The Lay of the Land

Choosing a subject to paint is probably the first step in the artistic process for most of us, but the next step is a crucial one that artists sometimes overlook. It?s the decision of how to frame your subject, and it has nothing to do with the frame you?ll put around the picture when you?re finished. I mean framing in terms of what goes in and what gets left out of the picture and where eye level lies. These are composition decisions that have a big impact on the quality of your art, no matter how good your rendering skills are.

Some experienced representational artists can look at a scene, evaluate it and immediately start to assemble a picture. But most of us can benefit by considering a few different options and making some adjustments to the scene. Unless you?ve found the perfect subject, a view will probably lack something that could make it more interesting, or be too busy, or need some re-arranging. Here are a few ways to get started on the right track.

Set Your Borders
A good first step is to recognize that you have plenty of flexibility in choosing where to place the borders of your picture, and therefore in choosing what goes in or out. A good tool to keep handy is a pair of L-shaped pieces of matboard, as shown below, that you can use as an adjustable viewing mat to look through at the scene. Hold the pieces together to find what proportion is best suited to your subject, and change your viewing borders by moving the mat back and forth to determine how much of the scene is to appear in the final picture and how large the subject will appear to be. The mat must be held perpendicular to your line of sight.

Don?t be bound by reality, however. The subject you want may be in a good setting but surrounded by too many other elements, and the viewing mat can help you see this. Omit or rearrange objects if necessary for a better composition. As shown by the illustrations at left, sometimes simplifying the scene can be a big improvement.

Locate Your Eye Level
Think carefully about where the horizon will appear in your picture because it has a big impact on the viewer?s response, as the illustrations at left demonstrate. We instinctively sense eye level to be near the middle of the picture frame, where it would naturally be for a person looking straight ahead. But when you place the horizon right across the center of your picture, it tends to create a surprisingly static scene where the viewer doesn?t know whether to focus on the top or the bottom half. This is usually where you?ll see the horizon in a simple photograph, and it?s often a tip-off to experienced competition judges that artwork was copied from a photo.

When eye level is placed near the top of the picture, emphasis falls on the upper portion. This division of space complicates your choice of what to place in the lower, larger area; it needs to adequately complete your composition without being too interesting or overly detailed. More common is the low horizon, which also stresses the upper portion of the picture and may focus on an expanse of sky or some structures reaching upward.

If you?re in the mood for something a little different, don?t forget that you can go to extremes by raising or lowering the picture frame beyond the horizon altogether, as shown above. As a matter of perspective, the vanishing points for your subjects will still be located on this horizon, or eye level, now above or below the picture. This approach gives viewers the unusual?and potentially exciting?sensation of looking beyond normal eye level.


When you eliminate the horizon by raising or lowering the picture frame beyond it, as I did in this drawing of an Italian village, you can give viewers a surprising new perspective by displacing their eye level. But you must remember that the vanishing points of your objects will still be at the horizon.

Find the Light
Very early in your drawing stage, be sure to establish the direction of light, and be sure that its angle agrees with your other compositional decisions. Although it may seem correct, the light you see in a scene may not be right for your composition. You can have the light coming from any direction if it improves the picture. Just make sure the direction is kept constant. This consistency shows up in the highlights of objects, it establishes the light and dark planes, and it dictates the direction of cast shadows.

If you can make all these decisions up front and get them to work together, you?ll have the basis for a good picture. With that foundation, you can set your other drawing and painting skills loose with the security of knowing you?ve chosen the picture frame that your work deserves.

Loraine CrouchThe Artist’s Magazine.

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