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.

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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.

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Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!

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As an artist, you have the opportunity to improve a composition before you paint it! Don’t be tempted to merely copy what you see before you. Instead, change an ordinary scene into an extraordinary painting. If you just paint what you see, without thinking, evaluating, or redesigning, you may end up with a painting that has no “WOW!”

But how do you go about improving the subject you want to paint? How can you make your image better and design stronger? What should you do to create a painting with impact? Wouldn’t it just be a lot of work, especially if I don’t know how to improve my image? How do some artists create an exciting painting about a mundane, everyday subject? Copying is NOT enough! But, the answer may be, at least in part, to use interesting SHAPES!

While you may think that most artists begin their paintings by drawing LINES that represent objects to be painted, this is often NOT the first thing that they do to prepare for painting. Instead, an artist usually looks for or tries to compile a strong composition. One of the best ways to plan a composition is to reduce a scene to its essential or most basic components, to cut out distracting details, to simplify.

To help you simplify and reduce distractions, squint your eyes. Then look for the dominant shapes in the scene. Some artists SIMPLIFY by limiting the number of dominant shapes that they focus on to three, seven, or twelve, no more than fifteen. Evaluate and think about what shapes you could rearrange or emphasize, which shapes are important and which provide support for the other shapes. For instance, should the house in your painting be moved closer to or even overlap the barn? Should you remove that distracting tree? Are there too many cars in the image – they don’t add any helpful information?

Contour sketch Forsythia House.jpg

Forsythia House copy.jpg

The relationships of the interlocking shapes in a picture will determine balance and interest. Good painters make more interesting shapes!

Contour sketch Primroses.jpg

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Try to see the world around you as made of shapes, and you will find it easier to become an arranger of shapes. Make an effort to avoid focusing on drawing or painting ‘a tree’, ‘a boat’, ‘a dog’, ‘a car’, or ‘a streetlight’. Paint what you ’see’, not what you think you see. (Check out my related blogs “Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees – Part I, II, and III”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/13/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/19/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-ii/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/26/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-iii/, published March 13, March 19, and March 26, 2019.) Beginning painters can get so preoccupied with NAMING details (“Is this a tail?”, “Are the feet crossed?”, or “I can’t tell what this is!”) that they forget to look at shapes and their relationships to each other. You need to paint SHAPES!

Contour sketch Dog.jpg

Dog small.jpg

One way to define shapes is to think about their geometric form. Are they circles, squares, rectangles, triangles? These are simple shapes, but very static and dull. They should be improved and made more dynamic by varying their size and shape contour, connecting two or more shapes together, overlapping shapes, avoiding symmetry. A building is much more interesting when viewed from an angle, as opposed to looking at it straight-on. Don’t forget that skies, shadows and reflections are also shapes. Interesting and unusual shapes are better than regular or precise shapes!

Contour sketch sunset River.jpg

Nashua River Glow.jpg

Once you have selected your scene to paint, simplified, rearranged and refined the dominant shapes, then choose one shape to be more important than the others. This shape will be your center of interest, what you want your viewers to notice. There can only be one center of interest in a painting. Plan how you will arrange your values (lights/darks) to highlight the most important shape for more emotional impact. More impact can also be created by the skillful use of color. White paper, for instance, can be a luminous and striking unpainted shape!

Contour sketch Floating Xmas tree.jpg

Floating Xmas tree small.jpg

Then, finally, having completed your planning for the best composition, by simplifying shapes and perhaps sketching out a couple of different arrangements of shapes in a black & white thumbnail sketch, it is time to carefully draw your shapes (not merely the outlines of specific objects) onto watercolor paper in preparation for painting.

In summary, everything has a shape! We tend to want to paint shapes just as they are, without changing them or making them more interesting. This can, however, lead to busy and confusing, static, or just perhaps even dull and boring paintings. It’s important to be able to conceptualize flat shapes for your flat watercolor paper, rather than just to think about three-dimensional objects (such as “mountain” or “boat”). When you can focus on shapes, it becomes easier to change shapes to suit your painting, move shapes to improve your composition, and remove clutter (get rid of boring or poor shapes), and add different colors to highlight certain shapes. So, strive to create simple but exciting paintings by making dynamic shape combinations.

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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).

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!