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Composition!?!

Composition is simply the study of the way things are arranged, whether in art, music, a plate of food, or the furniture in a room. Where we put things makes a statement about our point of view.

DO I HAVE TO FOLLOW ALL THESE RULES?

A lot has been written about composition and it may seem overwhelming to you. There have been many rules formulated about creating good paintings. Often, however, learning these formulas and rules can be dry and boring! It can be difficult to know HOW TO APPLY these rules to specific scenes. And it sometimes feels that the rules prevent you from being creative or being yourself.

First, let me assure you that you need not follow all composition rules slavishly in order to improve your picture. The formulas are guidelines that help you achieve dramatic, effective art that holds your audience’s attention. You can choose several rules that you feel are important to apply to a chosen image – use whichever rules you feel are most useful in getting across what you want to get across in each of your paintings.

WHY?

Composition (arrangement) is everywhere! Since a good composition need not reproduce reality exactly, you are free to use the composition guidelines to rearrange components of your painting. When non-artists look at art they don’t necessarily think about or understand composition. They merely like or dislike a painting. If the art appeals, then you can be confident that the artist used composition skillfully to reach the viewer at an emotional level. Beginning artists, too, can sometimes be surprised to learn about all that is involved in planning a good painting. Strong paintings don’t just happen! They need to be composed.

Winter Birches.jpg

To get a viewer to see what, as artists, we want them to see, we therefore arrange the elements at our disposal. The TOOLS we use are SHAPE, VALUE, COLOR, TEXTURE.

With the above-mentioned tools, we can create EFFECTS in our composition or arrangement. We consider UNITY and DOMINANCE, try to achieve BALANCE (of value, color, type of line, e.g. diagonal), use PERSPECTIVE, create CONTRAST (of color, value), MOOD, RHYTHM and MOVEMENT, PATTERN, and any other visual effect we might be able to think of.

Simple Red Barn.jpg

To better understand these concepts, take a look at three of my related blog posts:

Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume I)…, 10/30/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/30/formats-for-effective-compositions/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II)…, 11/6/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/06/formats-for-effective-compositions-volume-ii/ .

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS.

More specific suggestions for a good composition include choosing only ONE center of interest. This center of interest should be the reason you are painting the picture. Strive to concentrate the most DETAIL and the greatest CONTRAST (light vs. dark) here.

Nasturtium.jpg

Further, decide on COLOR DOMINANCE during the initial planning stages of a picture. To avoid confusion, try not to bombard the viewer with every color on your palette in the same picture. Choose early on what the MOOD (feeling) will be for your project. Mood is achieved through the quality of colors chosen for use. Will your painting be cheerful, mysterious, forboding, perhaps subtle? Will you use dark, cool colors and strong contrasts to paint a dramatic, somber, or intense scene? Will you choose lighter, soft colors for a calm serenity? Or you could focus on warm, dulled colors to suggest, for example, a hot, hazy summer day. Both color TEMPERATURE and the INTENSITY (quality) OF LIGHT contribute to mood.

Snowy Rockies.jpg

Also, for a successful painting, attempt to include interesting SHAPES (two-dimensions), then creating FORM (the suggestion of three dimensions) by adding patterns of LIGHT and SHADOW. When form has been established, the artist can establish TEXTURE (after careful observation of relationships between shape, form, light, and shadow).

GO-TO REFERENCES.

Many good beginner painting books include a section about composition. Some are incomplete or confusing, and some are better than others. My recommendations for resources on composition include:

The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting, (2017),  by Gordon MacKenzie.

Watercolor Composition Made Easy, (1999), by David R. Becker.

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles To Dramatically Improve Your Painting, (2008), by Ian Roberts.

Watercolor Success!, (2005), by Chuck Long.

Wonderful World of Watercolor: Learning and Loving Transparent Watercolor, (2008), by Mary Baumgartner.

Wren's Hen.jpg

SUMMARY.

Composition, the way things are arranged, has to do with balance, and many factors can be considered. Watercolor artist Zoltan Szabo, in Artist At Work, (p.30-31), (1979), describes good composition as a “balance of shapes, value, color, and texture”. He has said, “I keep the mood (I see), but rearrange the details to emphasize what I consider important, and play down or leave out the trivia. I like to pick a strong center of interest and subordinate everything else to complement it. I feel that composition is a personal thing, and I like my composition to be the way I decide, not the way it really is. I use the elements I find, but rearrange them in a new, more personalized balance.”

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Can’t I Just Paint?

Before I paint, do I really have to plan? It’ll spoil the mood. Can’t I just paint?

So many factors seem to be pushing an artist to just get started quickly on a painting. We may feel inspired, excited, or the colors in the sky may be changing fast, or the weather may be cold or threatening rain. While there’s no reason we can’t occasionally jump right into painting without preliminary thought, doing so will almost always make failure more likely.

Time spent in thoughtful preparation, on the other hand, is usually well spent. Planning ahead and thinking about your goals for the painting do NOT in any way stifle creativity! You will still evaluate your work as you go along, as well as react and adjust to what is happening on your paper. Only when you have clearly defined your objectives will you be able to exploit developments as they take place during the painting process.

Simple white building.jpg

 

Take the time to DESIGN your picture. Don’t jump the gun. Study your subject for a while before starting to paint. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Everything else should be subordinate.

Ask yourself what is your focal point? What is your painting about? Think about what you want to say before you start! WHAT do you hope to achieve and HOW are you going to achieve it? Without some clear objectives, you probably will have difficulty creating something extraordinary. 

Stormy sky.jpg

 

So, to create a better painting , consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision and SIMPLIFY your subject.

The key to simplifying the image you’re painting is doing CAREFUL PLANNING as well as understanding GOOD COMPOSITION. See these blog posts for more information about composition.  Read Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/. Also, check out Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, 7/16/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/ .

MTS.jpg

 

Generally, good design includes foreground or a ‘lead-in’ to draw your viewer into the picture, a strong focus, and framing or supporting details. But sometimes surrounding details can be reduced, contrast around the center of interest can be increased, or features can be rearranged or eliminated completely to simplify and improve the picture. Cropping an image can be extremely helpful.

The SIMPLER your shapes, the more POWER your picture can have. It actually takes more effort to create a bold simple painting than to jump right into putting paint to paper, struggling to work out any problems as you go along.

Forsythia.jpg

 

Artist Bill Vrscak believes “the simplest statements mean the most.” He also says “A bold, simple statement respects the viewer’s intelligence. Do your viewers a favor: Don’t bore them with extraneous detail. Make your point and get out.” Further, he suggests LEAVING OUT tiny shapes that can cause confusion, large dark areas, insignificant details, and too much surface detail.

To improve you painting, forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. Start to REARRANGE it! Simplify to make your subject more interesting and effective than you found it.

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Painting… With Attitude!

TECHNIQUE. 

Learning and practicing your watercolor TECHNIQUES until they become second nature will help you attain painting success. A little knowledge is helpful, as well. Get to know the ELEMENTS OF DESIGN (color, line, value, shape, and form) to create the effects you want. (See my blog posts Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/401, posted 10/16/2018, and Creating Form and Space In A Painting, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/390, posted 9/18/2018, for additional information about design elements.)

MINDSET OR ATTITUDE.

While technique and design elements need to be mastered, an artist’s mindset (or attitude) has a huge effect on every aspect of painting! Whatever emotions an artist is experiencing can often be observed in their painting. Uncertainty and fear can come across through tentative, uncertain brush strokes or pale, washed out colors. A creator in a rush can be sloppy and less than observant. A tense artist trying to control their pigment paints a stiff, tight picture, while a confident painter creates with a bolder, looser stroke. In many ways, painting echoes and reflects each artist’s attitudes and emotions.

Swinger painting.jpg

Sometimes the hardest thing to master about watercolor painting is our own mindset or attitude toward our painting. So what is an effective mindset for an artist to have? How might a painter think about the process of painting?

DON’T LET FEAR CONTROL YOU.

Try not to let fear of making mistakes or looking foolish hold you back. Everyone makes mistakes – that’s how we learn. No one will think less of you if you have difficulties. Don’t hesitate to paint – just begin taking action. Start! Everyone can learn to improve their painting!

Ducklings painting.jpg

AVOID JUDGING.

Strive to not put yourself down. Show compassion and encouragement to yourself instead of judging and criticizing your efforts. None of us will ever paint a perfect picture. Give yourself credit for being brave enough to paint!

 

BE OPEN TO THE PAINTING PROCESS.

Make an effort to be open-minded. We don’t always know what will happen next in art (or in life). And that’s okay! Your painting may go in a direction you don’t intend or expect it to go. It may take longer than you expect for your skills to improve. You don’t always have complete control when painting in watercolor – trying to force watercolor paint to do your bidding instead of flowing with it can cause frustration. Trust the process.

Tomatoes painting.jpg

PERSEVERE.

Stay optimistic. Keep trying. There will be ups and downs during the learning process – learning (like a baby’s growth) seems to move in spurts, or a spiral. A discouraged painter will tend to avoid their art and be less likely to practice and improve. Persevere.

ENJOY YOUR PAINTING.

Try to find something you like in each painting you work on. Make time to paint what interests and excites you. Be inspired. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Play! You’ll be more likely to continue with painting.

Goose girl painting.jpg

EXPERIMENT.

Eventually, as you become more practiced in technique, you will become more relaxed when painting, and able to experiment. You will become better able to plan and respond to your painting as it develops. Your goal is to listen to your own reactions to your work and adapt to what is happening on the paper, without panic or self-criticism.

Remember to paint what interests you and pleases you. Play! To read more about how painting can be affected by attitude, see my blog post I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But I Don’t Have The Talent (7/20/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/20/ive-always-wanted-to-paint-watercolors-but-dont-have-the-talent/.

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Perspective Simplified…

Perspective is related to the appearance of things – how the image you plan to paint looks and how you represent it in two dimensions on your paper (or canvas). As artists, we are concerned with achieving a sense of space, depth, and the appearance of three dimensions. We know objects and scenes change appearance from different viewpoints and under different lighting conditions. The use of perspective to suggest space and distance is just one of the useful tools an artist can use. By using principles of perspective, we can make our work more dynamic and effective.

DIMINUTION OR REDUCTION:

The first basic perspective rule is that all objects appear to decrease in size as they recede into the distance. So, the further away an object is from the viewer, the smaller it looks. This is called DIMINUTION.

Sycamore perspective.jpg

FORESHORTENING:

Another perspective principle describes what happens as an object is revolved and seen from different angles. A coin, for example, when observed head on will appear round and maximum size, but as it is pivoted, the image we see  begins to flatten and look more elliptical, until when viewed from the side, the coin looks very like a thin line. The object has become FORESHORTENED.

CONVERGENCE:

CONVERGENCE happens when lines or edges of objects (which we know to be PARALLEL) appear to come together as they recede into the distance. Looking down a fence line, for instance, a person would see the top and bottom of the fence converging, and the space between and the thickness of the fenceposts becoming narrower into the distance.

Walk to water perspective.jpg

January thaw perspective.jpg

VANISHING POINT:

When talking about perspective, we must understand that parallel lines (such as railroad tracks) will seem to come together (converge) or meet at some point. This point on the distant horizon is called the VANISHING POINT. When looking at a fence or railroad tracks we see ONE vanishing point. The converging lines will meet at an observer’s eye level on the horizon, I.e. at the vanishing point. In real life the horizon line is not always visible (it may be located behind a mountain or building). Nevertheless, the horizon line will always be at the observer’s eye level. Therefore, EYE LEVEL can be used as the horizon line for horizontal lines in a drawing.

VIEWPOINT:

While the vanishing point will generally be at eye level on the horizon, an observer’s VIEWPOINT can change. A person can be looking up, down, or straight out. Thus, eye level/horizon line can be higher or lower in your picture, depending on viewpoint. When you look UP, you see more sky or ceiling and the eye level/horizon line will be LOW. On the other hand, when you look DOWN, you see more ground or floor and eye level/horizon line will become HIGHER.

rusty truck perspective.jpg

 

Dock perspective.jpg

So, when you draw or paint a picture, your eye level/horizon line will inform your viewer whether they are looking  up, down, or straight ahead at a scene. For instance, it you place the horizon line high, they MUST be looking down on your subject. Place the horizon line low, and you are telling your viewer they are invariably looking up at the subject.

MULTIPLE VANISHING POINTS:

With a solid rectangular object, such as a building, you will have TWO vanishing points to consider. Each visible side of the building (made of parallel lines) has its own vanishing point. If you extend the lines forming the tops and bottoms of the visible sides until they meet, and you have drawn accurately, the lines will converge at two vanishing points on the eye level/horizon line. The two vanishing points need not be located on your paper. Often, depending on your viewpoint, the vanishing points will be off your paper, or possibly one (of the two) vanishing points will extend off the paper.

Queen Anne perspective.jpg

It is possible to have THREE OR MORE vanishing points. This can happen with a complicated drawing. When there are many SETS OF PARALLEL LINES going in different directions, each set will converge toward its OWN vanishing point.

winter coming perspective.jpg

IN SUMMARY:

Begin your consideration of perspective drawings by putting in the EYE LEVEL LINE. From there, you can begin to plot perspective lines (which represent SETS OF PARALLEL LINES) that should CONVERGE toward one or several VANISHING POINTS. When there are many sets of parallel lines going in different directions, each will converge toward its OWN vanishing point.

For more in depth information on perspective, consider:

Perspective:Learn How To Create Depth and Realism, 2001, by Ray Campbell Smith.

Perspective Drawing Handbook, 1964, by Joseph D’Amelio.

Basic Perspective Drawing: A Visual Approach, 1993, by John Montague.

Perspective For Artists, 1990, by Angela Gair.

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Painting…On the Edge.

If you are a painter, or just enjoy looking at paintings, you cannot avoid edges. Every shape in a painting has an edge, boundary, or margin that provides information about the subject. By altering the characteristics of edges, you can make clear what is most important in your painting.

As a painter, it is important to use the appropriate edges to pass along accurate information to your viewer. The right type of edge makes your subject recognizable. For example, a rock, house, or boat should have mainly hard edges, while a cloud, fog, or smoke should have primarily soft edges. Edges can suggest a sharp transition or soft blending. While each object can be essentially hard- or soft-edged, there should always be some variation in edge treatment in each shape or object to add variety and interest. While clouds will be predominantly soft, a few hard edges will attract the viewer’s eye and encourage a closer look.

TIRE SWING PAINTING.jpg

Edges can also create distance and separation between objects in a picture. For instance, a hard-edged object will appear separated from and in front of what is painted near it, suggesting space. On the other hand, a soft-edged object tends to blend in, to appear to touch, be close to, or be surrounded by nearby shapes.

Tiny Waves series - crashing wave.jpeg

TYPES OF EDGES.

There are a variety of different edge characteristics. Try to include many kinds of edges in each of your paintings!

HARD, abrupt, or sharp edges stop the movement of your eye. Your eye focuses on the hard edge and moves along the line’s edge, hopefully, to the most interesting part of the picture. ROUGH edges also attract attention, particularly if value contrast (light and dark) is high. An OVERLAPPED edge is a variation of the hard edge. To create an overlapped edge, paint a shape and let it dry. Paint another nearby shape by just overlapping the previous edge to create a small section of a third color and a transitional edge.

A SOFT, faded, or blurred edge allows the eye to easily move from one shape right over the edge to another shape. Soft edges can suggest movement or allow the viewer to imagine and interpret parts of a picture. A LOST edge is a variation of a soft edge, where the edge or boundary of an object can’t be seen although the viewer knows it must be there based on other parts of the painting. A BROKEN edge, or lost-and-found edge, keeps a painting from being static; the edge appears and disappears.

VT Farm Snow Scene(166).jpg

HOW TO PAINT EDGES.

To paint a HARD edge, make a stroke of paint on DRY paper and let the paint dry. ROUGH edges are painted on dry paper with somewhat thicker paint. By using the side of the brush, paint skips over the bumps in the paper (similar to a dry-brush mark).

In contrast, a SOFT edge is created by painting on WET paper (wet-in-wet). The degree of moisture on the paper affects how soft the edge will be. The wetter the paper, the more the paint will soften and dissipate. A soft edge can also be made by charging or painting one color next to a second color. (See my related blog post published June 4, 2019, “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Color On Watercolor Paper”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/.) Or form a soft edge by applying paint, then softening the edge with a damp brush, while the paint is still wet. If the paint has dried before you soften, you can still run a damp brush along the edge of the paint, but let the wetness soften the paint briefly before gently tickling the edge to get the edge paint to start to soften. It’s much easier to soften BEFORE paint dries, however. (See my related blog post published October 23, 2018, “Softening An Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/.)

Winter Is Coming.jpg

HOW TO PLAN YOUR EDGES.

How can you decide which edges should be painted with a hard edge, or soft, or rough, or lost? Why can’t you just make all the edges hard and detailed? I encourage you to go beyond copying every detail of a reference. Instead, improve your painting by thinking ahead and planning edges before you begin painting. If you are going to paint from a reference photo or from real life, SQUINT your eyes so that you can better see values and simplify the important details in your scene.

Decide on your painting’s center of interest. Your focus will generally be painted as the area having higher value contrast and harder edges. As you squint, you should also look for areas where there is lower value contrast and probably softer or lost edges. Try never to decide on your edge treatment without squinting and thinking about VALUES. Remember that light and the light source affect how you see edges. Make a note to help you remember! Direct or bright light will form harder, sharper edges, even lost edges in extremely bright light. Shadowed areas, distant objects, or darkness will suggest softer, perhaps lost edges, with less detail.

Strive to NOT have only hard edges! INVENT some lost edges if you have to. In other words, don’t define or detail every boundary. Plan where you’ll need to lose some edges. When drawing, you could leave out some lines entirely where you would like to lose an edge. Plan for each shape in a painting to have VARIED edges, not totally hard or totally soft.

The End of the Day.jpg

IN SUMMARY.

Edges provide much information about a subject. As an artist, you can provide the viewer with the correct information by using appropriate edges. A few  of the things that edges can tell you about are how strong the light is and from what direction it is coming, what the weather is, what the center of interest is in a painting, and distances of objects from the viewer.

To avoid a rigid painting, vary your edges! Remember that hard boundaries indicate the importance of an object in your picture. A hard edge stops the eye and directs the viewer to follow the edge. Value contrast also makes a hard edge more obvious. Yet, too many hard edges and too much detail can be confusing and monotonous. By varying edges, you create interesting things to look at and you encourage the viewer’s gaze to wander and flow from one part of your picture to another. Have many kinds of edges in a painting. The greater the variety of edge treatments, the more interesting your painting is to look at!

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