Improvement in Design and Composition

About 3 ½ years ago, I created and set up a lesson plan to improve my design and composition skills. I have plugged away at it almost every day since, except when I was so sick that I couldn’t. Since I caught covid in 2020, I have been ill in bed for over seven months with various respiratory ills, because covid damaged my immune system.

The past few days, I have looked at old composition exercises from four years ago (before I caught covid the first time) and compared them to more recent ones. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I have improved.

Before actually looking at them, I had the mindset that because of covid, I could not see values well – and this is somewhat true – and that my composition skill had also declined. I now see that perhaps my comp skill declined when I was so ill, but that it now is better than ever! I am so surprised. My values still suck, BTW.

This is not to say that my composition skills are wonderful, only that they have improved compared to 10 years ago due to the structured plan and all the hours (3000 or so over 3 ½ years) put in. The same design elements used for critiques were what I used to design.

I have previously posted my design and composition structure here before, where it met with a lukewarm response. This is fine with me. Either most here are good natural composers or this is not an important skill set. Or my OCD approach is not everyone’s cup of tea.

A few points:

One can have a belief that one isn’t making progress when one actually has been – slowly and incrementally perhaps. This is where keeping good records to review can be helpful. My composition and design skills have been mediocre over my life at best. They are now improved! I think for me the reason why I improved were: deciding on the goal; designed a structured approach to the improvement; putting in the hours; keeping records and evidence of the efforts; examining the actual results instead of just the belief that I was not improving.

If you are having trouble with some aspect of your painting, step away from the easel and palette, and define the problem, define a tentative solution, create a plan to improve, execute the plan, etc. This is Mr. Carder’s approach and it works: lighting; studio wall color and value; thickness of paint; how to match color and value. He thinks like an engineer. I think he is naturally good at composition, and doesn’t have much to say on the subject. Note that on this forum, design and composition is not one of the categories of discussion.

Getting a fresh perspective from someone else is very valuable. I find live in-person critiques the best. But that is how I caught covid again 3 months ago (and have had a fever ever since. This is really getting old…). Online comments on this forum are really good, but not as easy as live because the discussion via written posts takes a long time.

Here are the aspects of design and composition which I used below. Please feel free to use, modify, or ignore. If you have other design elements, please share them with the group.

Armature: Central focal points and overall flow:     





Contrast and edges:                  

Warm and cool:                         

Additions and Changes:



  • edited December 2022
    That was an interesting read, @Desertsky. Sorry to hear you got COVID and that it has hung around. 

    I've always felt that composition is the hardest thing in painting. I spend more time worrying about it than any other aspect of our craft. The way I've dealt with it, insofar as I've been able to deal with it at all, is by studying great paintings and trying to work out why they work as compositions. The list at the end of your post above covers important aspects of it and I try to keep those points in mind. And, although I don't follow it slavishly, I've also found the Golden Ratio and Dynamic Symmetry useful when I can't get a composition to work. But it's folly to try to shoehorn a composition into such schemes. I've come to the conclusion that there is no sure-fire recipe for the perfect composition. It just has to feel right. And, in as far as I've been able to discern it, that's Mark's approach, too.   :)
  • tassieguy said:
     "I've come to the conclusion that there is no sure-fire recipe for the perfect composition. It just has to feel right. And, in as far as I've been able to discern it, that's Mark's approach, too.   :)  "  

    The problem for me is that for most of my life, my landscape compositions felt good at the time I was painting them. It was only afterward that I realized they were pretty bad. That afterward lasted decades. With the help of some live critiques I have attended locally, I realize that some of my composition flaws are still with me, unchanged over the decades, and others are new. :) 

    For example, I love shallow fields in landscapes, but this is considered a flaw in the traditional foreground-middle ground-background composition. So, if I wish to continue with the shallow field, I need to invent other ways of maintaining visual interest and some spatial dimensions in a compressed space.  If I really push this idea, for example, a small group of plants at the base of a tree, then this becomes a still life composition but outdoors and not using manmade objects.

    I think Mr. Carder's brief discussion of design and composition is the weakest part of his processes. 

    Yes, the golden ratio and dynamic symmetry ideas are useful. I use a simplified version of the dynamic symmetry (a 3x3 equal grid) which often points out what isn't happening at those intersections of vertical and horizontal lines.
  • I think that Marks discussions are mainly oriented towards still life and portrait realism, maybe less towards landscape composition. There are additional elements in landscapes that makes them different than still lifes, such as distance and atmosphere, which are not present in the later.

    @Desertsky Could you elaborate on what you find flawed with fields in landscapes? I personally think they can be as important to the landscape as the background can be to a still life. Large passive areas are important to emphasize more active areas.

    I also tend to think compositions in term of sources of contrast: light/dark, straight/curved, hard/soft (love this one for building vs trees), saturated/desaturated (like to desaturated some passive areas to make others pop)...and so on. There so many ways to create contrast.

    One thing about no liking older works. It might not be the composition but the technique that becomes outdated as we progress. The composition might be good but poorly performed. It might be interesting to try again older paintings with updated technique few years laters. 

  • Words words words. Words are easy. The end of the paintbrush is where the artist speaks.
    The body, hand and brush. Just draw and paint. Painting is not touching all the bullet points. Painting is seeing, interpreting and expressing.

    Work from life when possible.
  • @kingstonfineart - thanks as always for the constructive and supportive comments. 
  • @Adridri:  Yes, you make good points. My older landscapes are badly composed, not badly executed. I only wish it was what you suggest: good comps and poor execution 😊 much easier to fix.

    I have expressed myself badly if you think I meant that fields are flawed in landscapes. I meant that, if one paints outdoors stuff (i.e., landscapes) in the western tradition, that landscape is expected to have some spatial dimensions: middle ground, background, etc. Distance and atmosphere in landscapes only exist if the visual depth includes a background or sky. 

    My compositions of outdoors stuff frequently do not have backgrounds or views of the sky, so no atmosphere or distance. I need to make the spatial illusion with other compositional elements and focus a viewer’s attention on objects in a shallow foreground.  My landscapes are considered flawed because they lack the traditional foreground, middle-ground, background, sky.

    You and I use the same compositional elements; only expressed differently.

    I think that Andrew Wyeth was the best abstract composer of landscapes, interior scenes, seascapes, etc. that I have ever seen. His use of values and extremely limited palette has guided me. (Poor Mr. Wyeth is rolling over in his grave right now.)

  • Ha yes I know what you mean. I sketch mostly in the city, and I very often lack the distance. Scenes are often viewed from the other side of the street and don't have the distance of wide open spaces. Lot of my sketches suffer from that also I agree.
  • Words words words. Words are easy. The end of the paintbrush is where the artist speaks.
    The body, hand and brush. Just draw and paint. Painting is not touching all the bullet points. Painting is seeing, interpreting and expressing.

    Work from life when possible.
    I don't concur with the "Words are easy" thing. They are, perhaps, if they fall easily to hand – and a paintbrush similarly in its own context. The remainder I agree with entirely. Apart from the "Work from life when possible" bit; it would be quite difficult perhaps to paint after you are dead?  ;)

    @tassieguy wished you (in his way, I think) a quick recovery to strong health, and I'll lean my shoulder into that objective similarly. Adrien @adridri made also some careful and competent ideas around wrestling with composition.

    My own thinking is that appreciation of composition is entirely subjective. If in painting a landscape—if that is your direction—someone from nowhere suggests your favorite tree would look better six inches to the left (that's six inches on the canvas, not the real ground) tell them politely to sod off. It's your painting and the only thing they have to contribute with is the ability to comment. That's in the wider world of course. I think that here, people might see things a little differently.  :)

    Kindest rgds, Duncan
  • edited December 2022
    I agree with above @MoleMan.
    I think I mentioned it before, but here is a composition class I took some time ago, I loved how he approached the topic and the weekly exercizes. Good introduction to composition concepts.
  • @adridri - Thanks for that link. It looks good. It reminded me of the annual Spectrum award books for science fiction and fantasy art. I have a few of the books and find them a revelation on innovative designs. The Chinese illustrators from Hong Kong just amaze me. 

    In addition to the design elements I listed above, I also convert my compositions to grayscale, black and white, and sometimes a 25% light/75% dark image. The problems with flow and emphasis usually leap out at me when I do this. Yet, if I don't convert to values, the problems are there, I vaguely know it, but can't see them readily. I will continue plowing through my design exercises. 

    @MoleMan - yes the past 3 years have been difficult. Thanks for the encouragement. ...A critiquer in a live session told me that it was obvious I had painted many landscapes and they were good but....there were no surprises in them for her and so they were boring. If I ever return to her critique sessions, I'll put in a troll peeking from behind a rock. 
  • Good discussion and the thing I struggle with. 3000 hours! Wow. I love that. Would love to hear if you had some favourite easily accessible sources (eg, youtube) that you felt helped a lot. I'm about to share two I like.
    I also don't agree that 'narrow field' is a problem. I guarantee there are great works that break this rule. Maybe your narrow fields aren't operating according to landscape rules, but can be successful based on other design principles. So look beyond 'landscape' for your composition keys. I'm throwing this in just for conversation for the forum, I'm sure you're across all this:
    1. Design principles are tools, not rules: Every rule has successful exceptions. I'm sure you've seen this by the brilliant Ian Roberts - he gives 'the rule you can't break' but first shows two successful examples of breaking it.
    2. Build a toolkit - because a person with a hammer thinks everything is a nail: Being familiar with multiple composition tools in our toolkit gives us options to solve unique situations. "A canon of knowledge that you can incorporate into your art if you wish." (from Tavis Leaf Glover video below). Without exposure to composition we often can't articulate why something is working or not (in such a case words are not easy.) Having too few composition tools in our toolbox might mean we dismiss someone's work because it's neither a nail or a screw and therefore invalid because it breaks the hammer and screwdriver rules. (Dismissing rivets, glue, bolts...) I've found as I've added to my toolkit I can often solve my composition or cropping problems more instinctively because I can deconstruct what I'm looking at in new ways.
    3. I never look at a painting first through the 'rules'. First I just allow the work to speak to me on its own merits. Then, if it isn't working, I will ask myself why this could be (execution, style, subject...) or design. If it is working I then ask myself design questions to learn. I have a fear of people judging my work solely based on whether it follows the hammer or screwdriver rules. I dislike the idea that people see any painting and first ask themselves, 'does this follow the design rules?' and then dismissing the work because it doesn't.
    This guy has a wonderful toolkit approach and dumps a few of them into this video.
  • @Abstraction has said it all – well, and very coherently, so I'll add to that—if forgivable—with a little humour. The excuse being to keep this conversation tied to Desertsky's opening post.

    Armature: Central focal points and overall flow:
    Armature is nothing more than working coherently with one or both of your upper limbs. Imagine you wanted to punch me full in the face: you perhaps wouldn't rely on your wrist to achieve that, or necessarily your elbow. It would come from the shoulder. I'm not a violent man, and I don't for a moment suppose that you are either – it's just a punchy metaphor to make the point robustly. Articulation matters.

    Clearly, this is gender-specific. In the feminine sense, 'pear-shaped' works quite adequately for me these days. The most grammatically correct and masculine equivalent is 'beer belly'.

    Moral or ethical? They're quite different concepts, you understand.

    High saturation is synonymous with urinary incontinence – but quite different to dampness, and which is more subtle.

    Primary to a painter, but you'd have to feel comfortable with being placed somewhere on a spectrum (dump the OCD idea). Life can be red, yellow or blue, or any combination thereof or therein. Don't believe it – primary colours are nothing more than a convenient untruth.

    Contrast and edges:
    This happens naturally within relationships but is more evident in marriage. In the latter context, the edges always are quite sharp.

    Warm and cool:
    Please see the comment as immediately above.

    Additions and Changes:
    These can be tricky. Again it is more a feminine/masculine thing. Additions can happen, and we like to give them names and wrap them into a collective noun and call them children. Change, in the feminine context, is what happens personally and arrives later and at some awkward time in life. There is no masculine equivalent: I don't change, I just get worse. Additions and Changes; or whatever. I'd suggest you strike those words out of your thinking; you could perhaps more simply and more elegantly describe them as being small adjustments.

    Ultimately words do matter. How you say them – and just as important, how they are received. Today (here) is a red day–I'm feeling sanguine. 

    Best rgds to all, Druncan ;)
  • @MoleMan -

    You are Sanguine - with a hint of Choleric. 
  • Desertsky said:
    @MoleMan -

    You are Sanguine - with a hint of Choleric. 
  • @Abstraction – thank you for the links. I watched them both and will rewatch them. How do you decide if a youtube painter is worth watching? That you can expect to learn from?

    Non-art-tangent alert.

    I designed my lesson plans to improve my art the same way instructional designers develop lesson plans for any subject.  Analyze the problem, decide on the solution, define what the solution looks like, design incremental steps to the solution, execute, compare results with the goal, etc. Modify the steps to the solution as needed.

    Now for visual art comments.

    I fall in love first. I always start a composition with some visual element I have fallen in love with. I use the guidelines for compositional elements to bring out this beautiful thing. I don’t always succeed. I have about 20 compositions from a single photo. All emphasize a different point. I plan on creating even more out of this photo of a red cliff face.

    Hours. I put in all the hours because I wanted to achieve my goal. Nobody promised me that the goal would be easy or quick to achieve. Or that I had talent.

    Study progression of talent over someone’s career. I have been lucky enough to see in person a few major retrospective shows of artists I respect. I took these opportunities to study closely the evolution of their design strategies and also their improved paint handling. Georgia O’Keefe, El Greco, Andrew Wyeth. At the beginning of their careers, all were marginal in paint handling and composition. It really encouraged me to see their improvements with thousands of hours of work.

    The Great Masters made many more compositional drawings than they did paintings. Also, about 30 years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to examine the working drawings and compositional cartoons of great artists from the North countries, and Italy. This was part of the Vincent Price collection which he donated to the Indiana University Art Museum. I saw very clearly the different approaches taken to a single image, as the artist tried to design a good composition. These were not on public display, but were in the museum storage and conservation back offices.  I wish museums would put these kinds of things on public display.

    Dynamic symmetry: Yes, I am aware of this, but I find it less useful than just designing with sets of diagonal lines and curves. I use the grid of thirds to see where the emphasis of the image is, not to adjust the composition to fit the intersecting lines.

    Sources of design information: I seldom watch youtube, but have learned from Andrew Tischler and Ian Roberts. I own almost no how-to-paint books – but I have lots of books of paintings from different museums or from specific schools of art. I created my lesson plans from the common elements successful artists use, which happen to be what I was taught in art school 40 years ago. As I improved or degraded (stinking covid!), I adjusted the guidance to meet my current challenges.  

  • edited December 2022
    @Abstraction great videos, I will explore these channels. Thanks.

    @Desertsky about choosing who to give your trust to, I go for people I admire for their art. I just seek in their explanations how they see, what they see, and what is so specific to their approach that makes it appealing. I think you have to trust your own common sens to see if what someone is talking about makes sens. Most of the time, if someone touches you by their work,  they are very likely to be able to explain what it is that makes their work special in their own eyes. So in the end its just about listening to ourselves and what touches us, and reach out to others if they are still alive...
  • More words.

    A few pictures would be worth more than all these words.
  • More words.

    A few pictures would be worth more than all these words.
    Sometimes. a) People have different learning styles. In doing post-grad studies I often drew a diagram to summarise a reading for myself. Then I noticed my wife writing words to articulate meaning from the diagrams in readings in her own studies. b) Not everything can be communicated simply in images. Sometimes words are worth a thousand pictures. I saw thousands of paintings and didn't understand aerial perspective until someone explained it simply in a few words.
    Desertsky said:
    I fall in love first. I always start a composition with some visual element I have fallen in love with. I use the guidelines for compositional elements to bring out this beautiful thing.
    Love this. So true. A task well-defined. Trying to understand what it is that moves us standing in a real landscape and unable to get it into a photo is where composition can help. Knowing an image has promise but understanding why it isn't working is where composition can help. Arranging a still life? I still have no idea.
  • More words.

    A few pictures would be worth more than all these words.
    Sometimes. a) People have different learning styles. In doing post-grad studies I often drew a diagram to summarise a reading for myself. Then I noticed my wife writing words to articulate meaning from the diagrams in readings in her own studies. b) Not everything can be communicated simply in images. Sometimes words are worth a thousand pictures. I saw thousands of paintings and didn't understand aerial perspective until someone explained it simply in a few words.
    Good heavens man, you've cracked the nut and found the kernel.  :)

    I thought I was alone in the world in reducing something complex—but resolvable—diagrammatically.

    I prefer triangles, because if you can illustrate and condense a difficulty tightly into three corners you then are 90% nearer to finding a reliable and communicable solution. Rectangles are less helpful, they have four corners. They have an extra corner, but they can seduce and present as an easier option – I avoid them because each corner faces its opposite, and all you get from that is a potential for ongoing argument. Circles are right out of the picture (exit stage-left) – all that's happening within a circle is a fencing-in of a whatever. It's a circle only because it serves conveniently as a container, it works protectively perhaps, but nothing gets resolved. Corners matter.

    Without wishing to intrude into your personal, I think a wife is invaluable. They think from a different direction and see angles differently. My current (albeit longstanding) edition is coherent, fully literate, and vocally wordy, but struggles to string the words together into a text. She can't mirror herself in that way. Men don't need a mirror (well, not real men anyway), but a wife provides a different sort of reflection.

    Jim Kingston might think differently – and might see things differently also. I quite treasure the man because he can paint outstandingly well, when he chooses to. He just doesn't see the point in dancing the words thing. I don't much like the quite recent digital AI interest, but given that Jim likely discovered Photoshop earlier than probably anyone else here he nonetheless has kept his painter candle alight. Not bad going for a man that openmindedly has danced a full career in commercial artwork and has avoided (or at least sidestepped, perhaps) many of the prostitutions attendant to that – and still is enchanted by brushwork.

    I like this place and think it well worth the time and the effort, and the thought involved in engaging. Call it a forum if you like, I see it as being more a painter's workshop. Not a bad achievement, all-in-all. It bounces across continents and different cultures, but nonetheless and somehow it holds together. Well done all of you. I don't much like the interweb for personal communication – what I do like most however is yellow ochre. I just can't be bothered to mix it myself.

    Best regards to all, Duncan  :)
  • edited December 2022
    That's a wonderful photo, @adrdri. Is it in Provence? I've been to similar places in the south of France. The arrangement of the colors and values with the brightest at the focal point is beautiful. And I love the oranges, pinks and yellows juxtaposed with the green conifers and the azure sky. And, if that weren't enough, it's also a beautifully rhythmical composition. The design/structure of it ensures that you are kept in the picture and don't drift out.  I'd love to paint this one.  :)
  • @tassieguy spot on, it's provence where I'm from. I did try to paint from this photo but it did not turn out well. Maybe because it lacked a strong fore ground, middle ground, background structure that we are talking about in this thread. I might try it again.
  • edited December 2022
    @adridr, the foreground works fine for me. The richly sonorous shadows sing and, along with the walkway and the people, they lead you to the focal point. The only change I would make to the foreground would be to reposition a couple of the people. Did you take this photo? It's awesome.

    I love Provence. A friend has a cabin at St-Mitre les Remparts near Istres on L'Étang de Berre where I spent some idyllic weekends. Your photo reminded me of the area.  :)
  • Replied in pm @tassieguy, not to take attention from the initial thread topic, back to composition discussion :)
  • @adridri - No worries. I am the queen of "contextual" comments.
  • Desertsky said:
    @adridri - No worries. I am the queen of "contextual" comments.
    And I am the king of "confusion" comments – perhaps.  :)

  • interesting topic.
    light and contrast is a big thing for me. without it i can't make an interesting composition. 
    If i have the subject i want with good light then composition is easy. 

  • edited December 2022
    PS - not about design, but about post-covid opportunistic infections: I just got back from the doctor and had a chest x-ray. It seems I have had pneumonia for 3 months. Not much coughing, but feeling really bad and tired. #$(###%**!!! Boy do I feel foolish. 
  • @Desertsky Oh my goodness! Talk about soldier on. Pneumonia for 3 months before deciding to pop in and see the doctor just in case there was a problem that might need attention.
  • @Desertsky omg, I hope you will recover from that soon. How can it go un-noticed for that long... 
  • edited December 2022
    @Abstraction and @Adridri - Thanks for the well wishes. I am no soldier :)  No symptoms except tiredness that would come and go. No coughing. Without an x-ray, difficult to diagnose so it was missed before. 

    Back to art: I am thinking of posting on different design and composition topics in hopes of drawing on the expertise of DMPers. 
  • I've been waiting to hear insights from your study so I think that would be helpful. The thing is... it's a big topic with many angles. It's not a skill like learning to use a chisel correctly. It's a suite of connected ideas and skills, linked to taste, aesthetics, culture, 'fashion' (sensibilities of a given era) - and requires lifelong learning.
  • @Abstraction: insights. I have some insights about my personal limitations, but don't know how applicable they are to others. Here is one angle: the psychological one.  For more observations on the formal elements of design, that will be a future post.

    True confession below - and I will understand any hysterical laughter on your parts on reading this: 

    I have designed easily and well compositions for still lifes my whole life, and could not figure out why my compositions for landscapes were so awful.  It was because I thought, without much conscious awareness, that the landscape composition should not move the elements around too much and instead just be based on what was there. To be true to life. Oddly, I never had this orientation to still lifes where I added and subtracted elements all the time. So for a few decades I was out with my camera, chasing those perfect compositions that I almost never found.

    Since for those decades I could not articulate to myself what the problem was - my unconscious bias - I could not design a solution. How did Corot, Sargent, Sorolla, Moran, etc., always manage to find those perfect landscapes?  About 10 years ago, I decided I needed to go at this problem in new way.  I really like Thomas Moran landscapes and so I started there. On the internet, I looked up photographs of the actual locations which Moran painted and then compared them to his painting of them. He changed all kinds of elements!  

    Astonishment, annoyance at myself, relief that I didn’t have to find the perfect scene, awareness that improvement was possible, etc. BTW, Moran himself would go to some location, with a print of that scene from some famous artist, and study the difference between the print and the location.  There was a big hint for me. 

    So that was the beginning of re-orientation to landscape design and composition.

    Step 2: I have no native talent in landscape composition, and had to design that lesson plan to improve. I have been working that program steadfastly for 3 ½ years, and can see the improvement.

    Everyone, please join in. I learn so much from others’ observations. 

  • I'm a visual communicator. Drawings and paintings offer far more than lesson plans. If you feel your work needs help or you are looking for fair advice and direction use your images to do this. Let your brush do the talking. Let your brush do the asking. Doing art at any level is the continued action of learning to see. Not hitting the bullet points.
  • @Desertsky I agree I have had the same troubles, and still have. There are some who are purists and want to capture landscapes in their purest forms, and others who allow themselves to edit. I think both options are fine, its personal. I try to get the eye to circulate in the painting. I mostly play and modify values and, edges and station to this end, but I less frequently move things.  I edit out more often than I edit in stuff, as I'm bad with imagination.
  • @Desertsky I agree I have had the same troubles, and still have. There are some who are purists and want to capture landscapes in their purest forms, and others who allow themselves to edit. I think both options are fine, its personal. I try to get the eye to circulate in the painting. I mostly play and modify values and, edges and station to this end, but I less frequently move things. I edit out more often than I edit in stuff, as I'm bad with imagination.
  • @Desertsky Years of failed, almost, not quite, landscape photos that I took. Constant disappointment and the same questions - why can't I take decent landscape photos?
    Then when I saw a video of Andrew Tischler editing someone's photo ('...that rock in the centre blocks our way in.') it was a breakthrough. Suddenly I was able to create a landscape and seascape design from photos I knew weren't 100%. I had my seascape pic on my laptop for over a year before then... with rock in the foreground. Having multiple photos from that isolated site in north-western Australia (ie, take lots of photos because there's no going back) meant I could bring shallow water into the foreground with light playing in the water and other edits. Yet if you go there you would recognise the exact place (@adridi) and rocks. The creek painting I just extended because I wanted a wider, sweeping feel. Again, you can find the same spot and it's 95% accurate - although I went back a few weeks after original photo for better resolution of a rock and I didn't recognise the place for ages. Nature doesn't wait for us.
  • @Abstraction and @Adridri - thanks for sharing that I am not alone. I was painfully honest in telling about my mistaken approach - and it postponed by decades my ability to compose landscapes. I shall watch some Tichler over Christmas and see. I have watched 2-3 of his youtube videos and liked them. 

    All the paintings you have shared with us here look 100% as if they were from a single photo or image. Very well put together. 

    As you did, I took hundreds of photos of a particular place - a canyon in the Superstition mountains here in Arizona, because I thought if a wildfire or flood came, it would not be the same or I may be blocked from entering. That happened 2 years ago and I know I will never be back. I focus on my happiness in having the photos, and try to ignore the sadness that I won't be back. 
  • As a landscape painter I realized fairly quicky that I couldn't be a slave to what I see. And I couldn't just paint what a photo gives me. I soon realized that great landscape masters have always altered what they see.  Nature is beautiful, but messy - she doesn't have painters in mind. So, I always have to move a rock here, a tree there or nudge a hill to the left or right. And I have to leave things out or add things. This process of adjustment is a big part of the creative process of making a landscape painting.  I've always found composition the hardest thing in painting. I spend as much time working out compositions as I do in actually painting them. Sometimes they work, other times not. There are rules of thumb but there is no sure-fire recipe for the perfect composition. We just have to juggle the elements in a landscape in the same way we move objects around in a still life setup until we get something that feels right. It's about feeling. This is art and not science.

    I very much relate to what has been said above about how many photos we need to take to get something that looks promising. But even the best photo will need some aesthetic adjustment.
  • Great points all!

    Here's an old photo I took which I have no intention of painting. But just as an example. So do we 'remove' the strange looking tree in the middle or do we crop the painting so this is the focus? There are different approaches with every photo :)

  • edited December 2022
    @Richard_P, that photo is a good example of how mother nature doesn't set things up with painters in mind. If we were going to paint this, we would have to make a judgement about whether to get rid of that weird tree or alter its shape.  A tree there would be fine but that one looks unwell - it's anomalous and out of kilter with the others.  We'd probably also do an overall color balance to dial down the cyan and green a bit. Apart from that I think it's a nice photo that could serve as a reference for a good painting like those Michael J Smith paints.  But it illustrates the point that we can't be slaves to what we see. 

    Of course, if one's aim is to focus on a weird tree, that would be different, but we would still have to make decisions about what's around it.
  • I think the step between paint what you see and design the painting so it matches what you want to achieve is a huge one. I had posted her work in another post but I think it's relevant to weird looking trees, Julie Davis is really great at designing such unatural looking shapes. This kind of design would be well suited for that tree I think, but that is one strong style of painting.
  • edited December 2022
    I love paintings like that, @adridri. The trees become almost abstract elements of design and yet they, and the landscape they inhabit, still look believable. It's still realism.
  • Update to comp & design ruminations:

    Over the past few days, I spent some time organizing my computer art files, and in the process reviewed about 50 different composition exercises I have done since 2019. I have definitely improved, and now when I look at something I thought in 2019 was pretty good, I notice things which are poor and distracting. I had conquered the value distribution and variation, which is good. However, just because there are a range of values doesn’t mean the composition is pleasing.

    Here was the main pattern of my mistakes: the focal points (action, contrast in value or color, a little more saturated, etc.) did not link up to create a pleasing flow to the design. I started getting a lot better at this in 2022, when I began to force myself to think through and make decisions about:

    Armature or height to width ratio. I always use standard (in the US) frame ratios for this. 50%, 66%, 75%, 78%, 80%, 100% = square.  (Well, almost always. I have created about 5 long format landscapes that are 33%) Standard frames are less expensive than custom sizes.

    Entrance to picture: the location of the place where one’s eye first gravitates to the picture.

    Central focal points and overall flow. I list these in sequence: 1, 2, 3, etc. The first one is always the entrance to the picture. The overall flow is emphasized through repetition, harmony, and pattern.

    I looked at compositions made in 2019, and put away because they were not good – and I could not figure out where they went wrong. I compared some of these with new and improved attempts of the same image made in 2022, and the difference is apparent. Much better overall flow.

    I enjoy designing images with easter eggs in them, usually natural elements like deer hiding in the bushes, or a bobcat in the shadow. I almost always want these discovered, and not announced as the main subject.

    I would love to hear how others approach design and composition.

  • edited January 17
    I like this. There is definitely an entrance to picture focal point. There is definitely an hierarchy of focal points and an overall flow. I suspect that the precise flow could change in some paintings as long as the painting holds your interest within.
    I haven't painted enough to have a set pattern of design. I've often stated my view that learning just a few rules of design and applying them to everything may lead to us dismissing good paintings because they aren't x, y or z. But what if they are j? Learning many allows us to appreciate first, analyse second. More options in our basket for making something successful. I do a lot of mocking up and analysis on photoshop, particularly if I have no photo. I grab images similar to what I want to create and create a collage. I do a whole range of things, not in this order, like:
    An image that grabs me: I don't care what. If I don't feel something I will love I won't have that creative spark that ignites the passion that drives me forward.
    Why does it work or not work? What could improve it? Half close eyes. Anything to understand why I'm attracted to it or why the photo hasn't captured what I felt.
    Does it fit a known design approach? eg, if it's there I'll put a Fibonacci spiral and see if that reveals anything. But there are dozens of others - check out Jill Poyerd's video. Recognising what it is helps me tweak the image.
    Where does the eye go? What is the focal point and why?
    What is the light doing? Light is beautiful. Chiaroscuro or moody or bathed in sunlight or whatever.
    What is superfluous? Might lead to cropping, leaving out.
    Finding the 'armature'. Height/ width. Big decision. Often change from photo.
    Where do the lines lead? I draw any lines I see in a layer in photoshop over the top of the image. Rocks that lead to a line of bushes, creek bank, shadow, anything... What pattern do they make and how do they lead the eye? I have examples of my paintings covered in lines. I look at where people or animals are looking and where that leads. Same with shapes and masses: Look at the tonal masses and see where they lead and how they are balanced. 
    Does it invite us in? Often something in the foreground is walling us out. I want to invite in. 
    Is it dimensional? I like 3-dimensional work. Most abstract work I love is not 2-dimensional stuff. Where's the depth?
    Is there a 'moment'? I'm interested in images that snap freeze action.
    This - from Jill Poyerd: I do this kind of thing. I learnt it from her.
  • edited January 17
    @Abstraction - really helpful points, and the video was useful. I am amazed at how much good information is out there. Do you have a secret in how to find the useful videos and avoid spending time on the unhelpful? Please share more helpful videos. 

    I put in an overlay of lines to help decide where the flow is. 
    "Is there a 'moment'? I'm interested in images that snap freeze action." - I have played with images that tell a story through the interpretation of the wildlife's actions. For example, a deer leaping into the brush to the right, while the crows fly away to the left. i have some in my mind's eye which I have not yet figured out how to do the right way.

    The classic Dutch landscape paintings often have birds flying in the sky, But, to me, the placement of the birds do not really enhance the composition. They seem to be put there to emphasize the space and distance. I use birds to emphasize the design. But if I do this too often, then it becomes a compositional crutch. (What were the compositional crutches of Rembrandt, Corot, etc.? I want those crutches.)

    I have given up - for the time being - a composition of cliff swallows flying in a curved swoop across a red cliff face. 

  • Desertsky said:
    "Is there a 'moment'? I'm interested in images that snap freeze action." ... 

    No, @Desertsky. I don't believe there is any human capacity from eye–to–brain to record such an event securely, and then subsequently to facilitate you sending it down your arm and daub something similar to what you thought you saw.

    Rembrandt, I suspect, capitalised heavily on the truth of ugliness, and to his credit made it beautiful. Mr Corot I have less time for, but to his credit he could paint. Each of those painted a 'moment', because the observer, the viewer, could then interrogate and appreciate it at leisure as being a snapshot of a moment. It was the magic of that time. I'm rather afraid that the elegance and relevance of that level of artistry has been robbed and whored by snapshot photography. Spoken plainly, I'm not at all certain I've ever seen a photograph truly capable of making ugliness into something genuinely beautiful. I hope otherwise and very much that your physical health is improving, and I really don't think you are requiring crutches quite yet.  :)

    Kindest rgds, Duncan
Sign In or Register to comment.