When setting up to paint outside, you want to make things as easy as possible. Once you have the right materials, and you can see the values, then the next most important part of that is choosing what to paint. Specifically, it’s choosing how you want your painting arranged on your canvas. Which is called composition.
A strong composition draws the eye in to the painting and holds the viewers attention. A weak composition makes the painting look flat, boring, or confusing.
There are a few tricks to composition, and once you know them they become intuitive. It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for. And that’s what I’m going to tell you now.
First, you need a frame. Something like this works really well, but you can just cut a square out from an index card– it doesn’t have to be fancy. The thing is, most painters tend to over estimate what will actually fit on the canvas, and frame helps me to know what will fit and what won’t.
Once you have the frame, mentally divide it in to a tic-tac-toe board. Like this.
Now, simply place the interesting stuff in your painting along one or two of the lines. Even better, place something at one or two of the dots. This is called the rule of thirds, and you can find tons of detailed useful articles about this all over the internets. The best one is here.
If you follow the rule of thirds, you’re well on your way to a fabulous painting. But maybe you’re not sure what the interesting stuff is. You’re in doubt about what should go along the lines. Here’s what to look for:
Overlap. Look for elements that overlap to create depth. For example–
Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh
See any overlap there? Yes, the big tree creates a strong sense of depth, just by overlapping the rest of the painting. (Just for fun, apply the rule of thirds here– notice anything?)
A path, or a Z-axis. This is a no-fail recipe for a decent painting. A path, or a road, or a fence or a stream starts in the foreground and moves back. As long as the perspective is right, this is a great and easy way to draw the viewer’s eye in to the painting and create depth. And it works.
Albert Bierstadt, Mt. Rainier
Bierstadt isn’t my favorite, because he wasn’t terribly concerned with accuracy, but this painting is a great example of composition. The rule of thirds, overlap, a z-axis, and balance are all clearly evident.
Use the z-axis sparingly, because it can become a crutch and it can be a little trite. You don’t want every painting to have a river or a road.
Balance. Scroll up and look at the Mt. Rainier painting again. See how the trees and the mountain balance each other so nicely? And in Starry Night, how the moon balances the big tree? It’s not required in every painting, but balance is something to consider. Is there a way you can incorporate it for a stronger composition?
Next week, we’ll look at what to avoid in composing a painting. See you then!