Pastel Pointers | Compositional Intrigue

canyons edge

Canyon’s Edge (pastel, 9×12) by Richard McKinley. “This plein air pastel demonstrates one of my favorite methods for creating compositional intrigue,” says McKinley. “By allowing the mountain cliffs’ edge to go out of the top of the painting, the viewer if left to determine just how high it is.”

Producing a pleasing composition is often much harder to accomplish when painting en plein air versus painting in the studio from photographic material. Being surrounded by the vastness and complexity of a natural setting can provide a degree of intimidation as well as unlimited visual distractions, while the photograph is safe and contained. The photograph’s possibilities are limited to the format and scope of its content.  It is already a composition. When the “film” was exposed, compositional decisions were already made, whether conscious or not, and these photographic compositions can become the basis for further creative choices.

One of the ways this affects our compositional choices when we work on location is by how we contain objects within the confines of a painting’s edges. When we work from life, we see where things begin and end. We are not seeing them with the cropped borders provided by a photograph. This often leads to subject matter being too contained within the confines of the compositional format. Since we can see the sky above the mountains, the tops of the trees, and the grass at our feet, we think it all must be accommodated. This containment tendency does not only apply to the landscape. The still life, portrait, and figurative painters often fall victim to the same pit falls.


One way to overcome this tendency to compositionally contain is to use a viewfinder when scoping a potential scene. This can be a simple cardboard window frame made from two L shaped pieces of mat board, a commercially available viewfinder with a sliding shade to change size format, or even the viewfinder of your camera. Once the compositional cropping is determined, a thumbnail sketch placing the major subject shapes into the desired format should be done as reference. Having this sketch as a reminder while painting can prove invaluable as the painting unfolds.


Whether you utilize a viewfinder or simply give yourself permission to “Not Fit It All In”, the less contained objects are within a composition, the more mystery the painting will have. The viewer’s imagination becomes involved. Instead of just seeing it for what it is, they have to finish it, bringing their memories and experiences to play. Ultimately this makes it intriguing and makes them take a second glace.

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One thought on “Pastel Pointers | Compositional Intrigue

  1. paulharman

    Richard I really appreciate your articles and continue to learn new concepts from you shared information and expertise. I had picked up the idea from your book about using a device to reduce the size of the view and be able to format a plein air painting some months ago. The one I purchased does have a sliding scale for standard sizes I often paint, and it does help one to focus on the area one thinks makes the best subject when one is painting plein air. I know you have helped many of us to be better informed and equipped pastel painters. Many thanks,

    Paul Harman