A Painter’s Guide to Composition | Using the Elements of Design for Stronger Paintings

In Winter's Journey (pastel, 14x20), 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?

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No matter how beautiful the subject matter or impressive the application technique, if the composition of visual elements within a painting are 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 is not merely enough to accurately portray what lies before them, they have to arrange and manipulate the visual elements to create a cohesive outcome. These elements are akin to grammar. The better an author arranges the words and punctuation, the better the document will relate to the reader.

The Elements of Design: The terms composition and design are often used synonymously. While they do work harmoniously, they do represent different visual characteristics. Composition signifies the arrangement of the visual elements and principles of design independent of subject matter. Design elements encompass: 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.
Start From Sketch: When planning a composition, I like to start with a series of thumbnail sketches that allow for manipulation of certain design elements and principles. These doodles lay a foundation before applying any pigment to a surface. I experiment with and then indicate the placement of the main and secondary areas of interest, perceived horizon line, major shapes, and foremost value contrasts. Every change to a composition has the potential of conveying a different mood or attitude.
To avoid becoming compositionally predictable, I often experiment with various elements and principles of design, such as:
  • 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 towards a warm or cool color bias, can create unity and balance, as well as altering 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 surface areas.
  • Depth: Amending perceived distances can create an overall change in proportions, generating a sense of intimacy or separation to the subject matter.
Orchestrating a Painting: Arranging the elements and principles of design are like conducting an orchestra. One relies on sound and the other sight, but they both rely on orchestration. At times you must silence one section of a painting and make another louder, just as a conductor does when leading an orchestra. How we utilize the elements and principles of design ultimately leads to ovations or jeers.

 

 

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