Composition!?!

Composition is simply the study of the way things are arranged, whether in art, music, a plate of food, or the furniture in a room. Where we put things makes a statement about our point of view.

DO I HAVE TO FOLLOW ALL THESE RULES?

A lot has been written about composition and it may seem overwhelming to you. There have been many rules formulated about creating good paintings. Often, however, learning these formulas and rules can be dry and boring! It can be difficult to know HOW TO APPLY these rules to specific scenes. And it sometimes feels that the rules prevent you from being creative or being yourself.

First, let me assure you that you need not follow all composition rules slavishly in order to improve your picture. The formulas are guidelines that help you achieve dramatic, effective art that holds your audience’s attention. You can choose several rules that you feel are important to apply to a chosen image – use whichever rules you feel are most useful in getting across what you want to get across in each of your paintings.

WHY?

Composition (arrangement) is everywhere! Since a good composition need not reproduce reality exactly, you are free to use the composition guidelines to rearrange components of your painting. When non-artists look at art they don’t necessarily think about or understand composition. They merely like or dislike a painting. If the art appeals, then you can be confident that the artist used composition skillfully to reach the viewer at an emotional level. Beginning artists, too, can sometimes be surprised to learn about all that is involved in planning a good painting. Strong paintings don’t just happen! They need to be composed.

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To get a viewer to see what, as artists, we want them to see, we therefore arrange the elements at our disposal. The TOOLS we use are SHAPE, VALUE, COLOR, TEXTURE.

With the above-mentioned tools, we can create EFFECTS in our composition or arrangement. We consider UNITY and DOMINANCE, try to achieve BALANCE (of value, color, type of line, e.g. diagonal), use PERSPECTIVE, create CONTRAST (of color, value), MOOD, RHYTHM and MOVEMENT, PATTERN, and any other visual effect we might be able to think of.

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To better understand these concepts, take a look at three of my related blog posts:

Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume I)…, 10/30/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/30/formats-for-effective-compositions/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II)…, 11/6/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/06/formats-for-effective-compositions-volume-ii/ .

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS.

More specific suggestions for a good composition include choosing only ONE center of interest. This center of interest should be the reason you are painting the picture. Strive to concentrate the most DETAIL and the greatest CONTRAST (light vs. dark) here.

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Further, decide on COLOR DOMINANCE during the initial planning stages of a picture. To avoid confusion, try not to bombard the viewer with every color on your palette in the same picture. Choose early on what the MOOD (feeling) will be for your project. Mood is achieved through the quality of colors chosen for use. Will your painting be cheerful, mysterious, forboding, perhaps subtle? Will you use dark, cool colors and strong contrasts to paint a dramatic, somber, or intense scene? Will you choose lighter, soft colors for a calm serenity? Or you could focus on warm, dulled colors to suggest, for example, a hot, hazy summer day. Both color TEMPERATURE and the INTENSITY (quality) OF LIGHT contribute to mood.

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Also, for a successful painting, attempt to include interesting SHAPES (two-dimensions), then creating FORM (the suggestion of three dimensions) by adding patterns of LIGHT and SHADOW. When form has been established, the artist can establish TEXTURE (after careful observation of relationships between shape, form, light, and shadow).

GO-TO REFERENCES.

Many good beginner painting books include a section about composition. Some are incomplete or confusing, and some are better than others. My recommendations for resources on composition include:

The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting, (2017),  by Gordon MacKenzie.

Watercolor Composition Made Easy, (1999), by David R. Becker.

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles To Dramatically Improve Your Painting, (2008), by Ian Roberts.

Watercolor Success!, (2005), by Chuck Long.

Wonderful World of Watercolor: Learning and Loving Transparent Watercolor, (2008), by Mary Baumgartner.

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SUMMARY.

Composition, the way things are arranged, has to do with balance, and many factors can be considered. Watercolor artist Zoltan Szabo, in Artist At Work, (p.30-31), (1979), describes good composition as a “balance of shapes, value, color, and texture”. He has said, “I keep the mood (I see), but rearrange the details to emphasize what I consider important, and play down or leave out the trivia. I like to pick a strong center of interest and subordinate everything else to complement it. I feel that composition is a personal thing, and I like my composition to be the way I decide, not the way it really is. I use the elements I find, but rearrange them in a new, more personalized balance.”

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Can’t I Just Paint?

Before I paint, do I really have to plan? It’ll spoil the mood. Can’t I just paint?

So many factors seem to be pushing an artist to just get started quickly on a painting. We may feel inspired, excited, or the colors in the sky may be changing fast, or the weather may be cold or threatening rain. While there’s no reason we can’t occasionally jump right into painting without preliminary thought, doing so will almost always make failure more likely.

Time spent in thoughtful preparation, on the other hand, is usually well spent. Planning ahead and thinking about your goals for the painting do NOT in any way stifle creativity! You will still evaluate your work as you go along, as well as react and adjust to what is happening on your paper. Only when you have clearly defined your objectives will you be able to exploit developments as they take place during the painting process.

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Take the time to DESIGN your picture. Don’t jump the gun. Study your subject for a while before starting to paint. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Everything else should be subordinate.

Ask yourself what is your focal point? What is your painting about? Think about what you want to say before you start! WHAT do you hope to achieve and HOW are you going to achieve it? Without some clear objectives, you probably will have difficulty creating something extraordinary. 

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So, to create a better painting , consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision and SIMPLIFY your subject.

The key to simplifying the image you’re painting is doing CAREFUL PLANNING as well as understanding GOOD COMPOSITION. See these blog posts for more information about composition.  Read Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/. Also, check out Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, 7/16/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/ .

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Generally, good design includes foreground or a ‘lead-in’ to draw your viewer into the picture, a strong focus, and framing or supporting details. But sometimes surrounding details can be reduced, contrast around the center of interest can be increased, or features can be rearranged or eliminated completely to simplify and improve the picture. Cropping an image can be extremely helpful.

The SIMPLER your shapes, the more POWER your picture can have. It actually takes more effort to create a bold simple painting than to jump right into putting paint to paper, struggling to work out any problems as you go along.

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Artist Bill Vrscak believes “the simplest statements mean the most.” He also says “A bold, simple statement respects the viewer’s intelligence. Do your viewers a favor: Don’t bore them with extraneous detail. Make your point and get out.” Further, he suggests LEAVING OUT tiny shapes that can cause confusion, large dark areas, insignificant details, and too much surface detail.

To improve you painting, forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. Start to REARRANGE it! Simplify to make your subject more interesting and effective than you found it.

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Perspective Simplified…

Perspective is related to the appearance of things – how the image you plan to paint looks and how you represent it in two dimensions on your paper (or canvas). As artists, we are concerned with achieving a sense of space, depth, and the appearance of three dimensions. We know objects and scenes change appearance from different viewpoints and under different lighting conditions. The use of perspective to suggest space and distance is just one of the useful tools an artist can use. By using principles of perspective, we can make our work more dynamic and effective.

DIMINUTION OR REDUCTION:

The first basic perspective rule is that all objects appear to decrease in size as they recede into the distance. So, the further away an object is from the viewer, the smaller it looks. This is called DIMINUTION.

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FORESHORTENING:

Another perspective principle describes what happens as an object is revolved and seen from different angles. A coin, for example, when observed head on will appear round and maximum size, but as it is pivoted, the image we see  begins to flatten and look more elliptical, until when viewed from the side, the coin looks very like a thin line. The object has become FORESHORTENED.

CONVERGENCE:

CONVERGENCE happens when lines or edges of objects (which we know to be PARALLEL) appear to come together as they recede into the distance. Looking down a fence line, for instance, a person would see the top and bottom of the fence converging, and the space between and the thickness of the fenceposts becoming narrower into the distance.

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VANISHING POINT:

When talking about perspective, we must understand that parallel lines (such as railroad tracks) will seem to come together (converge) or meet at some point. This point on the distant horizon is called the VANISHING POINT. When looking at a fence or railroad tracks we see ONE vanishing point. The converging lines will meet at an observer’s eye level on the horizon, I.e. at the vanishing point. In real life the horizon line is not always visible (it may be located behind a mountain or building). Nevertheless, the horizon line will always be at the observer’s eye level. Therefore, EYE LEVEL can be used as the horizon line for horizontal lines in a drawing.

VIEWPOINT:

While the vanishing point will generally be at eye level on the horizon, an observer’s VIEWPOINT can change. A person can be looking up, down, or straight out. Thus, eye level/horizon line can be higher or lower in your picture, depending on viewpoint. When you look UP, you see more sky or ceiling and the eye level/horizon line will be LOW. On the other hand, when you look DOWN, you see more ground or floor and eye level/horizon line will become HIGHER.

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So, when you draw or paint a picture, your eye level/horizon line will inform your viewer whether they are looking  up, down, or straight ahead at a scene. For instance, it you place the horizon line high, they MUST be looking down on your subject. Place the horizon line low, and you are telling your viewer they are invariably looking up at the subject.

MULTIPLE VANISHING POINTS:

With a solid rectangular object, such as a building, you will have TWO vanishing points to consider. Each visible side of the building (made of parallel lines) has its own vanishing point. If you extend the lines forming the tops and bottoms of the visible sides until they meet, and you have drawn accurately, the lines will converge at two vanishing points on the eye level/horizon line. The two vanishing points need not be located on your paper. Often, depending on your viewpoint, the vanishing points will be off your paper, or possibly one (of the two) vanishing points will extend off the paper.

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It is possible to have THREE OR MORE vanishing points. This can happen with a complicated drawing. When there are many SETS OF PARALLEL LINES going in different directions, each set will converge toward its OWN vanishing point.

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IN SUMMARY:

Begin your consideration of perspective drawings by putting in the EYE LEVEL LINE. From there, you can begin to plot perspective lines (which represent SETS OF PARALLEL LINES) that should CONVERGE toward one or several VANISHING POINTS. When there are many sets of parallel lines going in different directions, each will converge toward its OWN vanishing point.

For more in depth information on perspective, consider:

Perspective:Learn How To Create Depth and Realism, 2001, by Ray Campbell Smith.

Perspective Drawing Handbook, 1964, by Joseph D’Amelio.

Basic Perspective Drawing: A Visual Approach, 1993, by John Montague.

Perspective For Artists, 1990, by Angela Gair.

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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.

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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:

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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).

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