Let’s dive into design principles essential to painting from photos.

This is part 2 of 3 in our composition discussion. Two weeks ago we began with my views on composition in painting (like how I don’t like to conform or be confined to conventional rules like never placing the horizon line in the middle of a painting). If you haven’t already, you can read that post here:


We’re gearing up for part 3 in a couple weeks where we will outline the most used principles and techniques of composition – the comprehensive guide to composition and design.

Today I thought I would describe a few of the ideas or techniques of design that might be helpful for beginning artists or any artist who struggles with composing a painting from a photograph.

Pure Gold 24x30 – oil painting by Bill Inman

Pure Gold 24×30 – oil painting by Bill Inman

Composing a Painting from a Photograph

The struggle most of us have when we use photos is letting the photo tell us what to paint rather than using the photo as a starting point and then composing like a painter.

One of the strongest ideas shared by artists is that a painting’s impact on the viewer is stronger if one theme is dominant.

For example, if we are out in a field and we see some mind-blowingly beautiful trees and a once-in-a-lifetime dramatic sky at the same time, we need to focus – choose one as the dominant subject, not both.

This was apparent in the Paint Together our members and I had this month.

Breaking Down A Recent Example

We used a beautiful photograph shared by one of our members of a hike she took in the mountains near Steamboat Springs in Colorado.

Steamboat Springs Colorado Composition

Reference image shared with our Master Oil Painting community – Hiking Trail by Kathy Pohl

The photo works fantastic to show us that Colorado is amazingly beautiful and a great place for a hiking outing. As a painting reference it has several weaknesses.

The main problem is choosing what to focus on.

The rocky bluff has great texture and draws the viewer into the photo. Unfortunately, it is almost exactly the same-sized shape as the sky which diminishes the mountain’s dominance.

Steamboat Springs Colorado Art Composition

The flowers are gorgeous – all that color gets my painting fingers twitching. That juicy color deserves its own limelight – except that it gets dwarfed by the large bluff and bright sky.

The trees are also fun because they offer a wonderful dark contrast amid all the lighter landscape values.

What I had to decide was what captured my attention and imagination most.

Because I love color so much my first thought was a painting of the flowers.

Painting Flowers Art Composition and Design

Not a bad idea, but I didn’t feel it captured the essence of the location.

After several possible scenarios flashed through my mind, I decided the mountain bluff was the key.

Steamboat Springs Colorado Composition

That’s when it got tricky. What about the bluff did I find exciting?

The overall colors and values were so muted I didn’t feel the photo would be enough for a successful painting.

Drama – that’s what keeps the viewers engaged.

What tools do we painters have to create drama? Lighting, mood, lines, color – and too many others to describe.

This is what I came up with…

Hiking Colorado 9x12 – oil painting by Bill Inman

Hiking Colorado 9×12 – oil painting by Bill Inman

I used most of the primary points of interest in the photo but tweaked them.

Color saturation was increased throughout the mountain, so the viewer’s eye would go there first. I changed the time of day so the sun would be low and to the left and would increase the lighting effect with deeper shadows and colors.

The purple flowers gave me some fantastic bits of color to harmonize with the yellows in the mountain.

The dark trees still offered contrasting values in my painting. Instead of an imposing barrier placed right in the middle of the picture plane though, I broke them up and used the trees to guide the viewer to the important areas of focus.

The Zigzag & S-Curve Techniques

Art Framing Bill Inman Oil Painting Song of the Lonely Mountain Masterworks Frame

Song of the Lonely Mountain 8×10 – oil painting by Bill Inman with Masterworks frame

In Song of the Lonely Mountain I used the zigzag composition technique to create energy in the design.

Song of the Lonely Mountain 8x10 – oil painting by Bill Inman

Song of the Lonely Mountain 8×10 – oil painting by Bill Inman

You’ve probably heard about the S-Curve technique because it is a popular design principle. That’s how I start many paintings. It is gentler and more peaceful than the zigzag for leading the viewer through a painting. That’s basically what I used in Nature’s Bouquet.

Nature’s Bouquet 24x40 – oil painting by Bill Inman (late 90’s)

Nature’s Bouquet 24×40 – oil painting by Bill Inman (late 90’s)

Here’s an image showing one of the S-Curves that leads the viewer quietly into the painting:

Curve vs Zigzag in art composition and design

The zigzag is different from an S-Curve technique – it conveys energy and excitement because of the distinct diagonal lines and abrupt end points.

That’s one technique I used to increase the drama in Hiking Colorado:

The Bluff Zigzag art composition and design

Of course, I didn’t use just a zigzag composition. The trail, the larger trees and the field’s brushstrokes each lead into the painting as well. The important thing was making sure that none of them detracted from the mountain’s prominence.

The Rule of Thirds

Another popular design principle used by photographers and painters alike is the Rule of Thirds.

Now, if you’ve been reading my blog posts or watching my videos for a while you know we don’t believe in actual ‘rules’ in painting. But the principle is very useful.

In Where the Lilies Bloom I didn’t consciously think about the rule-of-thirds, but the final painting fits the idea nicely as you will see soon.

I saw these luscious yellow lilies in Columbus, Indiana where my wife was competing in a fast-walk competition. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my easel with me, so I took a lot of photos and painted them when I got back to the studio.

I ended up using two photos – one from Columbus and one I took at the Minnetrista here in Muncie.

Lilies I saw in Columbus, Indiana

Lilies I saw in Columbus, Indiana

Some lilies at the Minnetrista in Muncie, Indiana

Some lilies at the Minnetrista in Muncie, Indiana

Richard Schmid said “What we are really seeing when we are attracted to striking designs is simply artists’ ingenious solutions to their particular problems of arrangement. We are looking at the result of their thought processes rather than the operation of an elemental law. I believe one of the reasons certain artists are able to do that is because they have a very clear and strong understanding of what they wish to paint and how they want to express it. It is when ideas are fuzzy that self-expression becomes so difficult. Knowing what we wish to say comes first, the design then follows effortlessly.

The more interesting design solutions tend to endure because the people who thought of them were very innovative. (the same is true of technique)”

The struggle we have when we paint from photos is having a clear idea that comes from being a painter, not from the composition the photo dictates. We can get so caught up in the fun stuff happening in the photo that we fail to think like painters and use the photo as is.

If the photo is good as is then what’s the point in painting it?

The first version of the lily painting I finished a few years ago. You can see how closely I stuck to the photos.

Where the Lilies Bloom – first version completed in 2014

Where the Lilies Bloom – first version completed in 2014

Are you having trouble deciding what to look at – too many ‘stars’ competing for attention?

That’s what stood out to me too.

So, I tried to help them flow better by adding green leaves and mixing the groups of flowers more.

Where the Lilies Bloom second version completed in 2016

Where the Lilies Bloom second version completed in 2016

That was better – but I still didn’t feel settled about it.

Finally, in 2018 I knew what to do! Add a unifying atmosphere and eliminate some of the competing elements like the Spruce tree.

Where the Lilies Bloom 18x24 – oil painting by Bill Inman

Where the Lilies Bloom 18×24 – oil painting by Bill Inman

That was a tough decision because I liked the tree.

Now, what about that Rule of Thirds principle?

Rule of thirds art composition and design

For the Rule of Thirds, we simply divide our panel into 6 equal sections using 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines.

We make sure that the horizon is on the upper or lower line. We also want the primary focus to congregate near one of the 4 intersections of the lines.

Notice the bulk of the background atmosphere is confined to the upper third of the painting.

Concluding Thoughts on Composing from a Photograph

Of course, with the lilies, I didn’t consciously think of the Rule of Thirds or use it exactly as described. That’s the beauty of art ‘rules’ – they are guides, not absolutes!

We may not stick closely to the ‘rules’ of composition, but knowing the techniques that others have used to create successful paintings can come in handy.

Have fun experimenting with the principles of design we shared here today.

Be sure to watch for the final segment in our Composition discussion, the comprehensive guide to composition and design, coming in a couple weeks.

And if you want to continue learning then I recommend spending time enjoying our library of Free Art Lessons available at Master Oil Painting:


What are some composition techniques you’ve found useful?