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.

Winter Birches.jpg

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.

Simple Red Barn.jpg

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.

Nasturtium.jpg

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.

Snowy Rockies.jpg

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.

Wren's Hen.jpg

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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Get In The Mood!

Mood is only one of the important effects we create in our efforts as artists to get our viewers to see what we want them to see. (Other main effects that we use include unity, dominance [or emphasis], variety, contrast, gradation, transitions, perspective, balance, rhythm and movement, pattern, and so on.) Establishing a mood will bring character and interest to your painting, while enhancing your subject. MOOD is the pervasive feeling evoked by your painting — for example, calm tranquility or languid, hazy heat. Mood conveys emotion to your viewer.

To intentionally create a different mood (also sometimes called ATMOSPHERE) in your painting, you might manipulate COLORS, VALUES, or CLARITY. To think about this issue more simply, you might consider first whether you want your picture to have a warm or cool feel to it ( COLORS lean toward warm or cool temperatures – see The Paint Colors and Brands on My Palette…, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/08/28/the-paint-colors-and-brands-on-my-palette/,  my blog published 8/28/18.); then you could decide on the dominant VALUE ( lightness or darkness, such as ‘bright and cheery’ or perhaps ‘dark and foreboding’); then, you could define the CLARITY (level of detail) you hope to achieve.

Stormy sky

You could also create mood by manipulating the SPATIAL DESIGN of a picture. For instance, a large empty expanse in a painting could be used to create a sense of ease or openness, or even bleakness or emptiness. Converging lines could be used to make the viewer feel confined, closed in, or up close to a subject. To suggest calm and tranquility, keep your main lines HORIZONTAL, with one or two vertical lines to break up the monotony. (Water in a calm scene should be smooth, with mirror-like reflections, and with clouds echoing the predominance of horizontal line.) Strident VERTICAL lines will enhance feelings of awe, even fear. (Crags and mountainsides can appear intimidating, castles will seem impregnable, especially if trees, dwellings, or figures below are made smaller.) Strong DIAGONALS suggest a sense of dynamism and movement, and diagonally directed clouds with ragged edges will produce a sensation of strong winds and restlessness. (Diagonals guided toward the focal point emphasize its importance.)

Scottish Coastline cropped

Both value and clarity will determine the lighting in your painting, which in turn, will tell you the intensity of the colors you should use.  It is the literal atmosphere that creates figurative ‘atmosphere.’ For instance, the amount of humidity, snow, rain, dust, or fog in the air determines the quality of light that gets through it, as well as the colors and amount of detail we see. Think coastal fogs, dark clouds, or misty mountains! Mood often has a tonal range or value – these ranges can be described as low key, high key or middle key. A low key painting would be dark and could give a viewer a heavy or somber feeling. A high key picture would instead have a bright and cheerful effect. A middle key painting uses a wider range of values which could be used to create a wider variety of moods.

dynamic skies - rainy shed

If you want a bright, sunny picture (also called high key) with sharp clarity, you want to use colors that are mostly pure. Do a lot of wet-on-dry painting for sharpness, show distant detail, and use shadows and highlights. In contrast, if you are striving for fog or haze, most of the colors you  use will be dulled because of subdued lighting. Use wet-on-damp techniques to produce soft edges, and flatten the background shapes so that they have few details. In this way, atmosphere contributes to ‘mood.’

Barn Interior

Why should you worry about mood? Why should you care whether you create a specific mood in a painting?  Painters care about mood because a watercolor painting without a mood is dry, generic, uninteresting, and without feeling!  Try to move beyond a mere representation or photographic copy of objects in your art. Rather than precisely copying every detail in a picture, you should aim to suggest and imply.  While creating ‘mood,’ strive to interpret a scene by choosing the details to include and the ones to leave out. There is no need to tell the viewer everything! Mood adds drama and appeal. Allow each viewer to see something different, to use THEIR imagination, to feel their own emotion, and to participate in your painting. By creating mood and atmosphere when you paint, you will be on your way to creating a visual poetry that stirs deep feeling in your audience.

As Joseph Zbukvic says in Mastering Atmosphere And Mood In Watercolor: The Critical Ingredients That Turn Paintings Into Art (p. 55), mood indicators can be mist, clouds, puddles of water on the ground, smoke, sunlight, color, shadow, value contrast, unusual horizon placement, animals or people, types of brushstrokes ( smooth, choppy, chaotic), or line (s-shaped curves, lots of verticals or horizontals, diagonals).

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.