Composition and Design | Using Dominants


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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14 thoughts on “Composition and Design | Using Dominants

  1. teachart

    I registered just to add an AMEN to the above comments!! I am so frustrated with this new blog…I want to research things Richard has discussed in the past and I can’t figure it out!

  2. Joy

    I’m done. There is way too much content everywhere to wade through. I ONLY want to see Richard McKinley’s blog. Not a feed blitz – or whatever. I HATE having to search around for what I clicked for in the first place.

    PUT IT BACK. I may come back to see if it has improved.

  3. maplanding

    This is truly sad. I second all the comments made earlier re: the loss of the other blog’s “look and feel.” As a marketing executive by day, I get that Artist’s Network wants to brand itself more strongly. But this is akin to Coca Cola inventing New Coke only to get smacked around and go back to Classic Coke.

    The loyalty to this blog is to Richard, not Artists Network. Artists Network gets the good will from Richard’s brand’s halo. NOT vice versa. You don’t mess with the brand. You just don’t.

    Please put it back the way it was. We can’t find the entries we’re looking for, we can’t easily browse his past articles. I imagine Richard’s writing these posts and sending them to someone at Artist’s Network who has been doing the data entry. I say that only because the voice has been consistent. And I know that if Richard’s anything like us, he’d rather be painting than figuring out technology.

    Please. Put it back.

  4. msb

    WHAT A MESS!!!!!!! Richard should be justifiably disgusted. I certainly am. Bring back the left-side links to Richard’s past posts. I regularly refer back to them. Bring back RICHARD MCKINLEY’S Pastel Pointers…..if I want “pointers” of other artists, I’ll search for THEIR blogs, but since I’m interested in Richard’s, please do not confuse his link with other’s posts.
    WE are the people who BUY the books and CDs and magazines, etc., etc., etc.!!!!! You just might want to heed the suggestions in these replies. “New” IS NOT always better!!!!!
    Richard??? Have you seen what a MESS they’ve made in order to attempt to net more names, postal addresses, email addresses for commercial purposes?????…..I had to re-create a new name and password…and fill out all my contact info before I could even post this!!!!!
    Magazine publishers complain of dwindling revenues……….this sort of antic certainly does NOT happy consumers create.

    And did you notice that not one of these posts was jestful or cute or campy or comedic. This should tell you that your consumers find absolutely nothing redeeming in bad management.

  5. nekkowagenki

    The old blog had a nice search feature, and all search results were from the Pastel Pointers Blog. I just tried the search function up at the top right of the artists network banner, and it returned results from the whole site.

    It bothers me, perhaps irrationally, but none of these blog posts are done by Richard McKinley, they are by different names. Several different names. Probably just reposted, but I don’t like it at all!

    Most of us pastelists feel kind of close to each other, maybe due to being adherence to a less well known medium. The Pastel Pointers Blog has been such a great source of information for so many years, and Richard McKinley is so well respected as a teacher and artist. So we trust him, and it has always felt like he is talking directly to us, as if we got a weekly workshop with him. This new interface feel corporate and impersonal.

    I think that you, the publishers, have just made a misstep here. Hopefully you will take Robert’s specific comments into account. Take a look at our WetCanvas discussions on this topic. Please use your creative and innovative brains to fix this misstep.

    We want a blog feel, a personal experience with the blog author. Having the blog searchable and easy to read is important, also having it easy to find would be important for new readers.

    Thanks for listening, I expect that this can and will be fixed. It was so good before, so its hard to see it get degraded.

  6. robertsloan2

    Please return Richard McKinley’s blog to the old format!

    The old design was good. An update like a newer picture of Richard painting outdoors or the addition of a task bar leading to the rest of would be okay. The only change that is real convenience to me is the task bar. I don’t recall if the little block of links to the other blogs is new, but that’s a good thing.

    This design has serious problems. Ironic to see it first in an entry about design and composition. I’m about to launch into a detailed critique. If you’re determined to give it a good look, these are the specific problems of the new design that need correcting.

    1) The reading column on Full Article has massive layout problems. This page – after clicking Full Article to get the full width image and the full text – is almost unreadable. I was a typesetter for over a decade. The formatting is bad. In the natural width of my browser on opening it, both the text and the image butt against the left edge of the tab with no white space. Zero white space. Nothing. To see any white space, I had to maximize it. That floated the column and the right column into the middle of too much white space, equally distracting and almost as hard to read. Then I adjusted the browser width manually until I could see both the column and the full width of the right side column with the ads.

    Two things happened at that point. I could not keep my eyes off the flickering slide show ad for MyArtTutor, which became so annoying I’d be discouraged from ever looking into it. Worse, much worse from a design standpoint, the text of Richard’s article broke up. Every few lines a line would auto-justify to the width of the column (same as the width of the photo) but most of the lines cut off way too short with hard line endings. The irregular justification made it almost impossible to struggle through. Please. Just auto-justify to the adjusted width of the column. Set it up so there’s a quarter inch of white space when you shrink or enlarge the browser window. Keep the column readable!

    2) The links on the right that are so distracting would be less distracting on the left. In a left side narrow column, I would look at them first when I’m starting the article. I might click on one or two, hoping that it would open in another tab so that I could finish Richard’s article first, or scroll back and grab them when I’m done. This is how I usually read online. Reminders at the end of every line to look at something else, especially grabby changing images like that slide show, are irritating “dazzlers” that feel spammy and make me want to leave the page completely.

    Good targeted ads are a convenience. I read the ad section in my North Light magazines along with the articles. I look at the side links on the blogs, if I go to Pastel Pointers I may want to read Watercolor Artist next and Artist Magazine. I’m one of the regulars here. It’s not the content of this stuff! It’s the presentation and the design itself that’s making it hard to concentrate on something that’s a regular, favorite source of great new information on pastels (and the others great new information on their topics.)

    On that note, everything but the slideshow ad is an actual convenience to have in a side column. The right column in a good design could have a lovely passive list of past articles in this blog with little thumbnails – a version of the page I landed on done vertical with static images. Then it makes sense as where to go after reading this one. Oh, I wanted to look up a related Richard McKinley article, skim that and glance down to see if I missed one or want to reread a past one after finishing. That’s a convenience and more of the same topic.

    The latest Artistnetworktv video small screen was not a distraction on a par with the slideshow because it waits for me to activate it. If the slideshow had a start arrow or button on it, that would be a lot easier on my sanity and a lot more intriguing. I’d come to it in my own time rather than getting my attention dragged away by something moving in my peripheral vision while I’m trying to read something that demands concentration!

    3) The Artistsnetwork banner across the top replacing Richard’s image and banner leaves me feeling like I landed on the wrong page. I can’t tell where I am at a glance, which blog I’m looking at. A pastelist might visit the Artists Magazine blog. A watercolorist might incorporate pastel into a mixed media painting. I have lost the emotional connection to Richard that seeing his picture every time gave me – that sense of visiting a friend’s blog and hanging out with someone I really like. Instead, I’m on an impersonal business page that could be anywhere in Artistsnetwork and feel lost, don’t know where to look first or where I am.

    This design seems to do everything it can to draw attention away from the focal area, the theme: Richard’s article and its image. It’s overdetailing the peripheral areas and creating bad negative space unless I adjust my browser manually to its own specific width unlike most sites I visit, with the hassle of adjusting it back afterwards.

    I don’t think the negative comments are just regular readers’ dislike of change in a favorite online landing spot. I think the problem is bad design rather than “new format.” If you create a third format that keeps the features we love and adds new conveniences that make it easier to reach the rest of Artistsnetwork, more links to related material that could be followed on impulse from the specific article, it’d rock.

    I don’t think a new reader coming to this page would even realize how good Richard’s articles are. I got distracted from the article by the link to the free download above it and that took me off the page. Opening new links in new tabs would let me have both the article I’m reading and the cool thing I just grabbed for later.

    If the blog is more searchable, that’d be great. If there’s an easy search function handy in the left or right column, yay and good. That could be a good change.

    If the Artistsnetwork presence reduced to that task bar and it was colored distinctively across all the pages, that could be darn handy. Or if its content was placed in a contrasting-color block with the Artistsnetwork logo. I can see that with good design it would be great to jump from Richard’s article to a Composition discussion in the forums or a contest or the next blog or go right to Artistsnetworktv because I’m subscribed and take in that new video without watching the sample. Or check out the sample if I wasn’t and consider buying it or subscribing.

    Sorry for the length of this comment. It’s intended as critique, supportive, not just an angry letter. Please either return to the old format or temporarily restore it while redesigning the new one so that it keeps everything good in the old and adds new conveniences in a way they’re real improvements. Thank you. I do love this blog and I’m not leaving it even though I’ve got to struggle now to read it. Please fix. Soon.

    1. mikkird

      I have to say that it took me at least 45minutes to even get to Richard McKinley’s pastel blog! I absolutely hate this new web site! I have enjoyed his blog for a long time….if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It stinks! Please go back to the way it was!

  7. DJPurney

    What have you done to Richard McKinley’s blog?!?!?!?
    I am not receiving it anymore. Instead I am being inundated with mailings from that look and read like sales pitches from spammers. I get messages that say…

    “Pastel Pointers Blog | Fine Art Instruction, Articles, Art Videos & Art Resources | Artist’s Network” has changed”…”Please visit the page to see the changes.”

    but when I click on the link I get this…

    this is feed blitz’s web site not the blog I subsscribed to. There is no connection to Richard McKinley’s blog.

    1. robertsloan2

      I had that problem too. I’ve also had login problems. I needed to register again, chose my password, it asked me to fill in a profile. I did but couldn’t save it, on two or three tries I wasn’t authorized to that server. When I got my email notices of any of these blogs I’ve got dead links or they lead to pages I can’t access. To find it at all I had to go to and navigate to it cold, hoping it would actually be there!

      Please fix the emails, guys, and lay off the hard sell. We love your stuff, we signed up to hear about it, don’t overdetail the emails either or inundate us with too many all at once.

    2. robertsloan2

      Yes. I got the feed blitz thing. That was giving me as much trouble as trying to sign in at artistsnetwork. I got a Register button and no Login. I think I was registered but my account got borked in this change. And I don’t like the feed blitz, it gave me too much trouble.

  8. dori

    And WHERE do you sign up to subscribe to this blog? I look for it every week on my home page, and now it’s not accessible from there, and I can’t find out on this page where to subscribe to it. What is THIS????

  9. Donatella

    Bring back the old Pastel Pointers Blog! This looks weird on the screen, Richard McKinley’s name is nowhere in sight, there’s no way to find old posts, etc etc etc. I hate it!

  10. nekkowagenki

    I hate this new blog interface!!! What happened to the old one?

    I can’t read it very well, and its hard to find things. The sidebar adds are very distracting, the layout is strange. It is so strongly left justified, but the right edge is jagged and looks terrible, some one word lines . . .

    I haven’t tried to search the Pastel Pointers Blog, but that was an outstanding resource.

    Bad move IMO