Arranging visual elements into a successful composition is the foundation of any good painting. When a painting doesn’t seem to work, painters often add more detail, only to find that all the beautiful pastel application in the world doesn’t resolve the situation.
Evaluating the elements of shape, value,and color through the discipline of thumbnail sketches is one of the best ways to determine if the design is strong enough to support the painting. By working small, it’s easier to simplify objects into large shapes. Next, assign value (the relative lightness or darkness) to the shape and then determine the arrangement of the major colors within the scene. Once this is done, an evaluation of the general balance and visual thrust of these shapes, values, and colors can be determined. This makes it easier to see the design. Rarely does nature provide the perfect arrangement. Frequently, subtractions, additions and other alterations will need to be made before a good composition is arranged. Keep in mind: Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s good for the painting.
One of the determining factors for success is whether a composition is made up of dominants. Before applying product to surface, ask yourself: “Is there a dominant shape, value and color within this composition?” If there are too many redundant shapes, values and colors, or too much equality among them, the viewer will be confused. For visual excitement within the confines of the composition, be sure there is inequality. If a large shape dominates a composition, a few smaller shapes will act as accents. If a painting is dominantly dark, the light shapes become interesting. If the painting is dominated by warmer colors, a few cool accents will demand attention, and visa versa.
It’s a fact that humans seek order. When left to our own design, we tend to line things up in an orderly fashion, divide spaces evenly, and balance the relative value and color of areas, which creates mundane compositions. An exciting composition is made up of visual inequality: something should dominant. The elements of shape, value and color are the stones that make up the compositional foundation. Just as a home must be built on solid ground before the furniture is installed, so too must a painting’s foundation.
[pictured above]: A plein air painting demonstrating the use of compositional dominants.
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