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Old 02-21-2012, 07:31 PM
Keene Keene is offline
Join Date: Jun 2010
Posts: 61
Composition - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Like many an artist, I’ve read a good many books, viewed many a video and studied with a quite a few experts. My initial idea was to read anything that I thought would be useful, but after I had read about 30 books and taken a few classes I was more confused than ever. So about ten years ago I decided to get organized, take careful notes (in my own words except as otherwise noted) and compile them into a single document so that I could compare what one expert said with what others said.

The resulting document was so helpful, that I have continued to edit, delete and reorganize my notes ever since. Art is so extensive that every book and every instructor has to focus, but my notes could be more wide-ranging, especially as I limited them to bullet points. Anyway, I thought others might find them useful.

The notes were for my own use, so I tried to avoid taking notes on something I already knew. Consequently, the neophyte should look elsewhere for instruction, but I think the advanced artist will find them quite helpful. They are, currently, organized into eight categories: color, composition, design, drawing, figure painting, landscape painting, still life painting, and vision and light.
Keene Wilson


Composition - Instruction, Notes and a Tutorial for the Advanced Artist

Derived from numerous resources including notes from: Karl Gnass, Vadim Zang, Nathan Fowkes, Victor Casados, Carol O’Connor, Bill Perkins, Nicole Duet and others
Some of the most useful references are: “Composition of Outdoor Painting” by Edgar Payne, “Design and Composition” by Nathan Goldstein, “The Simple Secret to Better Painting” by Greg Albert, “Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting” by Edgar Whitney, “A Proven Strategy for Creating Great Art” by Dan McCaw, and the” Yin/Yang of Painting” by Hongnian Zhang and Lois Wooley

“Design” and “composition” are both used to refer to the arrangement of elements in a painting. They are inseparable aspects of the organizational components of a painting. Specifically, “design” refers to the organization of the visual components (line, shape, value and color) while “composition” refers to the visual forces of direction, rhythm, movement, harmony and unity that are the result of design.
Putting something in the painting that is recognizable gives meaning to something that is very abstract – Richard Schmid
Design is the effort (conscious or not) to push in a direction and let something dominate.
Underlying principle: Balance of vitality (contrast and opposition) with harmony. Vitality comes with use of brilliant colors, opposition of light with dark values, complementary hues and warm and cool colors. Harmony is achieved with the use of a pervading color, modifying complementaries with their opposites, and gradation of value and hue.
A main objective in the art of painting is to disguise the use of methods or the influence of principles. This concealment creates a mystery and this abstract quality places the work in the realm of fine art.
Key question – Does everything support what I am trying to communicate, does it all work together (support the “story”) – Karl Gnass
Good design is everything for one thing – Emil Gruppe
Start with sketch breaking painting down into 3 to 5 shapes and 3 to 5 values. Use sketch to lay out painting, not reality.
Provide just enough information to start perception in the right direction, let the mind of the viewer fill in the rest. More information = less interesting
Painting benefits from working at different levels simultaneously. While thinking about the subject, also think about the pictures formal qualities.
Paint interesting negative shapes, they require more attention than the positives
Slowing the painting tempo can allow for more compositional creativity while painting
All paintings must have: a sense of space, design (masses must hold together abstractly), and artistic blend of strength and subtlety.
Two major categories of composition: balanced, rational, harmonious vs. exaggerated, emotional, distorted
Never make any two intervals the same. (Unequal measures) “The Simple Secret to Better Painting” – by Greg Albert
In painting it is disastrous to give equal importance to a number of things at the expense of the one overall theme. – Joseph Hersch
Need to sense and convey attributes beyond vision – such as mystery, charm, nobility, grandeur, grace, rhythm, atmosphere, strength
Select simple arrangements
Use concepts to create the feeling you want and let the concept, not reality, drive the painting.


Broadly Applicable Composition “Rules of Thumb”

Make sure all the elements of a picture have a purpose
Animals and people should be facing and looking inwards.
To push contrast to its limit, maintain a clear demarcation between the lights and the darks
Provide a standard to judge all others by (shapes, colors, sizes, direction, tone, etc.)
Give the eye something to look at after it has explored the main subject
Avoid duplicating forms, lines, movement, and size. This will make them compete and conflict with each other.
Avoid grouping animals and people in even numbers. In case you wish to depict a pair, change their size and position.
Lean objects inwards and avoid lining them parallel to the frame.
Avoid straight lines unless they are quite short. Disguise them or modify them to curves.
Don’t depict geometric forms such as, rectangles (doors, windows), triangles, (pine trees) ovals, or circles (trees, clouds) even if that is what you see. For example, break up the form of a door with an overlapping wall or bush.
Never divide a painting into equal parts as it will look contrived. The horizon line should not bisect the painting.
“X” forms are unpleasant.
Do not close the viewer out; invite him in. Depict an open door rather than a closed door.
Keep the corners subdued with little texture and the values dark.
Avoid equal shapes or sizes of masses. Parallel curves are often a discord.
Foreground detail with heavy painting, smooth painting in distance
To feature an extremely bright or intense color include some of the main color in surrounding colors
Horizontal structural lines evoke quiet, diagonal ones vitality
All pictures deal with the balance between unity (similarity) and variety
Composition is not a problem if there is a variety of interesting shapes and sizes with the negative as interesting as the positive
Elements with axes or contours parallel to the sides of the frame tend to be more static
Designs lack unity if an object is nearer to the edge of the composition than to other objects.
Keep detail suppressed in outer masses
Arrange forms so as to diminish in size toward the inside of canvas rather than reverse
The total space between grouped objects should be less than the space surrounding them
Breaking the rule is more interesting than doing the expected
Shakespeare preferred the “untidy, damaged and unresolved to the neatly arranged, well made and settled”
Landscape “Rules of Thumb”

“Landscape composition Rules” by Johannes Vloothuis is a superb resource
Marine Composition “Rules of Thumb”

Many marine artists wash their canvas with burnt sienna or reddish earth colors, then build upon this with bits of warm foundation showing through. A cool color predominance in the view, and working on a white or light gray surface, is liable to cause an unsympathetic feeling
Swiftness of waterfalls and cascades is too great to be suggested with pigment (Edgar Payne; p 98)
General Landscape Composition “Rules of Thumb”

Key point:
In order to give light to the sky or sunlit areas, the darks of the foreground are painted with colors much darker than the eye sees.
Nature is the best teacher for textures and forms, but not for color and variety. Don’t paint a row of uniformly green, triangular cedars just because that is what you see.
Use slight adjustments in tonal relationships (toward greater separation or connection) to suit needs of the picture
Analyze carefully and hold firmly the everyday elements which arrest our interest in a cursory glance.
Don’t forget to select and emphasize dominant characteristics of mass and line.
Looking toward or partly away from the sun presents better arrangement of masses
Either masses or openings should definitely occupy the largest part of a tree area
If hills or mountains are the main attraction, their contour should be near the top of the canvas and the horizon low
To feature the sky: low horizon and land contours, shadow the ground, unequal proportions. Cloud and sky area must not be evenly divided between blue sky and clouds.
Must depict clouds and the sea from memory.
Most compositions need shaded parts for variety and to aid recession
Elements such as tree trunks, roads, and rivers should not point towards the edge or run out of the picture. Add "stops" to keep the viewer’s eye path from exiting the picture.
Rivers, streams, roads, etc. should enter the picture with an “S” movement. A curve is a second option, but not as good. avoid straight lines.
Add areas where the light peeks thru cast shadows, otherwise shadows will appear pasted on.
Avoid painting animals sideways so as not to create a flat pasted on look. When positioned at a ¾ view they will have a more form and volume.
Man made structures will be more interesting if you make them look weathered by adding texture.
Don’t suddenly end a portion as it runs into another area. For example, when a meadow adjoins a forest, place some meadow within the forest.
Landscape painters tend to think in terms of quadrants. One usually doesn’t have much going on.

Balance active side with inactive
Double portraits tend to resolve into two almost equal halves unless one figure is dominant; however, many good pictures are designed around a dominant center – Holbein’s the Ambassadors
In a double portrait, place one head higher than the other and at a different angle
With more than one figure a relationship is implied and the viewer will seek it out.
A voyeuristic view (as over the shoulder) is hard for the viewer to resist.
Still Life - Seek objects with:

interesting shapes
variety of vertical and horizontal
color and texture variety
some light, some dark
contrasting background
Avoid crowding

Composition Fundamentals


Placing two important lines so that they would meet at a right angle has the effect of strengthening the design and locking it together
The first line you put in a picture, is actually the fifth line.
Composition lines often lead to a point either inside or outside the picture, as with perspective lines.
Don’t run lines into corners not only to avoid leading the eye out of the picture but because the lines and the frame form an intersection, creating a focal point (as will tangents)
All parts relate more easily if connected by at least a few lines
Avoid lines of thrust, such as trees, leading out of the painting
Breaking up lines can make them feel lighter
Movement – any element that directs the eye

Key points:
Extensions, implied extended edges creating hidden relationships. May apply equally to plastic space or decorative space or any degree of abstraction. Such an important tool that must take great care that their use is not too obvious. Hide directional forces by interrupting them with counter movements, accents or subtle “misalignments”.
To keep from following a line out of a picture, you need to use blocks as well as focal points.
Figure or something moving (or which can move) leads the eye in that direction
Curving movements tend to move in and out of the picture space
It is good to have a lead-in to painting (row of bushes, lamp cord, road)
If the focal point is brought forward as a light against dark, then movement should be directed with lights. If the focal point is a dark, movement with darks
Gradation creates movement, like a curved line
Repoussoirs – large masses used as stops to prevent the eye from moving outwards
The more curves you have the more life (movement) you put into your design. The most important thing you can do when drawing a living form is to curve the length of the form.
Block the eyes movement where you want, don’t let the eye move too fast
The eye follows the longest line first
Large masses at the sides of a picture can act as stops (repoussoirs) or can lead eye in
Diagonals convey movement and excitement. They are generally preferable because they aren’t parallel to the frame.
Try to include a vertical, horizontal and diagonal movement. One should predominate in length.
Contour lines should not be straight, rather just give a sense of direction.
When including elements that usually move, indicate their movement without permitting them to look posed.
Avoid starting the visual path from a corner.
If vanishing points are beyond the confines of the picture, the artist disguises perspective lines to keep the eye in the picture
To move color, just paint any shape that color.

Repeated form which is a bit different each time is pleasing and gives a sense of calmness and repose
Connections, rhythms, hinted at shapes, balances and relationships need not be arbitrarily imposed on a picture for they are everywhere, select and emphasize but should not be too obvious
Can enliven the picture surface by setting up rhythms by means of short, or interrupted, lines

Qualitative contrast (change) can make the subject more interesting for the viewer, but too much contrast destroys the pictures unity.
Organization in art consists of developing a unified whole out of diverse units. This is done by relating contrasts through similarities.

A composition lacks balance if the viewer’s eye is not required to cross the mid-line.
Arrangements require:
Composition - large masses/detail; unequal measures
Drawing – straight/curved and vertical/horizontal
Value - contrasts and subtle nuances
Color – contrasts or complements/harmonious analogies
Full unity depends on balance in three dimensions. Balance in distance is matter of creating an artistic inequality between main darks and lights. When the foreground colors are modified and repeated in the lighter shades and grays of distance, their repetition always helps balance the composition
Both extreme dark and light main areas need to be repeated elsewhere; pure or nearly pure color in a large area calls for a smaller proportion or modification in other places
Unequal measures
Relationship between positive and negative space

Animate the negative space, the positives take care of themselves – Rex Brandt
Have at least one passage of light and one of dark between object and background and between overlapped objects
A dive into depth created by overlapping must be balanced with a return to the picture plane
Leave more negative space at the bottom than the top
Center of interest

Need balance with lesser attractions at distances in two or more directions
One solution: Saturate focal point and desaturate or blur everything else
Need a way to lead eye to focal point and a way out
Focal point is not always required, especially in circle, pyramid, group mass or pattern designs – must hold interest and induce travel of glance
Should take up a good portion of the picture plane and gradually become subdued while withdrawing.
Manmade structures, animals or human figures will enhance the center of interest.
Subordinate and surrounding elements should direct or lead the viewer to that center of interest by means of pointers and visual paths.
You may want to include a second center of interest. There is a risk that they will compete with each other.
Group your subjects of importance within the center of interest. Don’t scatter them around where they would compete for attention.
Paintings will look less busy if they include a rest area, preferably just before the center of interest.
Focal point is not one shape but a relationship between two shapes. The edge between these two shapes is the center of the focal point
Should be lighter than the background, with more negative space at the bottom of the picture
Lit side should be on side of painting closest to the light source
Use a gripping dark to set up the lights; create an interesting secondary pattern
Should be a different measure from each edge
Within the first reading, it’s nice to have another first reading (notice particular figure first, then left eye of that figure)
Any type of contrast can serve as a focal point, including intersecting or converging lines

Composition Types


Pyramid compositions with solid and close knit forms near the center of the canvas are likely to be too stabile; therefore only roughly indicate a triangular pathway
Top of triangle – dominant, but remote; bottom of triangle – dominant, but more intimate.

Radial compositions with an obvious spoke-like design induce too speedy a glance. All lines should be broken, irregular or intercepted.
“L” or rectangular

Only rarely is it possible to balance one large upright mass with merely a lateral plane (Payne)

In the “steelyard” composition (fulcrum balancing two unequal weights), the fulcrum is the natural place for the center of interest
Suspended Steelyard

The fulcrum is the suspension point and the natural place for the center of interest
Three Spot

In the “three spot” composition, three is the minimum not maximum
Two objects will not create unity, but with a third object the observation becomes better.
Nearly all paintings have three small spots of attraction
Group Mass

Chief compositional form used in painting still life
The “group mass” composition usually requires that the group be of considerable size and contain a variety of forms, values and colors within its boundaries.
Generally easy to achieve unity
Diagonal Line

The eye carrying power of the “diagonal line” composition requires verticals or opposing slanted lines

Silhouette compositions subordinate interest within the group to interest in contrasting edges and contours, often employing interchange of values. The silhouette places particular stress on drawing

The pattern composition is possibly the most ideal and most difficult
Pattern schemes should have 5 to 9 areas with more positive than negatives. Fit natural phenomena to the pattern scheme, not the other way around

Other Possibilities: Cruciform, horizontal, vertical, cantilever, overlapping frames (checkerboard?), curves/organic/round, constellation (visually connected dots with rhythm), meandering [Pollack], golden section

Simplified Composition Process

Step 1 – Initial sketch on which to base composition
Step 2 – Use a series of intuitive sketches to develop the 2-dimensional shape relationships. Test surface shapes to establish unifying spatial relationships of shapes to each other and to the whole. The key is to discipline yourself to switch your attention to the whole composition as soon as the subject emerges in each sketch. Avoid refining details. Continue the sequence of sketches, improving the spatial relationships in each until you can advance no further, even after an interval of time.
Step 3 - Balance light and dark relationships intuitively (while improving shape relationships) and test intuition by blocking out any questionable area and looking at the whole. Disregard everything you’ve been taught or what you “think” should be done.

Composition Notes

Key points:
A certain lack of clarity makes paintings more interesting because if everything is revealed at a glance why look longer. The viewer will complete the painting better than you could
The abstract conveys the essential meaning.
“An airplane looks like what it does.” – A Primer of Visual Literacy, Dondis A. Dondis p. 109
Use sketch to lay out painting, not reality
Consider organizational components: balance, movement, dominance, harmony, variety, repetition, and economy - As well as visual components: line, shape, value, color and texture. But organizational and visual components (structure) are inadequate. In addition to structure, consider axis, volume, space, movement (timing = rhythm and melody), theme and story
…You are more likely to produce something interesting by accepting what is there, and trying to find out as much as you can about it. – Bernard Dunston p 63-64
The way things arrange themselves naturally is nearly always preferable to conscious arrangement (e.g. model posing for portrait)
Claude Lorraine developed stable classical landscape motif of mass on either side with a central passage for the eye to follow parallel planes (foreground, middle ground, background) into the distance
A painting may serve multiple functions, but above all else it must decorate
Good story telling has nothing to do with the facts, it deals with “truth” at another level.
The dominant value should be a larger area than the other values combined.
In a light painting, careful of exaggerating darks.
Most composers pay attention to the corners to help structure the composition. Usually one diagonal is stronger than the other.
If you want to make something look more real, put something abstract against it.
Design rest areas in the painting
Nearly all pictures have three small points of attraction, which may or may not include the chief interest.

Posted by: Keene Wilson (Notes covering color, composition, design, drawing, figure painting, landscape painting, still life painting, and vision and light may be viewed in the appropriate forums on WetCanvas or at For Artists)