunset).

Cross format:

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Use an “L” format to organize a strong vertical dark mass on the side of a painting by incorporating a similar dark mass or shadow pattern across the bottom of a painting (for example, a large tree casting shade along the shore of a brightly lit pond).

The “U” or BRIDGE format is useful when a picture includes two different-sized sides that are reaching out to each other, with the focal point located somewhere in between.  The eye is kept busy moving back and forth between the two sides.  You might us this format when you have trees or buildings (or two shores on a lake) that frame your center of interest.

Bridge format:

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To be continued as 11/6/18 post titled “Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II).

Softening an Edge or Fading Out.

Even experienced watercolor artists may have some gaps in their skill set. One basic watercolor painting skill that every painter should have under control is FADING OUT a color, also called SOFTENING AN EDGE.  (See other “Basic Watercolor Techniques You’ll Want To Learn”, my blog post dated September 11, 2018,  for a quick review of what you may want to be sure to include in your painting repertoire.)

The most important prerequisite to understanding how to soften an edge is learning that different degrees of wetness exist. In watercolor painting, these differences in wetness determine the effect a painter gets and whether a painter’s efforts create the desired effect. WETNESS is the basis for most techniques in watercolor. With too little water, the paint will not move easily, whereas with too much water, a painter will not have much control of the paint. Whether an artist’s techniques work or not will depend on the artist’s AWARENESS OF and ABILITY TO CONTROL the amount of wetness employed.

Many beginning watercolor students have quite a bit of trouble understanding how to judge wetness and its effects in watercolor painting. While experience helps you to learn how to control wetness,  even experienced painters need to follow the laws of physics. If painters try to fight the law of hydrodynamics and force the water to do their bidding, they will struggle! This rule is fairly straightforward, but it is not to be disregarded. Simply put, greater wetness ALWAYS flows into lesser wetness. It doesn’t matter where or when. For example, paint or water will flow OFF a brush onto a surface if the brush is WETTER than the surface. Paint or water will flow from the surface onto the brush if the brush is DRIER than the surface. There will not be much flow at all if the two areas are of similar wetness. There will be flow only if one area is much wetter than the other. Use this knowledge to control your edges in painting and to soften an edge or fade out color.

The technique called “softening an edge” or pulling out or fading out color uses a brush that is damp and LESS WET than the painted area to be softened. When softening an edge, you are not actually moving any paint. You are using water to encourage the paint to move on its own. Painters try to put just the right amount of wetness (not too much or too little) in the right spot at the right time to allow the paint to ‘sigh’ into the wetness. The dampness makes a path for the paint to soften into. You want to produce a smooth, graded effect.         

FADING OUT or SOFTENING AN EDGE is done by running a damp brush along the edge of a painted shape while the painted area is still wet. This approach works best if the paint area is very wet (just painted) and the brush is less wet (just damp). With the clean damp brush, dampened with very clean water, try to lay a line of dampness down just barely touching the edge of the paint. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. If you go too far into the paint with your brush,  your brush will act like a sponge, soaking up and spreading the paint around – not your intention. It may take several passes of the damp brush in order to moisten the paper enough. Once the paint begins to move, make your strokes further and further away from the paint.

What kind of brush is best for softening or fading out an edge? Natural fiber brushes are much better for softening than synthetics, because synthetic brushes are less able to hold a large amount of water AND have a tendency to release all of the water they hold at once. A synthetic brush will tend to dump too much moisture at first, leaving the right amount partway, then having little moisture left and running out toward the end of trying to soften a large area. The result can be a blossom at the beginning of softening, nice fading out toward the center, and no change in an edge at the end of a stroke with a synthetic brush.

It is best to get to fading or softening quickly, because as the paint dries, it is less likely to move easily, less likely to flow. (This technique is somewhat different from painting wet-in-wet or wet-in-damp, although both produce soft edges. ‘Softening an edge’ allows the artist more control in the sense that one side of the paint stroke is preserved as a hard edge while the other side is softened – perfect for rock crevices, folds in fabric, a snow bank, rolling surf, or flower petals.)

Soft edges convey distance.

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Soft edges create a sense of movement. 

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Soft edges suggest depth and shape. 

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Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!

A good painting is a successful illusion in two dimensions that creates the impression of a reality in three dimensions. Artists can use shapes, values, edges, and color changes to arrange elements within a picture to produce an interesting and unified image. Seldom is a real life scene so perfect that it cannot be made more interesting by moving things around, changing sizes, tones, colors, and so on. As artists we strive to get our viewers to see what we want them to see. This involves establishing a focal point and center of interest. Artists strive to inject energy into their painting, while avoiding unnecessary and distracting details.

The job of the artist is to incorporate design elements for maximum visual effect into a pleasing and balanced design. Whatever your style as an artist, the arrangement of elements in your picture (COMPOSITION) should always appear to have purpose and be under control. Your composition is what captures the viewers’ attention.

What are these design elements that work together to make a strong picture? How are you supposed to put them together? There is no one way to compose a painting, yet some rules and guidelines can help you think about what makes a good composition. In time and with practice, you may become less reliant on these guidelines and learn to rely more on yourself and your own intuitive preferences.

For now, be aware that you have only so many tools to work with. These ‘tools’ are the ‘elements’ of design. They are VALUE, SHAPE, LINE, COLOR, and FORM. With these tools, painters can create certain effects; these effects are referred to as the ‘principles’ of design. More specifically, these principles include UNITY, BALANCE, VARIETY, RHYTHM, CONTRAST, MOOD, MOVEMENT, and PERSPECTIVE. These terms may seem confusing at this point, but think of the matter this way: You can use COLORS to create MOOD, aerial PERSPECTIVE, or VARIETY. Or you can use LINE to create a sense of linear PERSPECTIVE, MOVEMENT, or RHYTHM.

UNITY is the sense of wholeness or completeness in your picture and is one of the most important design principles. You can create UNITY by letting some element be dominant — that is, by emphasizing it in the picture (DOMINANCE).  Dominance needs to be tempered, however, in order to create BALANCE and VARIETY. Some of the opposite element needs to be included so the dominant element is not overwhelming. You may wish to compose a warm picture, so your palette of colors might contain a variety of warm pigments. If they are all warm, however, they lose their effectiveness. Smaller amounts of cooler, complementary colors should be scattered about the painting to mix with the warm colors and help balance the effect.

You can create RHYTHM by repeating a certain distinctive element in a painting, such as SHAPES, LINE, COLOR, or SPACES. For instance, specific shapes not only reveal the basic qualities of the subject matter but can be repeated to increase UNITY in a picture. Repeated tree trunks or an arrangement of rocks on a shoreline would be examples of SHAPES and LINE used to create RHYTHM.

The true purpose of unity and dominance is to make your painting more appealing by giving it an emotional punch and an intriguing ‘personality.’ Dominance and unity are easier to achieve if you choose only one or two of the elements to emphasize in a picture. You might choose one VALUE (light or dark) and one type of LINE (perhaps curved), while the remaining elements, COLOR or SHAPE, for instance, play supporting roles.

It is natural for people to react to certain visual stimuli, and an artist ought to know and use these stimuli to create more effective compositions. For instance, our eye automatically goes to anything out of place or different from its surroundings (CONTRAST). An artist can employ contrast of VALUES (light vs. dark, dark vs. medium, and so on) to improve a painting. We are naturally attracted to the lightest objects or areas that we can see. To surround a light area in a picture with dark values increases contrast and draws attention to that light area. We tend to skip over lesser degrees of contrast, although these play an important role in setting a mood in a composition  — for example, dark corners in a sunlit room.

CONTRAST in COLOR can be useful as well. Colors can contrast in HUE (the basic color, such as red or blue), VALUE (light or dark), INTENSITY (pure or dull), and TEMPERATURE (warm or cool). An artist will often employ color contrast using more than one of these kinds of contrast at a time, perhaps using pale, dulled blue (HUE, INTENSITY, TEMPERATURE) as well as darker, pure orange (HUE, VALUE, INTENSITY, TEMPERATURE) in a painting, for example.

CONTRAST in SHAPE and LINE (or edges) is a good way to get things of interest to stand out from their surroundings. We notice hard edges and shapes that are different from each other, whereas soft edges blend and can subtly avoid attention, as in camouflage.

How we see our physical surroundings affects our emotions. Think about how you feel as the sun breaks out after days of dreary, overcast skies. In a painting, though, the emotional environment involves more than just the weather or the sky. The MOOD (or atmosphere) is the whole pervasive setting for your painting subject. A specific atmosphere or mood (for instance, the gloom inspired by the shadowy edge of a dark forest) adds drama and appeal to your composition. (See another of my blogs entitled “Get In The Mood” dated September 4, 2018 for a more detailed discussion of mood and atmosphere.)

MOVEMENT is a way to add energy and excitement to your composition. Movement attracts our attention. You can create it in several ways – by IMPLYING movement, by POINTING the viewer’s eye to a specific target with shapes, or by providing a PATH for the viewer’s eye to follow.

Since anything that parallels the frame of your picture tends to be viewed as stable and balanced, an artist might try to place shapes and lines at an angle to the frame. Curving lines IMPLY more MOVEMENT, energy, and character than  do straight lines. Further, if a painting is too SYMMETRICAL, it will seem stiff and unexciting. A bit of ASYMMETRY (imbalance), by contrast, creates tension to move the viewer through the painting.

Many of the objects you put into a painting can have a POINTING quality that leads the viewers’ eye in a certain direction. This pointing can be useful in getting the viewers to see what you want them to see. By simply arranging objects in a painting in a certain way, you can suggest action and movement.

You gain control of what viewers look at when you can direct their eyes to follow a PATH in your picture. Try to arrange and position shapes to lead a viewer to look toward points of interest. Visual pathways create MOVEMENT and will lead the viewer in the direction you choose. Artists commonly use a road, path, or river as an invitation to viewers to move into a painting.

A PATH can also be a FORMAT (structure) for a painting. Different types of structures exist, including CLOSED (any path that comes back on itself and thus contains or surrounds the subject matter) and OPEN (a path that causes the eye to move back and forth, such as a zigzag or a spiral).

PERSPECTIVE is what gives the illusion of depth to your composition and makes it appear three dimensional. LINEAR PERSPECTIVE works by making objects seem further away because they appear smaller. As objects move back in the distance, they grow proportionally smaller and closer together. For example, in a sky with rows of clouds, the cloud formations become smaller and closer together (and may even appear to overlap) as they proceed toward the horizon. A series of overlapping shapes can increase the illusion of depth. Darkening a foreground or showing only a part of an object in the foreground can give the viewer a feeling of peering deep into a landscape. AERIAL or ATMOSPHERIC PERSPECTIVE creates a feeling of distance by observing the effect the atmosphere has on the landscape. Objects in the distance seem mistier, paler, and less distinct than in the foreground. Colors become lighter, cooler, and grayer when further away, while details are progressively reduced into the distance.

Skillful use of the principles of design improves any composition. A good composition depends on the artist’s knowledge of these rules, yet also is dependent on the use of intuition (or instinct). The intuitive aspect of composition is what makes each piece of art unique. Using your instincts adds flavor and creativity to your art. Move different parts of your painting around to emphasize or strengthen your composition until the painting feels right to you. The rules of composition are there to solve design problems, but rules can eliminate creativity if followed slavishly. Try to think of design elements as a foundation to base your composition on. Then trust your intuition!