A Challenge. How do you make a composition?

edited September 2022 in Painting

Explain you process from initial conception to acceptance.

At what stage do you start painting?

For example:

A few years ago I painted this still life of a fishing lure.
the story from my blog: https://jimkingston.com/wetpaint/2019/4/12/jitterbug-straight-up
Oil on Linen Panel 2019

Sketches were done in procreate. Note how I started with the tangents of the rectangle as focal point indicators.

Sketches in procreate.

Every painting starts from a different place. Sometimes abstract shapes. Other times photo swipe.

I started this idea of making a Trompe-l'œil with some of my printings with live objects. It evolved into a simple lure in a glass. I had no idea of proportions. I went to the store and got 4 rocks glasses each a little different. The composition defined. Not detailed but defined.

I've been making up pictures in my head for more than 50 years. Every painting I do uses this manner of thinking. Even if a photo is the source to some degree.

The challenge.

Outline your process of composition along with some visuals.
Remember there's more than one way to skin a tube of paint.


  • GTOGTO -
    edited September 2022
    I don’t have a lot of illustrations but I will explain the latest setup.
    I have thought about what to paint next for about the last two weeks.  Looking for inspiration.
    I happened across a desk of fortune telling cards by Marie Lenormand, a French fortune teller from the early 1800’s.  I like the old feel of the cards.  The last painting I did has old cards from the early colonial period, so I thought this would be interesting.  
    I like having boxes in paintings lately so I included a box.
    I setup the following:

    I don’t have pics of the previous stages but prior to this I did not have the teapot on the books.  I felt I needed more height so I added the teapot because it relates to the upside down teacup used for reading tea leaves.  
    Also the previous stage used a more elaborate China cup and saucer but it looked too out of place with the feeling I want to evoke.  
    I also had the box in the back shifted left but I didn’t like that because the beautiful latch was obscured.  

    I didn’t like all the empty space in the upper right so I moved the pendant to 14.8” from the left and bottom of the painting (the painting will be 24x24”).  That helped but there was still too much empty space so I added a candle on a stand.  I kept that darker to not draw too much attention but still prevent your eye from exiting the painting.
    Heres the revised image.

    You will have to excuse the wonky pictures and lighting.  I took these with my phone. 
    The actual painting will also not crowd the left and right sides of the painting and the narrow table edge will be changed as well. 
    Also these pics don’t show the actual lighting because the scene will be lit by the Victorian lamp on the left.  (Taking a photo with that lit washed out the lamp so I took the pics without the lamp lit). It looks way better with the lamps lit.
    That’s it.  That’s the process.  Look for an inspirational idea and then piece it together  until it feels right.
  • edited September 2022
    @KingstonFineArt and @GTO, it's interesting to see your creative processes. This is a good idea for discussion, @KingstonFineArt. As you say, there's more than one way to skin a tube of paint and I imagine everyone's methods will be different.

    I don't have any visuals from previous paintings (they get tossed when the planning is complete) but, when I finish my current project in about two weeks, I will be doing another of the wilderness that is at the bottom of my garden so I will keep the planning material and post when I'm ready to start the painting. The planning material will include the onsite colour notes I make, plus the original photo I use and a description of how I go about cropping and moving things around in my image editors to get a composition I'm happy with. This often involves reference to dynamic symmetry and the Golden Ratio.  I will also describe how I get the final print I work from to match my colour notes. (I make color notes in oil paint on scraps of canvas because my landscapes are big and it's not possible to do them completely en plein air. They take weeks and the light is never the same from one minute to the next, and I'm too old to be standing outside in the weather.)

    In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how others go about arriving at a composition that works for them. 
  • @GTO
    A very interesting bunch of objects. 

    I would do a lot of things if this were my painting. Mostly color.. Simple hints of muted color. Maybe 2 of the ribbon bookmarkers. Muted and worn and not pointing out of the scene. 
    On the right I nudged a few objects around. I was trying to make an interesting negative shape for the eye to travel on.
    I would usually try doing this in 'pencil ' with procreate. Making layers of tissue to move about.
    Notice the pull chain how I moved it ever so little toot make a coincidental path moving downward. I also eliminated the light poles because they were to noisey. I can see a quick solution.

    Again I would take a photo put it in some layered image processor and sketch my way to harmony of shape. Just shape - color comes later for me.

    A word about the rectangles we paint in. I love my classic composition stuff. Dynamic symmetry, rabatement all that stuff. Square are unique creatures. Their Tangent is in the very center. The targent of rectangle is where the diagonal makes a 90° angle with the line coming from the corner opposing the diagonal. They create natural focal areas within the rectangle. 

    I have drawers full of complex images some over 20 years old that I can't find solution for. Making these things are puzzles.

    I cam't wait for the progress on this one.

  • GTOGTO -
    edited September 2022
    Interesting @KingstonFineArt. I will check that out on the canvas.  Little adjustments can make a difference.  I usually draw it out on the canvas and make those minor adjustments as I go and the after getting it all drawn review it for anything that feels “off”.  I’ve made the mistake of skipping that step in the past and had to scrape and repaint it.  Better to be sure up front.😀
  • Hum. The most important part of the painting process is the 'building' the composition. If you work directly from a photograph then the composition has to start in the camera. Chances are that even a very well composed photograph will need some tweaking. I'm really interested in how people make their choices. The are many great resource for this. The top 2 for me are the simplest. Ian Roberts https://masteringcomposition.com/free-bonus/. And Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7R4ehObzob3bm1UMFpOVU9DUUU/edit?usp=sharing A free Pdf version.

    Check these out. What do you think?
  • edited September 2022
    I've found composition the most difficult thing in painting. I'm not sure that painting from life or from a photo has much bearing on the problem. Whether you arrange objects and paint them from life, or whether you take a photo of the arrangement and paint from that will depend on a number of considerations. For example, if you are painting flowers or food, it's worth taking a photo in case they wilt or go off. Or, if you don't want to spend the time physically shuffling objects around and lighting them, you could just toss together some items you want to paint, take a photo of them, then shuffle things around and adjust lighting in your image editor. I don't think it matters whether you paint from life or from a photograph. Either way, there's a bit of tweaking to do.

    Those links you pasted, @KingstonFineArt, are worth looking at. Those guys know a bit about composition. And as you mentioned, there's also Dynamic Symmetry, rabatement and the Golden Ratio which can help. I make use of these quite often in landscape painting. So, yes, there are lots of resources available. It just takes a bit of time and study to understand them and learn how to use them. We might occasionally get lucky, but I'd say that good compositions rarely happen by accident.
  • For those in the mid west states here's a workshop opportunity with Greg Manchess. A master of story telling composition.

  • A composition evolves.

    The composition on the right has evolved from the one on the left. The background on the right was added using one made with AI. The right version has focus and scale. The background story is that these jars of Christmas gifts were collected over 10 years. The right image focuses on that story. Ghosts of Christmas Past. It took 8 months for me to solve this composition.

  • Is everything except the background something you physically setup?
  • edited September 2022
    I had this photo sitting on my computer desktop for a year. Apart from the fact it didn't capture the fulness of the colours (on the day I took some controlled photos to make sure I remembered how strong they were) I knew it still wasn't quite right but couldn't figure out why.
    I was watching an Andrew Tischler video where he was fixing someone's composition of a creek. He said, well that big rock in the foreground is in the way and doesn't invite us in. Bingo! I immediately thought of this photo and realised I wanted water in the foreground and shallows that you want to dip your feet into. I ended up using about 8 different photos that I had taken from slightly different angles or nearby and wove it together. I also decided I wanted it in golden ratio so that was the first change.
    Once complete I did a lot of play on photoshop to understand it.
    S's - My dad taught me about Ss related to photography when I was 13-14. This happily had 3-4 of them.
    Lines - I saw someone do this once and I find it helpful to understand the composition. Lines lead the eye, so where are they leading us?
    Different version. We also look towards what someone in the painting is looking at. My wife swept me off the rocks and out to sea.
    Vanishing points - not sure how scientific but I found it helped me think about it.

    Fibonacci spiral - which I suddenly realised was there. I moved my wife slightly for it so that the central point was just in front of her line of sight.
    Later I analysed the waves - sat there with ePen and drew them all to understand the different directions, angles, sizes... It's funny that we don't comprehend the patterns of the way waves move in a complex environment like this, but if I had done it incorrectly the viewer would probably know something was wrong even if they couldn't say what it was.
  • @GTO
    Yes. I set everting up making many adjustments along the way. I used Metascan to make a 3D fly around to choose camera angles. This is a new thing for me. 

    The thing about the new final image is the scale of the mass relative to the rectangle. The light and dark shape interplay. Light and dark shapes are so important. 
  • Great conversation starter @KingstonFineArt.  I'm enjoying sitting back on this one and observing all the comments to learn a few things.  Looks like I've been doing it all wrong.  Composition is the number one item on the list of a truly good painting followed by drawing, value, color, and edges.  I don't think I will ever get there and be able to create the wonderful works of art that I see posted here but it's fun to try when given the time.  Thanks for your post.  It truly is educational and enlightening to see how others arrive at their destination of a good composition.  

    Ian Roberts bring a comprehensive interactive approach to learning the. foundations of painting. Compositional skill.

    You want to be a better painter you have to build on foundational ideals. I have used his Book Mastering Composition sine he published it. No flash just tradition work principle. You need to watch this promotional video.

  • I got more disciplined and less spontaneous with compositions a few years ago. I make decisions about specific design elements and record the answers. The design element categories are the same ones I use to critique a finished painting. Duh! But it took me a few decades to come up with this design approach. I posted these categories on this forum before, but perhaps this thread will be right place for it.   

    I try several different compositions, until I have one that works for me. In this process I have come to realize that the same overall composition with the same elements can work successfully in several different ratios and orientations.

    Overall proportions: LxW for example: 50%, 66%, 75%, 80%, 100%. I only compose to standard frame sizes anymore.
    Entrance to picture:  What attracts the eye first.   
    Armature: Central focal points and overall flow:     
    Shapes:  for example, triangles, curves. also, a selection of sizes for the shapes so everything is not the same size.       
    Values:  this is to make sure I have a good range of values on a 10 step scale, in addition to the 3-4 midrange values I almost always use. I convert the prospective composition to grayscale on my computer, before starting the painting, to see if the range of values is strong and supports the composition. If it doesn't, then I have to adjust and check again before starting the painting.            
    Saturation:  I use this to force myself to make thoughtful decisions and guard against my impulse to make everything SATURATED!!!
    Color:   Work out the color harmonies first. I usually use only 3 different colors, plus black and white.
    Contrast and edges:    forces me to make soft and lost edges to help the illusion of depth as well as focus visual attention to where I want the viewer's eye to go.              
    Warm and cool:                         
    Additions and Changes: for example, add elements, change saturation to attract or detract attention. 

  • edited September 2022

    Here is an example of my composition and design elements being decided.

    Evergreen   Riggs Family Cemetery 20181118 image 7315      Square

    Entrance to picture: lower center to tree.     

    Armature: Central focal points and overall flow: 1. Center tree. 2. Left big lowest branch. 3. Left line of headstones. 4. Foreground shadow left to right.  5. Right line of headstones. 6. Right branches to top and then down again on left.    

    Shapes:  triangles and implied diamond. Lots of diagonals.           

    Values:   mostly dark 1-3.    Sunlit ground is mid gray 4.             

    Saturation:  mostly neutral.  Contrast through warms and cools more than saturated color.          

    Color: purple gray shadows. Blue gray trunk. Lighter and mid gray cool shadows on headstones.   Warm streaks of sunlight.  

    Contrast and edges: soft mostly. Sharp on foreground headstone on left and lower tree trunk and branches                  

    Warm and cool:  mostly cool shadows, tree trunk and sky.  Warms secondary: sunlit ground and background.                   

    Changes and additions:

    Left ground: make sure to add or emphasize the diagonal light streaks between headstones.

    Upper right: Add branches to juniper tree so it mirrors the left side of tree. Add dark branches and foliage to make curve off of center tree and make lighter triangle framing the center tree. The density of branches and pine needles on right need to almost match the left, but a little lighter and greener to indicate the direction of the light.

    Background trees: Reduce background tree on right closest to middle juniper.  Make sure trees either lean in to middle juniper or are straight. 

    Upper sky: light holes shine through trees, especially in left and right corners.

    Move obelisk on right in the middle of the space between center juniper tree and right edge; make sure the obelisk bottom lines up with yellow line.

    Background and horizon line: soften edges, reduce contrast, and move to mid to light values.

    Most saturated colors: sunlit foreground and the pink roses on gravestones. Foreground shadows: emphasize the blue a little.

    Central focal point: the implied diamond around the juniper tree.

  • @Desertsky
    are you right a treatment for a script?

    It a VISUAL exercise. 

    How about a story board. 
  • @Kingstonfineart - I use a lot of visual images and arrangements, very similar to what @Abstraction uses. I just can't figure out how to post these images on this forum. 

    I am pleased with the progress I have made since devising this written and visual process for composition. If this works for me, it may be useful to someone else. I found Ian Robertson's composition book very helpful in devising my own process, but now prefer my own process to anyone elses' because it focusses on strengthening my weaknesses. 
  • How to post images.
    Make a jpeg file 20 inches wide at 72 dpi Mac or 96 PC. Save it. to your drive. Click the triangle next to the little mountain icon above. A dialog pops up asking you to CHOOSE FILE. Select the file on your drive you just saved.  


    Open the image in a new browser window select copy image. Paste into the dump post.
  • OK - I created a 270 kb PDF example and saved to my desktop, located it with the "attach icon" command on this thread, attached it, pressed preview, and saw - nothing at all. Tried a few times, and this does not work.

    So a few questions:
    What is the file size limitation for an attachment?
    What are the attachment type limitations: no PDFs? what attachment types can be used? 

    Thanking in advance...
  • Thanks. @KFA. It worked but was awkward. Still, one can see the reason for trying all these different views of the image to check for notan, values, flow, etc.
  • @Desertsky
    In the beginning of a painting I first evaluate the image in it's intended rectangle. In this case a square. A power of a square is that the reciprocal of the square is right in the canter. I usually place the power right there on the tangent. In this case the tree. The tree lifting life to the heaven. Here the diagonal are supported and powerful.
    I worked with the colorant values here.

    Below I compressed the value ranges accentuating the drama.

    I think a mistake a lot of people make is using lyrical eye flow in place of structure. Composition is about masses. Light and dark structures interacting in abstract pattern.
  • @KingstonFineArt - Shapes are masses :) 

    Thank you for re-organizing my composition to demonstrate your approach. Your composition is about masses. So is mine, but my composition better lead to lyrical eye flow. If it doesn't, then for me it is not a good composition. Your composition leads to a different interpretation and emphasis of main points than mine did. This reinforces my suspicion that the same raw elements of the same objects can lead to more than one successful composition.
  • The foundational process.
    Start with abstraction. Don't think of detail.
    Consider you space. The rectangle. The power of that rectangle. Each ratio has different spacial secrets.
    Begin to assign real attributes to the abstracts.
    Begin realization. Develop pathways.  
    Solidify Value Shapes. Light Dark. Scale comparisons. Color relationships.

    This is a visual thought process. Visual. Thinking is done at the end of the pencil.

    As an Illustrator I was often given lists. Goals to meet. I almost never followed any list except the listing above.

    You'll find some variation of this in the art texts of the 30's to the 50s. Then abstraction took over. The difference is linear thought process to associative thought process.

    I'm an associative thinker.

  • A little classical composition going on here. Good geometry sauce.
  • edited October 2022
    Nothing beats a dollop of "good geometry sauce" on your still life. 
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