Create better compositions with simple value masses

No matter the medium or subject, every work of art needs a strong composition. Without it, even the most compelling subject will look flat on the picture plane. A key part of creating a good composition is creating interest and drama with value masses. Large, simple value masses create a composition that’s both dramatic and easy to comprehend. Ian Roberts, author of Mastering Composition, has the following exercise to help you see and simplify the value masses in your composition:

Try working out the three or four major value masses of your next painting with three gray markers and see how it changes the way you think about abstract shapes. Gray markers come in a range of values: from 1 to black. You could get 1, 3 and 5, for example (my 5 is actually closer to a 7 on the gray scale). The nibs are fat and clumsy to use, which is the point. If yours come with markers at both ends, one fat, the other a sharp point, pretend the sharp one doesn’t exist. Then you’ll have to think and draw in simple masses and shapes, not details. You’ll definitely find it clumsy at first. Try it on bond paper, which bleeds a bit. You’re not trying to create a beautiful drawing; you’re using the markers to see if your composition can be reduced to three or four value masses, and to force yourself to render those masses simply.

Check out Mastering Composition for more information, tips and exercises.

—Mary Bostic
Associate editor, North Light Books

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