Why are there so many rules when it comes to composition? Why does it seem so hard to make a strong design when painting?
Composing paintings can be tricky. So many opinions, books, articles, and videos about composition can be confusing and frustrating. Is that just how it has to be?
Struggle is simply part of being a painter? Maybe. But is it possible that we complicate things without needing to?
Over a half dozen books in my art library have the word Composition in the title, and dozens more that talk extensively about it. Sure, there is some agreement among artists, but there is also an awful lot of disagreement about what a ‘good’ composition is.
There has to be a simpler way to design a strong composition.
Let me share with you some of my thoughts about how I compose paintings. It might help you gain more confidence and discard some of the complicated formulas proposed by some.
What is composition or design in painting?
It’s everything. Every element in our paintings affects composition. Lines, textures, contrasts of light and shadow, hard and soft edges, strong vs muted colors – the list is endless.
There are as many ways to compose a painting as there are artists. Much of it has little to do with ‘right and wrong’ and more to do with the personalities of the artists.
So, what goes through my head when I compose my paintings? I’ll use one of the two reference images from our Members’ critique ‘Paint Together’ this month to demonstrate. They are both rivers near my home.
The first thing I do is decide what the painting is about.
You might be thinking, “That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? It’s a river scene”.
Yep, that’s true. But is the river strongly or mildly the subject?
What if the photo were divided equally between the river and the sky?
It’s still a river scene, right?
We see images like this all the time. That’s when we have to make some important decisions.
Will the sky be dominant or the river? There isn’t a right or wrong, but it is critical for us to make a choice.
Why? Can’t both be dominant?
Yes. And our painting might be amazing. But, likely, the viewer will feel like they are watching a tennis match, being pulled back and forth from the sky to the river until they tire of looking.
Having a dominant theme can help calm and engage the viewer.
The theme doesn’t have to be a specific subject. It might be color, texture, contrast, movement, or a puppy looking adorable in a Christmas hat. The primary goal is to keep the viewer engaged so that they want to return to our painting over and over for years to come.
Once I determine the intent of my painting, I look for other elements that might distract the viewer and weaken the impact.
Looking again at the image, a couple of things stand out quickly:
1. The small dam doesn’t seem to contribute much and creates a barrier, keeping the viewer from moving easily back in the painting.
2. The goalpost tree on the right demands too much attention because of the unusual growth of the limbs. I don’t want the viewer to be forced to keep looking at those goalposts. That will likely keep them from moving smoothly around the painting.
It doesn’t make the painting more interesting and distracts from the rest of the image.
3. The sky on the right forms a bowl shape that traps the viewer.
Why does it trap the viewer?
Because the line of the trees doesn’t point into the painting, it creates a circle that leads the viewer around and around with no tangible escape.
So, I removed a lot of the distractions, including a good portion of the rock sitting in the river. I felt like the rock drew my eye to it too strongly.
And I cropped the painting, removing the tops of the trees and the long empty field at the right.
To me, reducing the height of the treetops and the sky helps put more emphasis on the river without losing the story/narrative.
There might be more things, like the straight branch in the top left corner. But hopefully, that gave you a good glimpse into my approach.
Did you notice that I didn’t worry about the Golden Mean, Steeple Design, or any formula? I simply decided what I wanted the primary emphasis to be, and then I looked for anything that might detract from that message or distract the viewer.
Once I begin painting, other things will stand out, or I will do something with texture, contrast, or color that might guide me in a different direction. I leave myself open to serendipity.
For a comprehensive post about composition, visit ‘The 31 Top Composition Concepts for Great Painting‘ (it took me three full weeks to write).
Did you think of similar things when you saw the Winter River image, or did you think of a completely different direction?
There isn’t a right or wrong. That’s one of the amazing blessings of art. We aren’t limited by one ‘correct’ idea or approach.
Let me know in the comments or by email what you would do differently or where you disagree with my decisions. How do you design your paintings?
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