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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:



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:



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:



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:


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:



Variable Repetition format:


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:


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:


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.

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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:





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:



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:


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:


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

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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.


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.


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.


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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Book Review of ‘Paint Watercolor Flowers : A Beginner’s Step-By-Step Guide’ by Birgit O’Connor

Birgit O’Connor’s new book, Paint Watercolor Flowers: A Beginner’s Step-By-Step Guide, gets better and better as it goes along.  Birgit begins by presenting some basic tips on getting ready to paint. In Chapter One, she discusses how to set up your studio and recommends equipment to employ. She wisely states that the tools a painter uses contribute to painting success. Specifically, buy and use artist quality brushes, paint, and paper! Cheaper brushes and student grade paint and paper are usually made of poor quality materials that make it much harder to paint well. Student grade paper, for instance, is usually not made of archival 100% cotton rag, but of wood pulp, which does not accept color well and tends to yellow.

Unfortunately, when presenting information about watercolor paints, Birgit’s suggestions are less consistent. Some tips are very good: colors with the same name do not always look the same as each other (page 11)  and are not necessarily made with the same pigment. Other comments, however, are incomplete or create potential confusion: while Birgit’s statement “earlier in this book you were provided a list (page 14) of the watercolors I use” is technically correct, it would have been helpful to state where the list was located (on the unnumbered page BEFORE the Table of Contents, by the way) so the reader wouldn’t have to hunt. Some tips I found to be outright misleading: “You can mix different brands together, but some artists believe you should stick with only one brand for the best results. When mixed, different brands may give you unexpected results and appear dull or muddy” (page11). Creating ‘mud’ has nothing to do with combining different brands: mixing some colors of the same brand can also result in dull, muddy colors! Unfortunately, Birgit does not here define what a muddy color is (later defined on page 45) or give an explanation of the actual reason a color becomes muddy. Only later, on page 48, does she offer her ideas about “how to keep your colors clean and avoid making mud.”

Chapter Two covers some basic watercolor techniques, and here the book becomes truly helpful. I like how Birgit describes how best to hold a brush, when to use a round or flat brush, and why covering more paper with fewer strokes to preserve freshness is important. She provides an excellent description of how much water to use with your paint. Watercolor painting, after all, is all about painters controlling the amount of water they use. Birgit is a master of controlling water: Using the right amount of water gives her colors an effortless appearance. She also provides some very helpful tips for overcoming uneven washes.

Chapter Three is about understanding and mixing colors. Birgit explains how understanding warm and cool colors, and recognizing how they react with each other, can improve your painting. “The warmer and more intense a color, the closer it appears, the cooler and less intense a color appears, the further away it seems, creating a push-and-pull effect” (page 49). Further, “mixing any two primaries, warm or cool, will give you a secondary color, but depending on the temperature bias of each, the resulting mixture might give you duller results. For the cleanest colors, mixing two warms or two cools works the best. If you mix a warm color and a cool one, you are introducing some of a third primary color, which can dull down a painting” (page 50). Unfortunately, she does not specify what she means by cool and warm – for instance, we know that blue is thought of as a cool color, yet, there are warm blue pigments! Similarly, yellow is felt to be a warm color, yet lemon yellow is a cool yellow. Birgit’s point is not clear.

Birgit teaches a wonderful lesson on composition in Chapter Four – how to create a strong, interesting painting using shapes, color, and placement of a focal point. She describes several strategies for getting your composition to demand attention. Birgit suggests that “It’s most important to invite the viewer in, lead them to a point of interest, then allow them to use their own imagination to wander through and around the rest of the painting” (page 63). Yes!

In Chapter Five, Birgit presents more advanced techniques that she uses in later demonstrations, such as using brush strokes to develop shape and form, creating complicated and varied shadows, glazing and layering color to develop luminous effects, and painting negative shapes (i.e. the space around objects, not the objects themselves). Such techniques, however, may not be easy for a beginner to accomplish, even with Birgit’s instructions. In the final section of the chapter, the nine step-by-step demonstrations pull together the information discussed throughout the book and provide a nice variety of flower blossoms to try.

Despite a few reservations, I would definitely recommend Paint Watercolor Flowers: A Beginner’s Step-By-Step Guide by Birgit O’Connor to aspiring flower painters, but also to any watercolor artists looking to improve their painting. Birgit’s book is loaded with important lessons. While I found some of the information early in the book to be incomplete or misguided, I believe later sections are, overall, exceptional. And, of course, Birgit’s painting is wonderful!

Buy Paint Watercolor Flowers, or look for it at your local library.