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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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Perspective With Just A Pencil!

If you are painting outdoors or attempting to paint a still life in front of you, how would you go about drawing realistically with just a pencil and paper? How could you transfer what you see to your painting surface? How can you judge proportion and perspective without error?

To make a drawing look right, we must understand that all parts of a scene (or landscape) are LOCKED into a proportional relationship which doesn’t change. When drawing, your job is to observe carefully what the relationship is and reproduce it accurately. You don’t want to guess what the proportions MIGHT BE or assume what  they SHOULD BE. Instead you want to replicate what the proportions actually ARE.

In my last blog, Use The Low-Tech Grid Method To Transfer Your Image, 4/8/20,  https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/04/08/use-the-low-tech-grid-method-to-transfer-your-image/, I explained how to use a grid to judge placement, angles, and proportion in a drawing.

However, using just a pencil and paper for drawing is even simpler and faster! The pencil you draw with becomes the tool for comparing and SIGHTING how shapes relate to each other. You take your sighting by holding out the pencil AT ARM’S LENGTH. (Your arm is locked straight out from the body.) You look down your arm and slide your thumb to measure the approximate length of an object. (Your thumb is a SLIDING MEASURING GAUGE.)

Sighting 2

In this way, you measure first one portion of a scene or object, while you extend the arm holding the pencil. Hold your thumb steady on the pencil to mark the measure, move your pencil while keeping your thumb in place, and compare the first measurement to the size of a second portion of the scene or object. For example, to find the relationship (RATIO) of the top width of a chair to the height of the chair, place your thumb on the pencil to mark and hold the width. Turn your pencil without moving your thumb, to compare the height to the first width measurement. (If width measures ‘one’, height might be ‘1.5’. In this case, the height of the chair is 1.5 times width of the chair.) You could then easily use this information to create a drawing of the chair.

Sighting3.jpg

Continue to measure and compare other areas within your scene to the first measurement in order to figure relative sizes and relationships throughout the picture. Angles can be determined using this method as well.

Sighting 4.jpg

Once SIGHTING with a pencil is learned , it quickly becomes an effective way to check size, distance, and angles in a drawing. You can scale an image up or down in size while maintaining proper proportions. The technique will become automatic and indispensable as you gather information and look carefully at your scene. The more you look into your subject, the more you will see!

Sighting.jpg

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For a quick video explanation of sighting with a pencil, watch this YouTube by Chris Triner, Drawing With Simple Sighting Technique, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Otv_l_qkML4

Use The Low-Tech Grid Method To Transfer Your Image.

The most useful tools are often the most simple and easiest to use!

Several of you have recently asked how to transfer an image to your watercolor paper when you have no graphite tracing paper or already enlarged template to trace. Here is a simple way to accurately transfer your image.

The grid system of drawing or transferring an image to paper (or other painting surface) has been used for centuries by many artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer. It is a low-tech, inexpensive tool used to reproduce, decrease, or enlarge an image.

Overview.

Draw a grid of lines over a reference photo, then lightly draw a larger grid (of equal ratio) on your work surface. To calculate the size of the second grid, work backwards from the desired final size of your drawing.

Method. Draw first grid and label.

To use this method, you will need watercolor paper, ruler, pencil, pen, and eraser. Try to work from a black-and-white original image. Draw a grid with pen (so it’s easier to see) directly on your black-and-white template image. You can decide arbitrarily on the size of the squares in the grid, but they must fit evenly on the image. For example, with a 5X6” image you might draw 1” squares – 5 squares across and 6 squares down.

Gridded Rose.jpg

Example of grid over template, 4 squares across, 3 squares down.

When the squares are drawn on your template, LABEL the boxes on left and top, to help you keep your place as you proceed to transfer your image onto your watercolor paper (or other painting surface). You might label boxes down the SIDE with letters – A, B, C, etc. You might label boxes across the TOP with numbers -1, 2, 3, 4, etc. In this way, you keep track of the lines you are transferring from each box to its corresponding box on the second grid. In other words, if you are duplicating box E3 from your template, you will look to work on box E3 on your work surface.

Labeled Grid.jpg

Labeled grid.

Figure and draw second grid, then label.

To create your second grid, determine the final size of the picture you want. Then you’ll need to make some calculations. Will you need to double the size of the original grid squares? Perhaps make them three times as large? What about making them on and a half times as large?

Measure and lightly draw the outer rectangle (or square, whatever your shape) for your final image. Use your ruler to determine the new size of the grid. You want the same number of squares in your second grid (not the same size as the original unless your final image will actually be the same size as your template), with the SAME RATIO of width to length. So, what size squares will fit EVENLY within your rectangle? For simplicity’s sake, let’s decide your final image will be 10’X12”. This would make 2” grid squares a good choice. Lightly draw out your final grid with PENCIL on your paper, and LABEL the new grid in a way similar to the original grid, e.g. with letters down the side and numbers across the top.

Rose:Grid to enlarge.jpg

Example of original grid, and enlarged second grid with same proportions.

Then, square by square, transfer the same line details to the second grid, one square at a time. Follow the details, from box to box. You look at where the lines start and progress, say in square E3, and approximate the same line placement. Your aim is to recreate similar lines you “see” WITHOUT interpreting and drawing what you think you see.

Get the large shapes penciled in, then begin adding some details. Keep looking at grid labels to keep your place and check placement. When your drawing is finished, check it over. Catch any mistakes now! Smooth out lines in your image and erase grid lines as carefully as well as you can, without damaging your watercolor paper. Then, it’s time to paint!

A final lesson.

Using the grid method encourages the artist to draw what is there without struggling with concepts of how things “should” look. While the grid might seem to be a constraint, it, in fact, liberates the artist from making unintended misperceptions relating to the way they think something looks. See my related blog posts:

Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing…, published 12/18/18, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/ ,

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Parts I, II, and III), posted 3/13/19, 3/19/19, and 3/26/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/13/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees/ , https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/19/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-ii/ , https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/26/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-iii/ .

In summary, the grid prevents an artist from changing or misinterpreting important information. A grid can help you measure relative proportions to sidestep any distortions. And, finally, the grid also insures that you observe and take into account necessary constant vertical and horizontal references.

In the next blog post, let’s move beyond the grid method to learn HOW TO DRAW and to transfer perspective and proportion using just a pencil, as a moveable, low-tech “grid” for drawing, perfect for using out doors. The method allows you to transfer what you see without any template. Keep watch!

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Ten Fun Things To Liven Up Your Art!

Don’t know what to paint? Disappointed in your last paintings and feeling inadequate? Bored with your art? Need some inspiration? Craving some creative calm? Try something new!

Here are a few things to excite you and help you change your art up:

1.) Invest in a new brush! But, don’t buy just any old brush. As a watercolorist, it’s so much easier to paint well with a decent brush! Here is my new favorite brand. Give yourself a boost with an ESCODA Versatil brush, a SYNTHETIC brush designed to have the attributes of a natural kolinsky. These brushes hold a lot of water, have a firm spring, a sharp point, plus durability. A size #10 pointed round sells for about $20 (on dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Nothing makes play more fun than a new toy! What a treat!

2.) Take an actual (or virtual!!!) trip to a museum to get inspired. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, Belgium, currently has a Jan van Eyck exhibit up ( through April 30, 2020) entitled “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution”. While the actual exhibit is closed until April 5, zoomable images can be found at closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be and on their Van Eyck page.

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What art did you enjoy looking at? What did you especially like? Can you borrow some ideas about technique, treatment of light, or use of color to adapt to your own paintings? Track done another museum you’d like to check out. Look at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions), The Worcester Art Museum (https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/), or The Wadworth Atheneum Museum of Art (https://www.thewadsworth.org/), for example.

3.) Try a new brand of watercolor paper. Make sure it is ARTIST GRADE 100% cotton fiber (NOT cellulose), such as Arches, Waterford, Fabriano, Lanaquarelle, or Indigo Handmade. Most of these brands can be found online (dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Remember that you can sometimes buy an assortment of different papers, or a pad or block of a different brand – you needn’t buy full sheets. I recently got some Indigo paper from amazon.com and am looking forward to giving it a try. These papers made of cotton absorb paint much more evenly and make it easier to paint well! They are definitely worth any extra cost. Experiment!

4.) Find some inspiration by buying yourself a new or used watercolor book to immerse yourself in. Learn about all the critical ingredients that turn paintings into art with Joseph Zbukvic’s Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor or Thomas W. Shaller’s Architect of Light: Watercolor Paintings By a Master. Or look into the amazing John Singer Sargent: Watercolors (https://www.amazon.com/John-Singer-Sargent-Erica-Hirshler/dp/0878467912/ref=sr_1_6?crid=2FWU61E1CBLTR&keywords=john+singer+sargent+books&qid=1585064924&sprefix=%2Caps%2C162&sr=8-6). Looking to shake things up? Try Mark Mehaffey’s Creative Watercolor Workshop. Or, if you’re a beginner, check out Watercolour For Starters by Paul Talbot-Greaves, Let’s Get Started by Jack Reid, or Painting For The Absolute and Utter Beginner by Claire Watson Garcia.

zbukvic.jpg

5.) Gift yourself a new tube of watercolor paint in a color you might like but do not have. Wouldn’t Daniel Smith’s Lavender be beautiful? Try a tube of Cobalt Teal Blue, Quinacridone Gold, or Bloodstone. Fun!

6.) Look at your paints in a new way by arranging them in a round palette (see robax.com) in a color wheel format. To learn how much easier color mixing can be with a color wheel format read my recent blog post Color Choices For a Circular Palette, published 2/11/20, https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/02/11/color-choices-for-a-circular-palette/.

7.) Sign up for a watercolor workshop with a talented artist. Now is the time to plan! Get a couple of your friends to go with you, if you want, and make a day of it. I’m really looking forward to a Robert J. O’Brien workshop with two of my friends at New England School of Fine Art, Worcester, MA., http://www.nesfa-worcester.com/index.html, entitled ‘The New England Landscape’, on May 30, 2020.

8.) Or perhaps you’d enjoy taking an online workshop. Many artists offer online instruction. I have been developing several online art workshops that will be available in the near future. Stay tuned for news, or contact me to express interest. In the meantime, look at the offerings from artists Angela Fehr, Rebecca Rhodes, Anna Mason, or Birgit O’Connor. Courses are also available from Artist Network, https://www.artistsnetwork.com/, or Art Tutor, https://www.arttutor.com/classes. Some classes can also be found for free at jerrysartarama.com. And finally, YouTube has many free videos on watercolor technique.

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9.) Find yourself a new piece of art equipment to help you paint better and LEARN TO USE IT. A gray scale or value scale, for example, can help you create more dynamic and effective paintings by improving your light and dark contrast. Don’t know what a gray scale is? Read my blog post Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, posted 5/21/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, for more information.

Rankin's value scale.jpg

10.) Finally, try something NEW or BREAK SOME RULES! Don’t take things too seriously. Paint with some unexpected colors, or unusual color combinations. Add some complementary colors that you don’t actually see in your reference image to add interest to your painting. Or zoom in close to your subject to crop out unnecessary details. Change your viewpoint in your picture to either raise or lower the horizon line. Try looking down on your subject, e.g. painting a lake looking down from a cliff. Alter the mood in your painting, perhaps creating a more somber, dark, heavy, moody image. Or try charging your colors ON your paper (see the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, especially his images of sunlight on stone, one of which is below) to add life to your picture and prevent a flat lifeless wash. Or exaggerate your lights and darks. Above all, focus on the PROCESS of painting without worrying about (or even considering) the result.

john singer sargent.jpg

John Singer Sargent watercolor.

Choose one of the ten above suggestions to try – begin with the one that excites you most. Then try another – just keep painting or thinking about your art. Strive to keep calm through your creativity. And ENJOY your painting!

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

 

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.

Simple white building.jpg

 

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. 

Stormy sky.jpg

 

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/ .

MTS.jpg

 

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.

Forsythia.jpg

 

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.

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