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Painting Composition

Updated on August 05, 2016
"Derbyshire Cottage" by Helen Lush
"Derbyshire Cottage" by Helen Lush

Achieving successful paintings from photos and landscapes

This is aimed at those of you who want to improve your skills at painting and drawing. Creating a good composition is the first step to a successful painting and will give you confidence before starting a piece of work. By spending some time doing a small sketch first with a soft pencil, you can avoid mistakes which may be difficult to remedy at a later stage. I have outlined a few considerations here which I hope will be helpful.

Once you have decided what you are going to paint, whether from life or from a photograph it is helpful to use a frame to isolate the part of the whole that you are most interested in. The frame could be cut out of a piece of paper or a wooden frame held up to look through.

The composition should:

  • Have a focus of interest

  • Be balanced

  • Show perspective

The watercolour above, of a cottage in the Peak District, leads the eye up the stone steps past the cottage and beyond to the pasture behind. The important element of the cottage is balanced by the dark tree and the large mass of the pale stone wall.

In the painting, "Staithes Beck" below, the eye is led up the stream, along with the boats. The cliffs on each side balance each other - while the right hand cliff is bigger there is more of interest in the houses on the left. The blue of the sky is reflected in the water, the boats and the door in the distance, creating a feeling of harmony.

"Staithes Beck" watercolour by Helen Lush.  Here the eye follows the boats along the stream.
"Staithes Beck" watercolour by Helen Lush. Here the eye follows the boats along the stream. | Source
A thumbnail sketch will help you balance tonal values and compose your painting .  Sketch by Helen Lush.
A thumbnail sketch will help you balance tonal values and compose your painting . Sketch by Helen Lush.

The Sketch

Using a soft pencil do a rough sketch of the subject. It can be very helpful to use tone, as shown in the illustration here, to get a feel of how light and shade play a part in the composition. Decide what should be left in the composition and what can be left out. In this sketch the focus is the house, which is balanced by a large topiary shape on the right. Vertical lines balance the horizontals and straight lines alternate with rounded shapes, making the whole interesting because it combines varying planes, shapes and directions.

A feeling of perspective is created by:

  • Diminishing lines of hedges

  • Buildings being at an angle

  • Dividing the whole into distance (paler/faded sky, tree and buildings) middle ground, and foreground (sharper focus, dry brushwork, brighter and stronger colours)

Watercolour of the Grand Canal, Venice at sunset, by Helen Lush
Watercolour of the Grand Canal, Venice at sunset, by Helen Lush | Source

This painting of the Grand Canal, Venice, illustrates the effect of diminishing lines taking the eye along the canal into the distance,

"Kerry Coastline" by Helen Lush
"Kerry Coastline" by Helen Lush

Painting Kerry in Ireland

In the painting above, of the coastline of Kerry in Ireland, the foreground is painted using stronger, darker, clearer forms whilst the distance is paler, cooler and less defined. The spiky plant on the right is balanced by the dark clouds on the left as well as the boat, distant house, thrift in the foreground and warm tones of the seaweed covered rocks.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man illustrates the Golden Ratio in human proportions.
Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man illustrates the Golden Ratio in human proportions.

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio, otherwise known as the Divine Proportion or Golden Mean crops up all the time in nature and geometry and is used widely in architecture and art because the proportion of 1 to1.618 is thought to be aesthetically pleasing. Definitely something to bear in mind when thinking about composition....

Things to Consider...

Here are six considerations to bear in mind when starting to compose a painting. Some or all of them will be relevant whatever subject you are painting.

Balance
Balance

Balance

A painting does not have to be symmetrical to be balanced – a house or tree for example could be balanced by a mountain or a rain cloud. One dominant feature in part of a painting can be balanced by a number of smaller features in another part. A large feature may be balanced by a small feature of particular significance or interest.

Gradation
Gradation

Gradation

A gradual change from warm to cool in hue or light to dark in tone can be a good way of creating a sense of distance and drama, breaking up large areas and representing changing qualities of light.

Dominance
Dominance

Dominance

All paintings need a focus or centre of interest to draw the eye into the composition. This might be obvious, for example a boat at sea or a camel in a desert, or it could be the biggest, darkest, brightest or strongest element in your picture. It is often (but not always) effective to place the focus off-centre.

Contrast
Contrast

Contrast

As you will discover if you do a tonal sketch, contrast is very important and the play of light against dark will make an object stand out from it's background. It can create dramatic effects and emphasise particular elements of a painting.

Alternation
Alternation

Alternation

When tackling a large mass of individual elements - trees for example – varying the size, colour, thickness of trunks, and tone of some of the trees will make your painting more interesting. Contrast pale branches against darker leaves or a dark fir against paler more distant forest.

Harmony
Harmony

Harmony

The various elements of a painting can be united into a harmonious whole by:

  • Limiting your palette to two or three colours

  • Using colours which are close to each other on the colour wheel.

  • Using similar shapes which echo each other

  • Directing the eye to flow through the painting with the use of the techniques described here.

"Down the Lane to the Sea" by Helen Lush
"Down the Lane to the Sea" by Helen Lush | Source

Painting Pembrokeshire

The painting above, of a country lane on the Pembrokeshire coast, leads the eye down the lane and out of sight towards the sea. The cottage on the right is balanced by the gate and wild flowers on the left. The colour palette has been limited to soft blue-grey-greens.

"Bridge over the Beck, Staithes" by Helen Lush
"Bridge over the Beck, Staithes" by Helen Lush

Painting Staithes in Yorkshire

This watercolour of Staithes in Yorkshire illustrates many of the techniques described above.

  • The railings lead the eye into the painting and demonstrate perspective with diminishing lines.

  • Perspective is also obvious in the planes of the buildings.

  • The white walls contrast and alternate with the textured golden greys of the stone walls.

  • The composition is divided up into blocks which balance each other

  • The palette is limited to a few colours.

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    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 3 years ago from Wales

      Beautiful. I am sooo envious. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and stunning work.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 3 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Very practical guidelines for creating a satisfying composition. Voted up and useful.

    • DaffodilSky profile image
      Author

      Helen Lush 3 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      Thank you both very much :)

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image

      Music-and-Art-45 3 years ago from USA, Illinois

      A lot of these composition suggestions are great for teaching people how to look at a painting. Great hub voting up and sharing.

    • DaffodilSky profile image
      Author

      Helen Lush 3 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      Thank you Music-and-Art - I'm glad you think so :)

    • Rose Anne Karesh profile image

      Rose Anne Karesh 3 years ago from Virginia

      Thank you for sharing your beautiful artwork in your hub. Wow, you are very talented. I really enjoyed reading about the elements that make a picture appealing. I enjoy looking at art but know little about it, so it is very interesting to learn more. Thanks!

    • DaffodilSky profile image
      Author

      Helen Lush 3 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      Thanks Rose Anne - I appreciate your comments and am glad you liked the article.

    • entropyartist profile image

      entropyartist 3 years ago

      What a great hub! I do quite a few watercolors, but I seemed to have forgotten some of these basics and am terribly happy to be reminded.

      Your work is really lovely.

    • DaffodilSky profile image
      Author

      Helen Lush 3 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      Thank you entropyartist! Glad you liked the hub - sometimes it's good to know the "rules" so you can break some of them :-)

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