When I first started painting with watercolours all of my efforts were focused on mastering the techniques necessary to produce a reasonable looking landscape. How much water in a wash? How to paint white clouds? How to make a tree look like a tree? How to get depth in a mountain range? Les, my first tutor was a great help. His classes consisted of copying photographs existing watercolour paintings. His instruction consisted of which colours to use, which parts to paint first, which techniques to use at each point, and helpful commentary as to how to 'correct mistakes' made in copying the original painting.
This was good instruction for a beginner and I did learn a great deal from these classes. Eventually after a couple of years of painting on my own and with a social painting group, I reached a comfort point with my brushes, paint, and paper. I'm not saying I mastered them. That would take a lifetime, but at least had move on to a point where I wasn't embarrassed to let outsiders see my work. About the same time when I became comfortable with my watercolour materials, I became disillusioned with what I was painting.
Almost of my paintings were copies of other artists-authors works although usually morphed and edited to suit my painting style. But I wanted to know how a master artist, standing on the South Bank, could look over the Thames at Westminster and paint an atmospheric masterpiece whereas all I 'saw' was Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. I continued to study and paint and eventually found a copy of Robert Wade's "Painting your Vision in Watercolor". With his helpful words I began to see how it is possible to see with an artistic eye.
Three Wade books later and I had some answers but I also had more questions. I can't recall the linkage between author-painters, but over the next year or so I 'discovered' Frank Webb, Tony Couch, John Lovett, Edgar Whitney, Jo Taylor, and Rex Brandt. These artists-authors and others were where I started my composition and design education. For several months, I searched online for guidelines-rules-suggestions-NYFCN ( Name Your Favourite Composition Noun) for composing a picture. I found and studied the 7 elements and the 8 principles, centres of interest, Fibonacci, golden ratio/rectangle/spot, the rule of thirds, value studies, and various composition check-lists. My search included a non-comprehensive review of the 1200 or so threads on the WebCanvas Composition and Design forum and more than 120 websites with design or visual composition information. It wasn't until I obtained a copy of Ian Roberts' Mastering Composition, via my local library, that I had framework for all the elements and principles to work in.
Early in his book Ian provides an illustration called The Foundation of the Painting which contains the five planes of a picture. They are described as:
- The Format: square, landscape, portrait... "The Four Most Important Compositional Lines", the edge of your painting.
- Armature: the division of space or the direction or flow of the main movement of the painting
- Abstract Shapes: the main masses, their relationship to each other, and their interaction.
- Subjects: Bottles, mountains, people, a river...
- Details: A street lamp, a pearl earring, a distant figure, trees.
The beginner painter often only focus on correctly rendering the subject in front of them. After all, this is what the painting is about. All of their effort is concentrated on painting the subject and its details: Picture Planes 4 and 5. Yes, you need to be able to skilfully manipulate your chosen media such that I you paint a tree it looks like a tree and a hat, a hat, and a couple having lunch at a table is recognised as such. You also need to be captivated and excited by your subject to paint well.
These skills are necessary, but not sufficient in themselves, to produce an interesting and well composed painting. Firstly, you need to give some consideration to the format of the painting; it's proportion, size, and weather to paint in landscape or portrait. If you paint using a 'standard' size supports you only need to consider the latter. The armature or division of space, when combined with the major shapes, greatly influences the final composition of your painting.
These decisions are given little conscious thought by the beginner, but they are choices you make early in the painting process and usually cannot be altered later if a mistake is found.
0. The Emotional Plane.
I believe that there is one other picture plane: the Emotional plane. A Picture Plane 0 if you will. How you feel about the subject. The "What" of it that has caught you attention. What is the story that you want to tell with your painting. This is really where composition begins.