One of my favorite sayings is: “A good painting is not by accident but by design.” This statement implies that it is up to the artist to arrange the basic visual elements of the composition: shape, edge, value, and color to make a successful artistic statement. One way of working out these compositional elements, before committing pigment to surface, is to do small sketches. These thumbnail sketches place the major compositional shapes within the framework of a format, allowing an artist to visualize the final painting’s composition. Adjustments can then be made to strengthen the rhythm and movement of the visual pathway throughout the painting, facilitating a more successful outcome.
Most artists are familiar with two of the basic methods of compositional sketching: First, one can do simple line sketches which break the composition down to a few shapes so that object placement can be scrutinized; another option is the value map (or notan) which associates light and dark to these spaces. These are very important methods and should be taken into consideration before painting, but there is a third technique, which is often ignored the arrangement and manipulation of color masses within the composition. This oversight tends to be due to the overpowering color influence of the scene. Without permission, painters often paint what they see or what they believe they see. While the surrounding world is magnificent and often cannot be improved upon, there are times when purposeful color manipulation could make the mundane profound.
To analyze the composition of color, artists can undertake a series of small color sketches. These are often referred to as “posters.” As the term implies, the color placement can be done in a very flat manner and does not need to represent form within a space. It is merely the arrangement and interaction of color within the compositional framework. When I do these color studies, I like to do the first one fairly true to the scene with only minor adjustments to accentuate a dominant color. The subsequent color studies are open to whim, allowing myself to not be overly influenced by the subject matter.
In the three examples here, you will see color studies done as part of a compositional exercise. The first (Study A) is fairly true to the scene with the cool blue of the sky and reflection being the dominant color and the warm yellow of the fall trees being subtly weakened to better harmonize. The second study (Study B) was about making yellow the dominant color of the sky. The third (Study C) represents a challenge to make bright red the dominant hue.
Color studies, along with shape and value composition manipulation, can lead to a series around a certain subject. The more you do, the more creative possibilities will arise. Keep them small, be playful with them, and let them provide color confidence in advance of your larger works. Who knows which of the three represented color studies I will choose as reference for a larger pastel painting? It may be all of them!
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