A Painter’s Guide to Composition | Use the Elements of Design for a Stronger Painting

Editor’s Note: Richard McKinley is known for his beautiful landscapes and the wealth of information he has shared in his Pastel Pointers column of Pastel Journal and his ArtistsNetworkTV video workshops (watch his art workshops here!). Richard often shares his painting tips for working in plein air, creating a pleasing composition, and balancing color. Enjoy! ~Cherie

Painting tips with Richard McKinley | ArtistsNetwork.com

Along the Blitzen | Frenchglen, Oregon (pastel, 6×9) by Richard McKinley. PIN THIS!

Using the Elements of Design for Stronger Paintings by Richard McKinley

Whether it’s the still life, portrait or landscape, there’s no reference material that can replace the experience of interpreting subject matter one-on-one. While it’s never easy to progress from painting from photo reference to painting from life, it takes special concentration to do so in the landscape with the ever-changing lighting and conditions. This, along with the overwhelming vastness of the landscape, can stymie even the most technically advanced painter.

Over many years of working both in studio and on location in both pastel and oil, I have come up with a technique that I call “field sketch painting.” It requires a degree of discipline and allows me to work concisely. I can stay focused on what is most important for a successful landscape painting outcome: the big composition shapes, value masses and color temperatures. More elaborate painting techniques are saved for repeat visits to familiar locations.

Thumbnail sketches and art tips | Richard McKinley, ArtistsNetwork.com

Thumbnail sketches for Along the Blitzen. Click here to browse more of Richard’s blog posts.

The first stage of the field sketch painting starts with a series of thumbnail sketches in a sketchbook to develop a strong compositional concept. Once I am satisfied with a compositional design, I outline three more thumbnail sketches that are proportionate to the final painting’s format. Next, I break the scene down into a few abstract shapes. This can be difficult to do at first, and the key here is to focus more on value relationships rather than individual objects for the shapes. I try to have as few shapes as possible–no more than five or six–and ignore small accents.

Closing one eye and squinting with the other helps greatly by diffusing detail and color, making it easier to see the contrasting value shapes. Then I draw the abstract shape-masses into the three thumbnails. The first is left as is for future reference. In the next thumbnail, I associate the indicated shape masses to no more than four values consisting of light, middle-light, middle-dark and dark. Three values can also be used. This is my value map. In the final thumbnail, I associate the shape masses to light or dark, creating an abstract black-and-white thumbnail sketch. This is often referred to as a notan sketch.

Using the value map for guidance, any shape that was above middle value will be white and any shape below becomes black. These value sketches can be done with a pencil or ink markers.

Evaluating these sketches tells me if I have a strong value composition, and they prove very valuable as reference as the painting progresses.

No matter how beautiful the subject matter or impressive the application technique, if the composition of visual elements within a painting is not strong, it will ultimately be considered a failure.

When we set out to paint, it is easy to become seduced by the subject matter. We fall in love with what it represents, forgetting that for a painting to work, it has to successfully communicate our feelings. For painters, it isn’t merely enough to accurately portray what lies before us; we have to arrange and manipulate the visual elements to create a cohesive outcome.

The terms composition and design are often used synonymously. While they do work harmoniously, they represent different visual characteristics. Composition signifies the arrangement of the visual elements and principles of design independent of subject matter. Design elements are line, shape, color, value, tone, texture and depth. Design principles are balance, contrast, movement, rhythm, emphasis, proportion and unity. These elements and principles form the nucleus of an artist’s compositional tool chest. Every painting relies on them, but some will be more apparent than others.

Arranging the elements and principles of design is like conducting an orchestra. One relies on sound and the other on sight, but they both rely on orchestration. At times I must silence one section of a painting and make another louder, just as a conductor does when leading an orchestra. How the elements and principles of design are utilized will ultimately lead to ovations or jeers.

Painting tips with Richard McKinley | ArtistsNetwork.com

In Winter’s Journey (pastel, 14×20), all the elements and principles of design were orchestrated to create a composition that better portrayed my feeling about this lonely winter scene. How many can you identify?

Principles of Design for Artists

Here is how I experiment with various elements and principles of design to avoid becoming compositionally predictable:

Line: Altering the movement of visual elements within a scene can lead the viewer’s attention to certain areas and create a better balanced visual flow.

Shape: Tweaking the relative width and height of objects can affect proportions, vastly changing how we relate to them.

Color: Adjusting the dominant color scheme, or weighing it toward a warm or cool color bias, can create unity and balance as well as an altered mood.

Value: Varying the placement of light and dark within the composition can create emphasis, contrast or balance, depending on intent.

Tone: Modifying the intensity of colors can create emphasis, contrast or unity, depending on the mood or atmosphere being portrayed.

Texture: Accentuating the perception of texture can create rhythm and emphasis on certain surfaces.

Depth: Amending perceived distances can create an overall change in proportions, generating a sense of intimacy or separation to the subject matter.

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