Buoys - 12"x12" oil on canvas
When a painting catches your eye from across the room, it may well be the bright colors that have attracted your attention.
But I believe once you walk over and take a good look, it’s a solid composition that will keep your attention.
A composition is more than a line drawing, it’s about shapes, how they fit together, and their values (how dark and light they are).
Delivering the Catch - 9"x12" oil on canvas panel
What does composition do for the painting? A good composition will let your eyes move around in the painting, discovering more as you go. It neither pulls your eye outside the painting or lets it get stuck anywhere inside the painting.
What makes a composition interesting? Asymmetry! It turns out that our brains like asymmetry. That’s why you see design pundits recommending an odd number of objects in a still life, and an uneven spacing of objects as well. The rule of thirds in landscape painting comes from this (more about that later).
Summer Marsh - 8"x10" oil, knife, on panel
see below for photo cropping options
How does the painter create a solid composition? When composing, whether from life or from a photo, we pay attention to a few guidelines like those above, and when we break them, we do it consciously and make up for it in some other way. For example, in general, placing an object smack dab in the middle of a painting isn’t a great idea. But if the area around the object can have lots of asymmetry, all is still well. Shadows in still life paintings are great for this.
Pears in Blue - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel
the asymmetry of the shadows make up for the two objects placed in the center
What a focal points? That’s a term we hear a lot. A focal point occurs when there is a sharp (not blended) edge that has a strong contrast of light and dark on either side. The truth is, there will almost always be at least one focal point in any photograph or painting, and likely more than one. The trick is to place them where you want them and not let them be stoppers for the eye.
Two crops of the same image showing the horizon 1/3 from the top and 1/3 from the bottom - applying the rule of thirds
What tools do artists use to create a good composition? For a still life, we can arrange the objects and the point of view (whether looking straight at the objects, or down or up at them) as we like. We are composing in the creation of the set up. For landscapes, the rule of thirds, which recommends placing the horizon and focal points a third of the way from the edges of the painting, is helpful. Cropping, whether painting outside or from a photo is key. I recommend not doing it with your camera, because you limit your options later when actually in front of the canvas.
Simple perspective applied to the exterior and interior of a house
Perspective is also part of composition, it’s what lets us place a three dimensional scene onto a two dimensional surface like paper or canvas. Basic perspective isn’t hard to understand, and will take you a long way.
Thumbnail composition options for a poinsettia painting
The most useful tool when composing is the thumbnail sketch. That approach with a pencil or markers, and three or four values, lets you try out your design quickly, before committing in paint. It’s a good idea to try two or three options for any painting. And it's an idea that I don’t always follow, leading to many lessons learned!
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.