As a beginner I obediently followed the basic rules of composition such as placing objects one-third of the way across the paper and avoiding circular shapes at the center of the composition, to name just a couple. The rules didn’t fully make sense to me, though, until I started studying and diagramming the work of compositional masters such as Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth. It was here that my real design study began, and as I started to consciously feel how my eyes moved through their works I began to recognize the reasons for their compositional choices?the “why” as well as the ?how.? It was exciting to realize that absolutely nothing was accidental. Every angle, curve and edge reinforces the design of a great painting.
Now I understand that every compositional rule can be successfully ignored. (I don’t mean that we should ignore them, only that we can.) I still loosely follow the “rule of thirds,” but I also often place areas of interest near the center of the painting, or have strong darks or lights near the edge of the paper. Remember, every compositional idea is a problem waiting to be solved, and breaking the rules isn’t necessarily a mistake if it helps you find a solution.
I prefer to paint life-size pictures, and my paper of choice is Strathmore Aquarius 2, partly because it needs no stretching and I can cut it to size, but mostly because it’s tough, flexible and has a pleasing surface quality. Alongside brushes, paints, water and a sponge, I keep paper towels handy for lifting, and that’s it for my materials. I don’t like masking; I prefer to work around my negative shapes.
To evaluate a composition, I’ve found that squinting the eyes is particularly helpful. First, it helps you see the value pattern of the design. Do you find your eye “sticking” on a shape that’s too light or dark, with no path to lead you out? Second, squinting helps you prioritize those values by simplifying shapes and making them easier to judge. For instance, the bright highlight on a plum may appear to be your lightest value until you compare it to the glint of light on the lip of a silver bowl.
Placement isn’t everything—you still need good technique for a good painting—but a compelling image will always have a solid design as its foundation.