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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, or design, is what captures the viewers’ attention.

DESIGN ELEMENTS.

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, as well as aerial PERSPECTIVE, and 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.

CHOOSE ONE OR TWO DESIGN ELEMENTS.

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.

White church.jpg

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.

Red Barn.jpg

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.)

River Glow painting.jpg

 

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.

mulpus.jpg

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!

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A Baker’s Dozen of My Favorite Watercolor Books…(Part 2)

Let’s continue here with the second half of my list of favorite watercolor books. Enjoy!

Painting Successful Watercolours from Photographs ( 2015) by Geoff Kersey.      Artists who work from photographic source material need to learn to adapt and improve upon their photo references in order to create a successful painting. Geoff Kersey is a master of this way of working, and here he shows how to create a dramatic painting without overworking or putting too much detail. Reference photos, color charts, and preparatory sketches are shown alongside Kersey’s finished paintings in this book, with full details of the adaptations of each photo reference and the creative process involved. There are many clear tips, lots of advice, and an illustrated glossary of all the painting terms used. I would recommend Painting Successful Watercolours From Photographs to painters who like to use photos in composing their pictures.

kersey.jpg

 

Geoff’s Top Tips For Watercolour Artists (2011) by Geoff Kersey (updated 2018 as Geoff Kersey’s Pocket Book For Watercolour Artists: Over 100 Essential Tips To Improve Your Painting.)                                                                                                      In this wonderful resource, Kersey covers many of the main techniques and methods he uses to create his watercolor landscape paintings. He describes the basics, then begins to teach the reader, by example, how to actually approach and begin a painting. Kersey presents step-by-step lessons for a variety of specific settings, including painting skies, mountains, trees, water, buildings, coastal scenes, and snow scenes.

Geoff Kersey has also written (in addition to the three books of his mentioned above) How To Paint Skies, Watercolour Trees and Woodlands, Watercolour Landscapes, Watercolour Seascapes, Trees, Woodlands and Forests, and others. And Kersey offers video classes on arttutor.com.

 

The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Landscapes (2006) by Gordon MacKenzie is fantastic! (Note: The Complete Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook (2010) includes both the original Essential Notebook and this recommended Essential Notebook: Landscapes.)  I use information from this book in my own painting and return to the book repeatedly. MacKenzie presents many techniques in a simple, straightforward, easy to follow manner, but then he adds even more information that is relevant and interesting. The book answered many of my questions about water, trees, skies, colors, ‘fading out’, mood, composition, light effects, negative painting, and so on. You may have heard that some watercolor paints are better than others, but by reading this book I came to understand WHY  ‘good’ watercolor paints are better than others. MacKenzie explains how poorer quality paints can be made from different pigments, with different amounts of fillers, and sometimes with  pigments that are unreliable.

Gordon MacKenzie has also written The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting! to help you recharge your creative spirit and stay excited about painting with watercolor.

mackenzie.jpg

 

Watercolor Basics: Let’s Get Started (1998) by Jack Reid.                                              This is a great book for beginners! The author covers what tools and materials to start with and proceeds with clear, understandable instructions to describe steps to take to create a painting. He introduces and demonstrates  simple techniques, then begins to gradually combine several of the techniques to show the reader how to paint more difficult subjects. Reid maintains, “After 25 years of teaching thousands of novice watercolorists the simple methods contained in this book, I firmly believe that anyone willing to follow the directions and do the work cannot fail to achieve a successful picture. If I can do it, so can you” (page 9). Upon completion of this book, beginners should be able to produce some of their own paintings without frustration or discouragement.

Reid has also written the excellent Watercolor Basics: Painting Snow and Water (2000).

 

Watercolor Lessons From Eliot O’Hara (1974) by Carl Schmalz, is an out-of-print classic. Schmalz has compiled and shared many lessons from the famous Eliot O’Hara School, first opened at Goose Rocks Beach, Maine, in 1931. Eliot O’Hara has been called America’s greatest teacher of watercolor. These lessons are clear, concise, and specific, and teach the gradual acquisition of particular skills necessary for watercolor painting. There are lots of black and white illustrations in this book, with color plates located in the center pages. The relative lack of color illustrations can make the book appear dated; however, the lessons are packed full of information to apply to your paintings.

I would recommend Watercolor Lessons From Eliot O’Hara to anyone serious about learning watercolor who will not need to be ‘entertained’ with numerous dramatic colored pictures to sustain their interest.

 

Watercolor For Starters: Step-By-Step Projects for Successful Paintings (2005) by Paul Talbot-Greaves is an excellent book for beginners. Talbot-Greaves provides detailed information on basic techniques. His writing is easy to understand. He has a knack for simplifying images and removing extraneous details in his demonstrations so that beginners can be successful right from the start. Talbot-Greaves covers color, tone, many techniques, composition, and so on. Many step-by-step demonstrations, progressing from simple to more difficult, are included.

 

Developing Style In Watercolor (1992) by Ray Campbell Smith.                                    Style is the quality that distinguishes one painter’s work from another’s. Just as people evolve their own distinctive handwriting, so in time painters develop  individual styles. The author explains how the correct choice of materials (paper, paint, brushes) will help in the quest for genuine style. Instead of trying to copy artists they admire, aspiring painters are encouraged to develop fluent brush work, choose a limited color palette, and strive for sound but original composition. Campbell Smith feels that timidity, tightness, and the need to paint exactly ‘what is there’ are the main obstacles to the development of fluent style. The author suggests techniques and brush work for avoiding the above-mentioned pitfalls. This is an inspiring book.

rcsmith.jpg

 

I highly recommend all of the above books. However, the watercolor books I most love are by Gordon MacKenzie and Geoff Kersey.

 

A Baker’s Dozen of My Favorite Watercolor Books…(Part 1)

I LOVE books! And I really love watercolor painting books!! I wanted to share my favorite watercolor books with you. While looking through my collection and trying to choose the best, I realized that I wanted books that offered specifics and clear instruction while also being useful and practical. I chose some books appropriate for beginners, some for more experienced painters, and others appropriate for both groups and all painters in between. After much deliberation, I share these personal favorites, which are listed alphabetically, by author’s last name:

 

Making Color Sing, 25th Anniversary Edition: Practical Lessons in Color and Design (2011, originally published in 1986) by Jeanne Dobie.                              Color, color, color! Don’t buy lots of tubes of paint – just read this book to see how a few basic colors can create almost any color there is. Dobie’s book may change the way you paint with watercolor.

In the 25th anniversary edition of Making Color Sing, Jeanne Dobie teaches you new ways to think about color and make it work for you, through 31 clear, easy-to-follow exercises. No color exists in isolation; colors are always interacting with one another. As the author explains, understanding color relationships is the key to successful painting.

The lessons on color lead into another essential painting consideration: composition and design. Painting is much more than copying what you see. It involves finding a structure that allows you to organize and thus communicate your impressions and reactions. Dobie encourages artists to experiment with different arrangements of shapes and values to build a dynamic foundation in their paintings. This book stimulates new ways to think about color, generating responses that unlock personal creativity and allow artists to express themselves with paint.

I recommend Making Color Sing to those who have some experience in watercolor as well as to more advanced watercolor artists.

 

Powerful Watercolor Landscapes (2011) by Catherine Gill.                                    This book gives you the “power tools” you need to transform dull, flat landscapes into robust, colorful expressions of your artistic vision. Each chapter focuses on a specific strategy for tackling tough challenges, complete with inspiring examples, hands-on demonstrations, and instructional diagrams to make these strategies easy and fun to learn. Following Gill’s masterful visual instruction, you’ll learn how to:

  • See beyond “what you see” to develop strong foundations in every composition

  • Avoid repainting, overworking, and frustration by focusing on a composition’s unifying elements

  • Become decisive with your values for heightened interest and impact

  • Quickly and easily mix a huge range of clean, rich colors—including vibrant grays and greens—with no more mud!

  • Put it all together, following detailed step-by-step demonstrations of complete paintings from start to finish

The author wants you to get beyond replicating a scene, but instead to start infusing your art with impressions and feeling. Gill can tell you WHY a piece of art catches your eye and HOW to create art with that kind of impact.

Powerful Watercolor Landscapes is NOT a book for someone who wishes to paint exactly what they see before them, but for a painter who wants to create expressive art with impact.

gill.jpg

 

Texture Techniques For Winning Watercolors (1999, 2014) by Ray Hendershot. (First edition better reproduces Hendershot’s artwork; reprinted edition is reportedly of poor quality.)                                                                                                      Filling in the gaps where other books fall short, Hendershot elaborates on the fine details that distinguish a good painting from an excellent painting. With his guidance you can learn about a range of effective methods to create texture, such as spattering and spritzing, scraping and blotting. If you have previously learned the basic watercolor techniques, Hendershot offers step-by-step demonstrations and hands-on exercises to build your repertoire. This book would be an asset for advanced beginners.

hendershot.jpg

 

Painting Nature’s Details In Watercolor (1987, 1991) by Cathy Johnson.                  Johnson offers practical advice on portraying light and shadow, texture, water patterns, plants and flowers, wildlife, and still life. She is a prolific and knowledgeable artist, with a knack for simplifying her images to include the most salient details of her subjects. Johnson helps an artist observe and take note of the natural world’s subtle detail. My favorite chapter in this book is called Painting The Light and offers numerous tips on how to capture the glow of light in your paintings.

Johnson has written many other books (Creating Textures In Watercolor, Painting Watercolors, Artist’s Journal Workshop, Painting In Nature, and others) as well as many magazine articles. She offers mini-classes on her website (cathyjohnson.info). All of her work is appropriate for beginners and more experienced painters.

 

Ways With Watercolor (originally 1949, Second Edition, Enlarged 1963) by Ted Kautzky.                                                                                                                                            Ted Kautzky was a master watercolorist. His book discusses pigments, washes, composition, contrast, and the use of accessories for special effects. In simple direct language, Kautzky shares his extensive knowledge of watercolor. At times you may have to re-read portions of each page to truly grasp all the information he has packed into each sentence. In addition to many demonstrations, he also includes challenging practice material. Many illustrations are in black and white, and color reproductions are somewhat muted, but this limitation should not detract from the valuable information presented in Kautzky’s book.

Kautzky has also written other excellent books, including Painting Trees and Landscapes In Watercolor and The Ted Kautzky Pencil Book.

 

Perspective, Depth and Distance (2004) by Geoff Kersey. (Newer 2017 edition – Painting Perspective, Depth and Distance In Watercolour – is expanded and updated.)                                                                                                                                          Kersey is a good explainer, and in this book he is concise when teaching the theory of perspective, both linear and atmospheric. Then he illustrates perspective with a number of demonstrations, thus making the learning of perspective enjoyable and relevant. He shows how to create depth and distance while painting objects in perspective and allowing them to recede naturally. I recommend using this book to make your watercolors look more realistic. Perspective, Depth and Distance is suitable for beginners and experienced watercolorists alike.

Here ends the first installment of my favorite watercolor books. Check back next week for the rest of the list.

 

Creating Form and Space in a Painting.

How can I create the look of a three-dimensional object or scene on a flat piece of paper? An artist creates form in a picture, in part, through the use of TONAL VALUES: lights and darks will suggest weight and mass in your painting. In other words, contrast and variation of values (lights and darks) will indicate form, space, and depth. SHADOWS appear as SHAPES lying on the surface of an object, following the contours and revealing the form of the underlying object.

LIGHT ON CURVED AND FLAT OBJECTS.

Many of the objects you paint will be a combination of CURVED and FLAT surfaces. Light interacts differently with each of these surfaces, so pay attention to value changes in order to paint a convincing illusion of three-dimensional form.

On a curved surface, darks and lights change constantly and smoothly. When painting a curved object look for a core shadow with reflected light on the dark side as well as a slight shadow on the light side. The change from light to dark on a curved object is GRADUAL across its surface. The direction of the light shining on the curved object determines where different shadows and lights will fall.

In contrast, a viewer can perceive flat surfaces because of a contrast of value between EACH of the surfaces. Each side of a cube, for instance, receives a different proportion of light. Value does NOT stay constant across each surface, but changes slightly as each side recedes.

COLOR VS. BLACK AND WHITE.

Color is made up of both HUE (the name of the pure color) and TONE. Each color (hue) has the quality of lightness or darkness. (Yellow has a lighter tone, for instance, than purple.) Differences in the tone of a color are easy to see when the colors used are not very intense (or strong). However, the brilliance or intensity of colors can interfere with your ability to isolate and focus only on the lightness/darkness of color, thus making it difficult to judge tonal values in a painting. SQUINTING your eyes can help you see the proper tone. As you squint, look only for the difference in lightness or darkness of an area.

A black/white GRAY SCALE (a card with gradations of white, gray, and black) can make it easier to judge tone in your picture. Alternatively, make a black and white copy of your reference photo, or draw a value sketch of your scene including lights, mid-values, and darks for reference while painting. In black and white you will see the tonal values of the subject ( and not the color). This new way of seeing will help you compose, simplify, and adjust values in your painting. With practice, you will be better able to recognize tones and values and to control them.

When you look at your painting subject, look for a range of tones from light to dark. However, keep in mind that TONE in a picture is always RELATIVE. Observe the strength of tone in one area of the picture in relation to all the other tones. When you squint, you will notice that highlights and darks are visible to you while non-essential details tend to blur. Try to simplify your image into at least three (no more than five) tonal values, e.g. light, dark, mid-tone. You can start your painting with pale undertones to establish the layout of your composition. Leave highlights as the white of the paper. Mid-tones are painted next, overlapping some layers to build up color. Dark tones are usually the final layer of building up color in your painting. Having the lighter layers painted, you will find it easier to evaluate just how dark you need to paint your darkest colors.

CONTRAST OF TONE/VALUE.

CONTRAST (the relative difference between light and dark areas in a painting) is one of the ways in which the brain distinguishes one thing from another. The stronger the contrast, the more it attracts attention. Contrast helps a viewer differentiate between subject and background in a painting and directs the viewer’s eye to the center of interest, especially when the center of interest is the point of greatest contrast.

Contrast is dynamic, contributing excitement, attracting attention, and relieving monotony. Contrast creates a tension between the opposing elements, a push and pull, to provide visual strength and make a forceful statement in a painting. (COUNTERCHANGE is the term used for placing light and dark tones next to each other to create impact.) Every artist wants to paint a picture that has some impact! To create a stimulating painting, include strong contrasts.

Contrast in VALUE is the most common form of contrast used by artists. Other possible types of contrast are contrast in temperature, in energy, and in purity of color (bright or muted). While painting, artists try to arrange and modify the values of various parts of a picture, depending on what they want to emphasize. Sometimes they alter values from how those values appear in reality to whatever the artists need to make a stronger composition. If you squint at your painting and certain areas blend into each other, you may need to add more contrast in your work. If you make shadows darker or lose some detail in the bright highlights, you can make your painting more dramatic. If your picture looks dull, with all areas the same tone, you may need to increase the tonal range. Make sure that darker and lighter tones alternate across the painting and that there is tonal variation WITHIN each wash for variety.

Early Morning, Early Spring.jpg

In the above watercolor painting, note the contrasts in tone and color temperature in particular. Are there soft and hard edges? What draws your attention in this picture? What techniques suggest depth and three dimensions?

EDGE VARIATION.

Since VARIATION is important in watercolor, also allow some edges (perhaps in shaded areas and highlights) to merge into areas of similar tone and to be less detailed. (This is called LOST AND FOUND, or HARD AND SOFT EDGES, or fading and disappearing edges, or broken or inferred edges.) When edges appear or disappear or are soft, they create a sense of movement in a painting, allowing the viewers to imagine or interpret what they see. In contrast, hard edges define SHAPES and hold or direct the viewers’ eye. By employing hard and soft edges, the  artist can further refine the creation of distance, depth, and form.

PERSPECTIVE.

Also use PERSPECTIVE ( a succession of spatial planes receding into the distance) to help you create believable space and form. When you place a light-toned object in front of a darker one, it appears to be positioned in front of the other spatially. Larger objects appear closer than smaller ones.

IN SUMMARY.

Tonal counterchange (light against dark) not only appeals to the eye but also creates shape and depth in a painting. Light and shadow across the surface of an object reveal the form of that object. Strong tonal contrast and a varied range of tones create the illusion of space and suggest three-dimensional form.

Get In The Mood!

Mood is only one of the important effects we create in our efforts as artists to get our viewers to see what we want them to see. (Other main effects that we use include unity, dominance [or emphasis], variety, contrast, gradation, transitions, perspective, balance, rhythm and movement, pattern, and so on.) Establishing a mood will bring character and interest to your painting, while enhancing your subject. MOOD is the pervasive feeling evoked by your painting — for example, calm tranquility or languid, hazy heat. Mood conveys emotion to your viewer.

To intentionally create a different mood (also sometimes called ATMOSPHERE) in your painting, you might manipulate COLORS, VALUES, or CLARITY. To think about this issue more simply, you might consider first whether you want your picture to have a warm or cool feel to it ( COLORS lean toward warm or cool temperatures – see The Paint Colors and Brands on My Palette…, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/08/28/the-paint-colors-and-brands-on-my-palette/,  my blog published 8/28/18.); then you could decide on the dominant VALUE ( lightness or darkness, such as ‘bright and cheery’ or perhaps ‘dark and foreboding’); then, you could define the CLARITY (level of detail) you hope to achieve.

Stormy sky

You could also create mood by manipulating the SPATIAL DESIGN of a picture. For instance, a large empty expanse in a painting could be used to create a sense of ease or openness, or even bleakness or emptiness. Converging lines could be used to make the viewer feel confined, closed in, or up close to a subject. To suggest calm and tranquility, keep your main lines HORIZONTAL, with one or two vertical lines to break up the monotony. (Water in a calm scene should be smooth, with mirror-like reflections, and with clouds echoing the predominance of horizontal line.) Strident VERTICAL lines will enhance feelings of awe, even fear. (Crags and mountainsides can appear intimidating, castles will seem impregnable, especially if trees, dwellings, or figures below are made smaller.) Strong DIAGONALS suggest a sense of dynamism and movement, and diagonally directed clouds with ragged edges will produce a sensation of strong winds and restlessness. (Diagonals guided toward the focal point emphasize its importance.)

Scottish Coastline cropped

Both value and clarity will determine the lighting in your painting, which in turn, will tell you the intensity of the colors you should use.  It is the literal atmosphere that creates figurative ‘atmosphere.’ For instance, the amount of humidity, snow, rain, dust, or fog in the air determines the quality of light that gets through it, as well as the colors and amount of detail we see. Think coastal fogs, dark clouds, or misty mountains! Mood often has a tonal range or value – these ranges can be described as low key, high key or middle key. A low key painting would be dark and could give a viewer a heavy or somber feeling. A high key picture would instead have a bright and cheerful effect. A middle key painting uses a wider range of values which could be used to create a wider variety of moods.

dynamic skies - rainy shed

If you want a bright, sunny picture (also called high key) with sharp clarity, you want to use colors that are mostly pure. Do a lot of wet-on-dry painting for sharpness, show distant detail, and use shadows and highlights. In contrast, if you are striving for fog or haze, most of the colors you  use will be dulled because of subdued lighting. Use wet-on-damp techniques to produce soft edges, and flatten the background shapes so that they have few details. In this way, atmosphere contributes to ‘mood.’

Barn Interior

Why should you worry about mood? Why should you care whether you create a specific mood in a painting?  Painters care about mood because a watercolor painting without a mood is dry, generic, uninteresting, and without feeling!  Try to move beyond a mere representation or photographic copy of objects in your art. Rather than precisely copying every detail in a picture, you should aim to suggest and imply.  While creating ‘mood,’ strive to interpret a scene by choosing the details to include and the ones to leave out. There is no need to tell the viewer everything! Mood adds drama and appeal. Allow each viewer to see something different, to use THEIR imagination, to feel their own emotion, and to participate in your painting. By creating mood and atmosphere when you paint, you will be on your way to creating a visual poetry that stirs deep feeling in your audience.

As Joseph Zbukvic says in Mastering Atmosphere And Mood In Watercolor: The Critical Ingredients That Turn Paintings Into Art (p. 55), mood indicators can be mist, clouds, puddles of water on the ground, smoke, sunlight, color, shadow, value contrast, unusual horizon placement, animals or people, types of brushstrokes ( smooth, choppy, chaotic), or line (s-shaped curves, lots of verticals or horizontals, diagonals).

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