Hold Your Horses!

As you know, many artists, including me, want to get on to their painting quickly. Unfortunately, jumping right into a painting without forethought often develops into rushing and inattentiveness to important details. It can be a disaster to encounter a problem with the arrangement of shapes, or discover something in your picture you want to change, while in the midst of painting. Don’t simply copy, without thinking, all the details you see before you while emphasizing them all equally! Instead, take the time to contemplate a plan before starting to paint! Rein in your excitement, for the moment, and harness your enthusiasm. As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. How?

Create thumbnails.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

Attention to your thumbnails will save you both time and creative energy. If performed with conscious attention and thought, you will discover the strengths and weaknesses of your composition. Does your image work best in a horizontal or vertical format? Should you crop out part of your image to emphasize a terrific grouping of shapes? What will the focal point be? Where is the light coming from? Does the picture need more contrast to emphasize the center of interest? Maybe it would be better to eliminate some of the more distracting elements. What about rearranging some shapes to lead the viewer more easily into the picture?

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Recent reference photo.

Look for the BIG SHAPES and VALUES.

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Thumbnail 1 – sunny sky, remove corner vegetation, larger tree?

Shapes are the building blocks of composition. To create a thumbnail, sketch the LARGE SHAPES first, forget about small details. Group masses of similar value shapes together. Sketch lightly at first. Identify the most important objects or parts of the scene. Notice how the smaller shapes relate to the large shapes. Try to think of possible changes in the arrangement and STRUCTURE of elements that might produce a stronger composition. You may want to rearrange some of the major shapes or change their size or profile.

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Thumbnail 2 – add animals, remove corner vegetation?

 

Refine your shapes, then start to add VALUES to your sketch. Squint to identify the darks, mediums, and lights. Each mass of shapes needs to be lighter or darker than what is next to it in order for it to appear different. Consider changing the value of an area if it improves value contrast and the composition. Stick to dark, medium, and light values in each sketch to keep it simple.

Thumbnail more sky

Thumbnail 3 – More sky, less field?

Add or rearrange to explore variations in value or even subject arrangement or EMPHASIS. If you do change values, however, realize that you have changed the light source and must also remember to check that any shadows are consistent with this new light source. Add darker lines and middle values.

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Thumbnail 4 – enlarge tree, minimize/lighten left corner vegetation, darken right side trees, darken clouds behind center tree, keep fields/road light – values exaggerated!

Finish by shading in the darkest values and adjusting CONTRASTS between shapes. Remember, the greatest contrast in values (and sometimes the lightest value) is centered on the focal point.

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Finished watercolor painting.

In my latest painting (shown here), I WISH I had sketched thumbnails BEFORE I painted! I know I should, but I don’t always do it. This time, I didn’t, and I struggled. I couldn’t figure out why the painting initially wasn’t working. The subject was good, but eventually I realized I had to increase the value contrasts – a lot. Nothing stood out until I lightened some areas and darkened others! So, I wrote this post and created these thumbnails after I had trouble with getting the values right while painting. I ‘shut the barn door after the horse was gone’! Maybe this article can help you realize how drawing quick thumbnails (before you paint) will help you work out possible problems ( with composition, subject, color, etc.) before you start painting. The time you spend creating thumbnails can save you some headaches.

To summarize,

With the knowledge learned from thumbnails, you can begin painting with much more confidence. It’ll be a cinch! You will have considered the main STRUCTURE, EMPHASIS, SHAPES, and CONTRASTS for the composition. You will have already worked out most of the possible issues and problems within your thumbnail sketches. You will have developed a ‘plan’ for your composition, since you understand that it is the strength of the composition NOT the subject matter that makes a painting effective. The plan may even include possible color choices. Don’t forget, however, when transferring your image to the watercolor paper, to refer back to your thumbnail, not necessarily your reference.  This would insure any changes made when creating your thumbnails are included when transferring the drawing onto paper. Save your reference for later, when you start to build up detail in the final painting.

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Dusk, Evening, and Moonlight… Oh, My!

Paintings set at nighttime might seem very different from the usual watercolor scenes.  Dusk, evening, or even dawn pictures have a predominance of dark values.  The mood of a nighttime or twilight picture can often be somber, gloomy, quiet, or perhaps even threatening.  There may be fewer details seen than in a well-lit picture.  However, a nighttime painting can also be effective, appealing, and  powerful.  How would you paint a dark evening image?

The amount and quality of light available determines what we visually perceive in any situation.  Under clear, bright conditions, colors are pure, and edges and some details are sharp.  Values are extreme.  Lots of color is visible in shadowed areas.  A painting with lots of light values is called a HIGH KEY picture.  As the light becomes less strong (for example, on a foggy day, during a blizzard, at dusk), the level of detail, the sharpness, and the value contrast are reduced.  Colors become duller and more subtle, creating a LOW KEY picture.  Nevertheless, even in the dark, you want to see some details.  A nighttime painting will have a source of light or two or three, and before you begin to paint, you must decide on those light sources in your picture, as well as on the strength and direction of the light and on what it will illuminate.  Your picture needs some contrast in value (light and dark), especially near the point of interest, to be effective.

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To produce a painting full of drama and power, you need to create dominance, whether in value, color, or shape.  All you need to do to create VALUE DOMINANCE is to present the light, middle, and dark values in unequal amounts.  A nighttime painting will be a low key picture, which will have dark value dominance.  It will have more dark values than either light or middle tones.  However, your dark picture still will need the contrast of some light and middle tones if it is to pop.  The function of the dark colors is to complement the light tones and help your picture emit a glow.  If you actually use complementary colors for your dark and light colors, you will immediately create a reaction that transforms the light tones into radiant light.  Any warm and cool colors will create color contrast while vibrating against each other.

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Farmhouse At Dusk, partially finished, illustrating the glow of complements orange and blue.

Darks can be luminous and colorful IF you mix them yourself from pure, translucent pigments.  Using transparent colors allows light to reflect off the paper and up through the color to create a luminous effect.  Opaque colors (such as ivory black Payne’s gray, Davy’s gray, indigo, sepia, neutral tint) do not allow any light to reflect back to the viewer and therefore appear flat and dull.  Instead of using opaque colors, mix your own colorful darks from some of these transparent pigments: permanent alizarin crimson, Winsor (phthalo) blue, Winsor (phthalo) green, and perhaps ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, quinacridone gold, or quinacridone violet.  Always design your darks to heighten your light pattern without overpowering it.  Also, try to include nuances and variations in your darks.  Do not use a dark mixture indiscriminately: large areas of unrelieved darks are not interesting.  Ideally, you will build up your dark areas so that subtle shapes in each layer are there for the viewer to find.  If you mix together all the colors that you plan to use for dark areas and apply this mixture in a single dark layer, the result will lack the transparency and interest of a dark created by GLAZING with separate layers of the same medium dark colors.

Transparency can also be enhanced if you strive for variations by NOT applying all the darks as one value. To add variety and vary the tones or values of your dark colors, paint some areas as ‘half-dark’.  By painting part of the dark area a bit lighter, you create variation and an illusion of depth into what otherwise might be dull and monotonous (that is, of all one tone).  Try to apply your layers of darks one at a time, each in one go, in one layer and as richly as possible.  By mixing your darks with lots of pigment to create a rich color the first time, you can avoid having to add a similar layer (of the same color) over the same area; such an added layer can deaden the dark area and create a pasted-on appearance with hard edges.

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Your pattern of dark shapes should ideally interlock or relate to your medium and lighter shapes.  Hopefully, the forms transition into and set each other off rather than float in space separately.  Neither light nor dark is as striking without the close proximity of other.

In summary:  Begin your nighttime paintings by establishing the light sources in your picture, perhaps using masking fluid to save some.  You may create other light areas during the painting process or by scrubbing and lifting later.  Do NOT lose your light values!  Glazing later can also subdue certain areas while allowing other areas to be left brighter.  Choose muted or subdued, NOT bright, colors for your twilight or evening image.

To actually mix a darker and more intense color, use less water.  Don’t repeatedly dip your brush in water when you try to pick up pigment with that brush.  Instead, go from color to color without cleaning (rinsing) your brush in between.  The only way to create the rich, dark colors is with less water!

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Cityscape In Winter, partially finished, illustrating reflected light and bright halo around lights.

In a low key, dark painting, begin applying paint in a medium or mid-tone dark.  Try to leave a lot of light around light source and subdue the rest of your painting.  (You can use a warm yellow-white for incandescent lights.)  If you want to create a halo of glowing light, start with a circle of clear water over the light, then float a dark wash all around the clear water areas, just touching it.  This dark color will tend to diffuse.  If the dark strays too close to your light source, absorb a little fo the dark color with a clean, damp (not wet) brush used like a sponge.  After this area dries, you can apply a soft wash of warm yellow over the clear halo, leaving the brightest light as the white of the paper.

Don’t forget that light illuminates but also reflects off a subject.  A streetlight may reflect light off buildings, and a brightly lit window may reflect onto the ground outside.  However, these light areas need to be surrounded by darks.  The farther away from the light sources, the darker your colors.  Details almost disappear in the darkness as it increases.

After mid-tones or middle-dark tones dry, you can begin to layer in your next, darker tones.  As you build up to your darkest colors, you create depth, interest, and subdued variation.

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Snowy City at Night complete.

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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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