Use Design To Create a Powerful Painting | by Ian Roberts

For powerful paintings, push design over subject. (Bonus: click here for a free download on Drawing Basics for the Beginning Artist!)

Design Rules!
By Ian Roberts

Tuscan scenery, the subject depicted in ‘Road to Asciano’ (oil, 36×36) is undeniably beautiful, but the effectiveness of the painting arises from an asymmetrical design, strong shapes and masses, and dramatic value contrasts.

The design of every painting you create affects that work as much as—and usually more than—the subject. Most students I’ve taught are looking for good subjects to paint. In fact, what you need to look for is good design.

You’re not really painting the world “out there.” You’re painting a design that you impose on the world. Without that design concept, you can get caught up cataloging what’s in front of you. I like the way John Carlson puts it: “If you approach nature without some idea, she is merciless in the way in which she piles lumber in your way.”

That “idea” Carlson is referring to is the design, the overriding structure you impose on your painting. Without it, details, incidentals, nuances and distractions can easily bury you. Begin your painting with a design idea firmly in mind. Then you have a road map—a good idea of where you’re going and, just as important, an indicator of when you’ve arrived. Once you actually get into the thick of painting, so much is going on that, without that map, you could end up almost anywhere—and you’ll usually be disappointed with that endpoint.


This picture plane is alive and dynamic. This single pencil mark pulls the eye to the lower left. Every mark you add to a painting triggers an automatic visual response.

Every mark matters
Let me give you a simple example: Take a blank sheet of paper and draw a large arc on it from top right to bottom left (A). That arc leads your eye across the page down to the lower left and has become the dynamic of the design on the picture plane. This dynamic isn’t an aesthetic feeling or preference, nor can you do much to stop it—it’s just a fact resulting from the way your eye responds.

When you begin painting, each mark you make influences the picture plane in that same way—sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly. The marks all add up to the lively dynamic. Each mark is doing something.

You need to be aware of that something when you paint. Each new mark not only represents an element—a tree trunk or a patch of sunlight, for example—but also influences the entire dynamic of your painting. Most painters bury their head in the subject they’ve chosen, and, because that subject looks interesting or beautiful, they assume the painting will also be interesting or beautiful. It doesn’t work that way. Either you’re molding the dynamics to enliven the design of your painting, or the dynamics are running the design on their own—and seldom to your advantage. The moment you get lost in the subject at the expense of the design, your chances of success quickly start to slip.

So the crux of the matter is that when you paint, you must give at least equal attention to the design as to the subject. It’s like playing music—if you get so entranced with getting the notes right that you lose the beat, you’ll lose the music. In the same way, if you get so caught up in the subject that you lose the design, you’ll lose the painting.


Pushing design 1
My thumbnail (B) has only three value masses—very simple. Note the gradation in the water that pushes your eye up into the sketch.

The water gradation in the finished painting The Mill Pond (oil, 30×20) (C) tones down the strong contrasts in the lower right. Instead of the eye getting hung up in that area, it moves smoothly up the painting. The subject is trees, land and water, but the painting is clearly design driven.

When I teach workshops, I see work like D over and over. The artist is in such a hurry to start painting and gets so engaged in the subject that any sense of design is ignored or forgotten. The result becomes ordinary—even boring. You can’t be so polite. Push your design. Create dramatic emphasis. Notice, too, the distraction created by the strong contrasts along the top of the trees, both in the sky and in the reflection. All those small, sharp edge contrasts override any other design movement that may have been planned.


Design-driven tips
How do you become more design conscious when you paint? I have five suggestions:

  • Do a thumbnail (see B and E). Consider it a road map. Think primarily in terms of several bold value masses. Usually students hate doing thumbnails; they just want to get the brush to canvas—but a good thumbnail shows you simply and graphically how strong your design is before you start painting.
  • Use a viewfinder (a cardboard or plastic frame) to isolate or crop your design idea. Really push your design before you start painting (see Pushing Design 1 above and Pushing Design 2 below). Go for asymmetry and push it 50 percent more than feels comfortable. As you paint, there’s an inevitable slip between what you envisioned and what’s actually occurring. The painting loses punch (it happens to all of us). If your design is dramatic enough before you start, your painting will still be gripping when it’s finished, even with that inevitable slip.
  • Stand back. You need to get your head out of what you’re doing and stand back, and to do this, you need to paint 10 to 12 feet from the canvas. I don’t mean you need long brushes—you just need to stand back and see what’s happening. Often. Otherwise you can immerse yourself for hours in all kinds of details and nuances that aren’t even visible 10 feet away.
  • Change your viewing orientation. When you stand back, every now and then look at your painting in a mirror or upside down or both. You’ll often notice problems you couldn’t see before.
  • Walk away. Every hour take a break from your work for a few minutes. Then come back and look at your painting with fresh eyes.

To sum up, crop and frame dramatically and find large, strong value masses to drive your painting. When you think in terms of design as you compose, and not just subject, your paintings immediately become more engaging—and your success rate soars.


Pushing design 2
This thumbnail sketch in two values (E) shows how simple, yet dramatic, is the design behind painting F.

West to Carombe (oil, 10×12) (F) is a plein air painting done in France. Obviously the light didn’t stay like this for long. Early morning tree shadows (which slowly moved toward me and then disappeared) created the dark mass in the foreground. The patch of shadow in the midground appeared momentarily when I first arrived. I found the dramatic horizontals and verticals irresistible to paint.


Painting G is another example of what I often see when teaching. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the way the work is painted—all the information is there, simply stated. But compared to F, you’d have to say it’s all subject, not design. Squint your eyes when looking at painting G, and you’ll see little value contrast. The painting is pleasing because the landscape is attractive, but the design has no impact. The design in figure F is less easily dismissed.


Ian Roberts teaches plein air painting workshops in France and is the author of ‘Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting’ (North Light Books, 2008). Visit his website at

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