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Composition and Selection.  by Don Finkeldei:  There are many more factors to consider in composition than arrangement and balance of objects on a canvas.  Here's how to maximize the effectiveness of your painting.

Much of the content in this article is the result of years of observation, study and, of course, trial and error in painting.  Edgar Payne (1882 – 1947) has also influenced me.  His book “Composition of Outdoor Painting” is an excellent read for anyone interested in the finer details of composition.

Rarely will a scene you attempt to paint have the right compositional qualities, objects, and focal point exactly where you want them.  There might be a shallow areal perspective, or depth of receding planes.  The shadow and sunlit areas of a scene may not be quite where you’d like them to be for a nice compositional balance.

The job of the artist is to orchestrate and rearrange much the same as composers Bach and Beethoven orchestrated and rearranged musical scores.  They eliminated the unnecessary and concentrated on balance, movement and harmony to the ear.  An artist’s job is move, enhance and eliminate unnecessary elements in the scene such that balance, movement and harmony to the eye achieved.  Music theory has a lot in common with visual arts.

It’s a good idea to do a Gedanken painting.  That’s a mental painting, or thought painting you do in your head.  Try to eliminate the clutter and meaningless objects that will detract from your painting.  Leave only what will enhance the painting.  Move objects to balance the painting.  Change light and shadow areas to better balance low and high value areas.

Often one might want to paint a scene that contains objects that are hardly even believable in real life – let alone extremely hard to paint even for a very experienced painter.  White cliffs, banded formation striations, weird and jagged mountains, repetitive masses and lines, strange looking tree formations, odd looking clouds – all are subjects to avoid unless you are extremely competent and very experienced in painting.   Most experienced painters will always choose a simple believable scene over a very complicated one.  Simplicity in design, composition and placement is more important as a rule than trying to paint everything possible into one painting.

If you’re a plein air painter, the location of your easel to the scene is important.  Many times you’re restricted where you can set up.  You might be closer or farther from the scene than you’d like to be.  There are some things you can adjust.  For instance, a mountain scene where the mountains are intended to be the focal point and there are trees at the base of the mountain.  You set up too close to the trees at the base because you had no other option.  The trees overwhelm the mountain and appear to be the same height as the mountain itself.  You really want to stress the massive mountain and the height of it.  The solution is to imagine what the scene would look like if you were farther away.  If that was the case you would see that the mountain stays much the same height.  The trees, on the other hand, are now much smaller in comparison to the mountain.   The solution:   decrease the height of the trees at the base.

Composition consists of many different factors and elements. The elements of composition can be broken down into sub sections of the broader meaning of “Composition”

  1. Selection:
    Select a subject/scene that’s believable, simple in design and doesn’t require much arrangement and movement of things.  You’ll probably never find the perfect scene but you can find some close enough to what you want to portray without doing a major overhaul.

  2. Elimination:
    Take a critical look at the scene and decide what you want to leave in and what you feel you should take out to better support the composition and artistic value of your painting.

  3. Position:
    Where do you want to place the focal point on your canvas.  Focal points can be broad and subtle or localized and dramatic.  That’s up to you.  Normally, it’s good practice to place the focal point features off center both horizontally and vertically.  I’ve also seen wide and narrow focal areas centered that are very well executed but you have to know how to balance the rest of the painting to make a center focal area effective.   Do you want a high or low horizon?  Mostly sky or mostly terra firma.  A good rule of thumb that can be employed to great effect is the 60/40 or the 1/3 – 2/3 rule.  Just a suggestion.  If sky is your focus, maybe a very low horizon would be appropriate (10% terra firma and 90% sky).  Sometimes the sky can be eliminated altogether with great effect.  Some of the best paintings I’ve seen have no sky in them at all.

  4.  Border:
    Decide where your horizontal and vertical canvas borders will be.  Mentally block out everything outside that border (but keep an open mind to moving something outside that border into the arena.  having several different sizes of  viewfinders will help you compose the scene inside borders.  You can make several by cutting out a 4 x 5 inch in a sheet of poster board (or other  rectangle sizes and aspect ratios).

  5. Line and mass distribution:
    Look at the lines of your painting.  You can think of  lines as linear borders of masses, grouped object edges like trees, and recession plane edges.  It’s the overall tilt, position and direction of the edges of things that have value, hue and contrast differences.  Don’t make lines all horizontal or all vertical.  Use unequal proportions.   Vary the lines to support your painting and lead the eye to the focal point and break up repetitive passages without being obvious.  Often I see lines that lead the eye out of the painting or a horizontal band of trees reaching from left to right without varying the vertical or horizontal height.  That’s a border that stops your eye from using the whole painting.   Break it up subtly with varying heights of objects like trees.  Some are taller and some are shorter within each distance line.

  6. Value distribution:
    A well composed painting also has a very balanced value distribution.  The balance of light and dark areas.  For instance, shadow and sunlit areas. That’s a balancing act.  Think of low values as heavier, higher values as lighter.  If all the low values are to one side either vertically or horizontally, the painting won’t be balanced without careful execution.  I’ve seen some paintings extremely lopsided in value but still extremely effective.  Again, it’s knowing how to balance with in the broader areas.

  7. Perspective:
    Architectural renderings use very strict perspective.  It’s a relatively simple rendering using vanishing points and lines on a drafting table or computer program.  If you adhere to architectural drafting your artistic and emotional painting will suffer.  Just paint it like you see it keeping in mind the angles and lines of perspective you see.  It’s those slight variations that make a beautiful painting.  Subtle variations in line, edges, hue, intensity and value that make a work of art.

  8. Depth and Distribution of Recession Planes:
    Recession planes are another thing to consider.  You may not want each recession plane the same height on your canvas.  Don’t follow the lines of the nearer plane edges, or be as intense in chroma, value variance or hue as depth into the painting increases.  Of course the warmer colors drop out and blue persists as depth into the painting increases.

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