How Do You Know When a Painting is Finished?

Knowing when a painting is ‘finished’ depends on the goals you establish before beginning to paint. There is no obvious point at which you know a picture is complete. But there are tips to help you decide; choosing your goals and being aware of your painting approach will help to insure that you meet those goals by recognizing when you’ve achieved them.

Some painters may start to paint before they have a goal, instead seeing where the painting process leads them. Other painters are moved by a vision of where they want to go in a painting and they plan ahead to get there. At some point in the process, all good artists connect with their painting in an emotional way and become aware of why they chose to paint what they did.

By clarifying for yourself why you want to paint a subject, you begin to know what is important for you to get across in the painting. You can better develop a composition that effectively creates a center of interest that moves the viewer’s eye to focus on your emphasis. Decide what to include in your picture and what to leave out! A painting should have only one center of interest to avoid confusion. Surrounding areas in a picture will be made less important by using different values, less detail, fewer hard edges, etc.

Be clear in your own mind why you want to do a painting. What am I painting this picture for? What do I find most interesting about the scene? Is it the subject itself that I like, the weather, colors or contrasts, the effect of the light and shadows?

Having a plan before beginning to paint does not mean you can’t experiment or change your mind as you proceed. Painting should be a process of trying out your ideas and evaluating as you go along how well your techniques are achieving your goals. If something doesn’t work as well as expected, by all means, try something else. Improvise!

The following two paintings were well planned, yet as painting proceeded, changes were necessary to achieve goals. In the yard of ‘Pepperell Relic’, the fading rays of sun were not bright enough initially, and a glaze had to be added. The background for ‘Apple Blossoms’ was too strident and intrusive at first, requiring toning down with a blue glaze.

Pepperell Relic painting.jpg

Pepperell Relic.

Apple Blossoms LAMH.jpg

Apple Blossoms.

By choosing a center of interest, you can easily make decisions as you paint. You’ll have some idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. You’ll know where your focus is. Knowing your focus will help you judge when your painting is finished. Usually you will reach a point in painting when you realize that you have got down on paper the main things that you wanted to include. If you find yourself starting to be fussy with small details, then you should probably stop painting. Take a break, step back, and evaluate your work. Return the next day when you may be quite satisfied that your work is complete. Try not to risk overworking in an effort to achieve perfection.

I’ve got a newsletter now! Subscribe here. I’ll give a free copy of my blending tip pdf.

Properly Using A Photograph As A Painting Reference.

Getting outdoors and painting directly from nature can be very enjoyable.  You get a feel for your surroundings – colors, smells, temperature, atmosphere, light, and so on.  Sometimes, however, you need more time to work on your painting than you have at the moment: the weather may not cooperate (it begins to rain, or the temperature dips below freezing), the light changes quickly (the sun goes down, or clouds emerge), or other circumstances change (the birds you are painting fly away, or ripples disturb the water).  For these reasons, painting with the aid of photographs is often much more convenient and can increase the amount of time you can spend painting a scene.

Christmas tree truck photo refence.jpg  image1.jpg

Christmas tree truck photo references.

Dangers do emerge, however, when you are working from photographs, particularly if you use pictures taken by someone else.  As an artist, you need to make sure that the photos on which you plan to base a painting are not copyrighted by the photographer.  Photos do belong to the picture-taker.  As a solution, you might ask the photographer for permission to use them.  Also, you might try a Google search (“Advanced Image Search”) and look in the “Usage Rights” section for content labeled either “Creative Commons” or “Public Domain.”  Alternatively, visit some internet sites that offer stock or copyright-free photos.  (I will include a list of some of these sites in next week’s blog.)

TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTOS.

Taking your own reference photos, however, is an even better approach.  You can think of your camera as a sketchbook, using it to compose pictures while you look through your viewfinder.  Each picture will belong to you, whether you combine it with a similar shot, crop and simplify the image, or make color changes as you paint.  Keep in mind, however, that photographs DO NOT reproduce an image in the same way that the eye sees it.  The camera tends to lose details in shadows and overexpose bright spots.  Photographs can also change actual colors in a scene and provide too much detail.  While your photograph can provide some excellent information (for example, architectural details, lighting conditions, and color references), the camera is simply a TOOL like any other tool (like a paintbrush or painting paper), and your eye and judgment as an artist must guide the use of any such tool.  Use photos not as ends in themselves but simply as sources of reference information.

Pepperell Relic jpg.jpg

Pepperell Relic.jpg

Watercolor “Pepperell Relic”, with photo reference.

Sometimes when you focus a lot of energy on taking photos, you may not take the time you need to study your subject and look at it with careful attention.  Sketching or drawing that subject, on the other hand, can force you to “see” what you are looking at, noticing the truly important information.

IMPROVE ON YOUR PHOTO REFERENCE.

Your goal should not be to paint an exact copy of any photograph; instead, you should simplify the scene.  Your job is to improve on a photo, adding your own personality and flair, expressing your excitement or the mystery you feel when viewing that scene.  What attracts you to the subject in the first place?  Take time before painting to look at your photo and think about what you might want to change in it.  Some elements in the photo might seem unnecessary or distracting.  You might be able to improve the composition or color.

If someone tells you that your painting looks like a photograph, don’t take that statement as a compliment.  The implication is that you have actually copied the photograph rather than using it for inspiration or information.  Do not attempt to include every detail from a photo in your painting.  Simplify; focus on your interpretation of the center of interest, and try to be creative.

You will get more out of your photographs if you use them as a starting point for your painting rather than as the desired end result.  You will often need to make some changes from the photo to turn it into a good painting.  The first type of editing of a photo is to make SIMPLE COSMETIC CHANGES while keeping the essential image intact, and many types of these cosmetic changes can improve your picture.  For instance, your photo may show dull, boring clouds that need some added drama.  You could also decide to reinterpret and brighten colors to produce an exciting or ominous mood.  You could tilt or angle your image for a somewhat different point of view.  Some artists who flip the image in the photo (as in a mirror) find that that change improves the way the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. One of the simplest changes to make is a change in season.  Another cosmetic change you could make is altering the time of day (and thus the mood) by changing the light and altering shadows.

By manipulating values, detail, and the quality of colors, you could create a warm, sunny picture or a soft, foggy image . . . or anything in between.  Similarly, you could add more shadows to add interest and visual pattern.  If a photograph does not show enough value contrast, you can create that contrast; sometimes, by simply changing the light direction, you can lighten some areas and darken others.  You can highlight important areas by making them light and by surrounding these light areas with dark colors (thereby increasing contrast around your center of interest).  You don’t have to use the colors you see in a photograph; you can increase color harmony in your painting by limiting the number of colors you use.  Alternatively, emphasize both warm and cool colors for contrast and interest.  You could make some exciting variations of color in an area that is basically one color by mingling other colors to add life.

Maine coast.jpg

FullSizeRender.jpg

Watercolor “Maine coastline”, with photo reference.

Another type of edit to improve a photograph for painting is making a STRUCTURAL CHANGE to improve the composition and to build a picture that is more your own creation.  You can make changes to what is in the photo and to where things are in your picture.  First, evaluate your image to identify the most important object or the focus of attention.  Notice the big SHAPES, major LINES, and VALUES.  You’ll want to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from the photo.  Don’t keep anything that is irrelevant.  Keep in mind your knowledge of good composition (see my blog “Making a Strong Painting with Good Composition” from October 16, 2018, or review your favorite art books on the subject of composition and design).

Cropping a photo and zooming in for close-ups allow you to relocate the center of interest to a more dynamic position, thus improving your composition.  You could also highlight your center of interest by changing your format or the orientation of your paper.  For example, a landscape orientation may be appropriate for focusing on a farmstead with surrounding fields whereas a portrait orientation could highlight the magnificent tree in front of a farmhouse; on the other hand, a square format could work well with a flock of sheep grazing in a field, while an elongated format could effectively fit a vista of the mountains that provides the backdrop for the farmstead.  Exaggerating some details or colors can also improve a composition.  Similarly, you could change your point of view; try changing the level or angle from which you are viewing the subject, imagining, for instance, that you are looking down at the same scene from a plane flying overhead.  If your photo has been taken from the shore of a lake, would the painting be more majestic if you imagined the lake viewed from the edge of a cliff above it?  Use your imagination!

A third way of editing photographs for painting is making CREATIVE CHANGES; this technique can be quite dramatic.  You can add elements that are not in the photo or combine parts of several photographs to create a new image.  Birds from several photos can be put into one.  Flowers can be rearranged.  To a wintry field you can add skaters on an icy pond.  You can paint two different types of images together, combining an image of a wilderness lake with the image of a map showing how to get there.  The sizes of elements within a picture you can also alter; if the photo shows five trees of the same size, try making one the focus of attention by making it bigger while also varying the size and spacing of the others to support the dominance of the larger tree.  You can overlap images, fading one out as it joins another, and, of course, you can even produce an image that is pure fantasy.

IMG_6939.jpg

IMG_1521.jpg

Watercolor “Mulpus”, with photo reference.

While you can paint from a photograph, painting on site is preferable because that way, you can view, experience, and even sketch the scene for yourself.  Using other people’s photographs involves some dangers, particularly if you don’t have permission to use them.  Furthermore, photos tend to distort and change some of the information they capture, in addition to including too much detail for a good composition.  If you take your own photo, you can use it for lighting conditions, architectural details, and further inspiration.  However, photographs can never tell you the full story, even though they can be helpful references.  You can (and should) edit a photo to improve and simplify its image.  Crop your photos, and combine them as needed to create effective, powerful paintings.

IMG_0186.jpg

Photo reference for future watercolor.

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:

IMG_3969.jpg

IMG_1983.jpg

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:

IMG_3957.jpg

IMG_5106.jpg

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:

IMG_0227.jpg

 

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:

IMG_4330.jpg

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:

IMG_0251.jpg

IMG_2988.jpg

Variable Repetition format:

IMG_2103.jpg

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:

IMG_6173.jpg

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:

IMG_4331.jpg

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:

IMG_1706.jpg

IMG_1974.jpg

IMG_0077.jpg

 

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:

IMG_5994.jpg

 

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:

IMG_6834.jpg

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:

IMG_5835.jpg

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

I Have an Image I’d Like to Paint. Now Where Do I Start?

As you approach a painting, it is absolutely vital that you think hard about what you’re doing. You can avoid many problems if you PLAN ahead and think through the sequence of painting steps. Before you begin to paint, you must stop and analyze the subject to be painted.  Learn to ask yourself some basic questions.  First, determine what it is you want to show and what you want to say about your subject. Why did you choose to paint this picture? Why were you drawn to this image? Does your image remind you of a favorite place?  Does the picture make you feel calm? Do you feel like laughing when you look at your subject?

Think about your MOOD. How does the scene make you feel? Happy, sad, excited, nostalgic? Respond to your emotions – these feelings are what you will try to get down on paper and share with viewers of your art. People will connect to YOUR art with THEIR emotions! For instance, does your painting depict hay being baled and loaded onto a truck on a sweltering hot, hazy summer day?  Can you just imagine your clothes clinging to you and your skin itching where loose hay sticks to your sweaty skin? You would definitely be looking forward to a tall glass of cold iced tea later while sitting in the shade! The mood and setting of this kind of picture should suggest certain paint color choices and techniques to you. You might use rich, warm summer greens for trees, ochres to show for dried grasses, bright, warm blues in a sky full of billowing cumulus clouds. In the distance, details might be a bit soft, paler, and obscured by the haze and humidity.  Cloud formations and vegetation during sunny high summer have certain characteristics they do not usually show during other seasons or weather conditions.

Come up with a plan of attack. Remember that there is not just one way to paint a scene! What approach are you drawn to? Will you paint background first? Do you want to paint all your underlayers first? Have some idea of what you want to do, but be open to adapting your plans as you proceed. Feel free to rearrange objects to strengthen your composition. You can also change the atmosphere, season, time of day, or direction of the light source in your picture. Decide on a center of interest to anchor your painting; then in view of what you choose as your focus, pick what details you will emphasize and what elements you will remove. It is best to SIMPLIFY your image – learn to really look at your picture and see Shapes, Values, Edges, and Color Changes – instead of “clouds,” “trees,” “roads,”or “faces.”  Then, ELIMINATE some things. Sometimes less is more! Don’t copy every detail you see – filter the details through your own eyes. Wouldn’t a few details be more interesting than having everything in precise imitation of the reality? (If you detail everything, you have NOT created a CENTER OF INTEREST to draw the eye of the viewer.)  Making such choices is one of the important steps in moving from being a painter to being an ARTIST. Your painting should share your impression of and emotions about a scene. You should not be striving for a rote photographic copy that expresses no feeling.

Once you determine the mood of your painting and think about what paint colors and techniques would give your painting the desired feeling, you can progress to make a light pencil sketch of a few IMPORTANT details of the image. Consider whether you intend to save the white of the paper with masking fluid before you begin painting. With masking complete, decide which parts of your painting you will paint first and with what techniques. Every picture is different, so in a way you will need to be a bit of a detective. If you enjoy puzzles, as I do, figuring out how you proceed through a painting can be an enjoyable challenge. The goal is to have a PLAN, with the construction of your painting broken down into small, manageable steps from the start to the finish of the process.

Often I begin a painting by painting the sky. If there is no sky to paint, I tend to start with the background and work gradually toward the foreground, painting light colors prior to darker colors, building up layers to create shape and form. Watercolor is seldom painted as one layer. I like to have light colors surrounded by dark, or vice versa, to create emphasis and impact, and to attract a viewer’s interest.  I also consider adjusting the colors in a painting to suit my own taste or to set the mood that I want to create. Fine details in the foreground or at the center of interest I often paint last.

As you gain experience as a painter, you will find it easier to rearrange objects, adjust colors, or simplify in your art. Try to be BOLD! You are a unique individual unlike anyone else.  Get your OWN feelings down on the paper. Dare to be yourself, and work to master your techniques of painting, and you will develop your own style and be likely to have success as a painter. And remember: the more you paint, the faster you grow!