Page 2 of 2

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!

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you in my newsletter. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf., that you can download and print.

 

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.