Award-winning watercolor artist Eric Wiegardt often finds that the rules of composition and the theorizing that often goes with it are rigid and not all that helpful. Because the rules never seemed to fit his watercolor painting at hand, Wiegardt devised a simple process for evaluating his paintings that has worked well for him over the years and a way to focus in on an area of dominance to assure you catch a viewer’s attention.
Three-Step Composition Evaluation
1) The painting should stand up well from a distance.
2) The eye needs to travel through the entire picture plane without getting stuck on a shape or color.
3) The eye needs to be guided to an area of dominance and held there as long as possible.
For an in-depth look at how Wiegardt makes this three-step practice work for him — and to see more of his watercolor paintings — check out the this issue of Watercolor Artist.
An Area of Dominance in a Composition
It seems that many artists suﬀer from a case of “Wow! This looks so good that more has got to be better. This strong value contrast gives my painting so much snap, and the intense colors have so much pizzazz, and oh, the detail — let’s have more!”
This approach inevitably results in too many similar elements competing for attention, which results in an insuﬃcient area of dominance. Elements of design —space, line, shape, value, texture and color — that have a uniformity in strength tend to cancel one another out. It’s akin to a ballet performance featuring lots of ballerinas, but no prima ballerina. There’s a lot of spectacular movement occurring, but there’s no center of focus.
The area of dominance is just that — an area — and not necessarily an object. To create the area of dominance, we need to construct sharper value contrasts, more intense color, warmer colors, harder edges and more detail.
Backing oﬀ on the rest of the painting gives the area of dominance the opportunity to make a more powerful impact. But how do you accomplish that? As the picture plane moves away from the area of dominance, it’s all about using softer value contrasts, grayer colors, cooler colors, softer edges and fewer details.
Two Secrets to Success
There are two characteristics speciﬁc to watercolor to keep in mind when constructing the area of dominance.
1) Soft edges are much easier to work with than hard edges.
A soft edge can be tightened up easily into a harder one by overlapping a crisp stroke over the underlying soft edge. This can create a beautiful, loose, painterly stroke. It’s much more diﬃcult to make a hard edge softer.
Usually, we have to resort to scrubbing with a stiﬀ brush to soften the edge, which often results in a tired, overmixed passage of muddy color. Because of this, I’ll frequently begin a painting on damp paper, which encourages soft edges throughout. This allows for ﬂexibility in the process, too, as I’m not caught in a corner with too many hard edges that need softening.
I’m also careful to stay away from portions of the area of dominance that will need a razorsharp edge. I know I can adjust, making the softer areas harder as the painting progresses. Toward the end of the painting session, I ensure a tight, hard edge, or possibly several, in the area of dominance. But, I’ll progressively construct fewer and fewer hard edges as I move to the outside of the picture plane, where there’s usually little change from the initial soft-edge washes.
2) Intense colors are easy to neutralize with successively gray washes, whereas gray washes that have dried are diﬃ cult, if not impossible, to intensify.
With this in mind, I start each of my paintings with a lot of intense color — more than I’ll need — in anticipation of graying areas apart from the area of dominance later. It’s important to incorporate grayer colors, fewer details and value contrasts — as well as the necessary, but often overlooked, softer edges — outside the area of dominance to create an eﬀective painting. They’re all key to driving attention to the area of dominance.
Composition Demo: Area of Dominance
Step 1 I block in the large shapes by establishing their appropriate value. I may need to adjust these to darker values as the painting develops, so pinpoint accuracy isn’t necessary at this stage; however, if I start off too dark with the value construction, I may be in trouble because it’s so difficult to lighten a passage.
This is the time for large connecting patterns with many soft edges. I also try to have some representation of the darks established as a goalpost against which to compare the mid-tones and lights.
Step 2 Next, I begin to elevate the area of dominance compared to the rest of the painting. I then work on the rest of the painting in support of the area, but I try not to surpass it in degree of refinement.
This naturally brings the area of dominance to a higher level of completion; I follow this process throughout the painting until completion. There’s a logical reason for this: It allows me to keep the area of dominance ahead of the rest of the painting. The area of dominance should control the composition in totality.
Step 3 I place a few more twigs around the flowers and darken the values at the bottom and far right of the painting so that the stronger value contrasts are reserved for areas around the flowers. Again, I go back and forth between the area of dominance and the rest of the painting, always keeping the area of dominance one step ahead of everything else.
I ended up with an inadvertent darker twig shape near the center of the composition. I’ve found it best to not touch a possible mistake, but better to leave it for a later evaluation.
Step 4 I flatten the Masa paper and mount it onto watercolor paper for stability. I make the edges around the flowers harder and define more branches in the same area. I add ultramarine blue to some of the white areas as a contrasting color statement, which helps to strengthen the area of dominance.
I rely heavily on my intuitive impulses at this point. Having the darker twig shape slightly off center draws the viewer’s eye to the flowers. I’m glad I left it alone and didn’t fuss with it; it kept the passage fresh and expressive for Quince (watercolor on paper, 22×30).
Painting Without a Net
This article is based on the instruction and practice that Eric Wiegardt delves deeply into in the pages of his book, Painting Without a Net. The anxiety of the blank paper will be no more with this resource at your side! Explore fearlessly, artists!
Use the tips Eric has discussed here to create your own painting with an area of dominance. Send a JPEG (with a resolution of 72 dpi) of your finished painting to email@example.com with “Creativity Workshop” in the subject line—or follow @artistsnetwork on Instagram and share your painting there: #everywatercolor.
The “editor’s choice” will receive a copy of Wiegardt’s book, Painting Without a Net. The entry deadline is August 15, 2018.
Meet the Artist
Eric Wiegardt has been awarded the highest honor in watercolor: the Gold Medal and Dolphin Fellow from the American Watercolor Society. As a teacher and artist, he’s best known for his bold, loose painting style. He an his wife, Ann, reside in Ocean Park, Washington, where they own Wiegardt Studio Gallery, which is located in Eric’s great-grandfather’s home.