You may have found the most beautiful, striking subject in the world for your painting, but if you don’t ruthlessly edit your reference photos, then you may end up with a flat piece of art that just doesn’t work. Ian Roberts will tell you that paying attention to the design of your art composition is crucial for a successful painting. Enjoy his easy three-step method for composing a scene as well as the art composition tips he shares!
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A Place and a Photo
Last June, my wife, the painter Anne Ward, and I spent the night in Stonington, Maine. We took pictures in the late afternoon and again the next morning as the rising light played over the town, which has been the subject of many photos and paintings, perhaps being the cliché of the picturesque New England fishing harbor.
Normally I shy away from clichés, but I was there and I couldn’t resist. I ended up shooting 100 photos, from which I painted six pictures. That represents an incredibly high percentage for me. Normally if I get one in 100, I’m doing well. Why so few? Well, that’s really what this article is about: how to choose and edit photos that will help you create engaging paintings.
Here are three tips to get you started when you’re painting the landscape, to get a composition you are satisfied with.
- Walk around a lot to find something worth painting and don’t forget to look behind you
- Frame tight, specific pieces of the immensity around you.
- Review in the moment: evaluate and dismiss dozens of possibilities until one jumps out at you. Another option is to go ahead and take the photos. Then you can re-evaluate them when you’re back in the quiet of the studio. I just find you might miss opportunities in the moment if you don’t take a step back then and there.
The crucial step comes during this re-evaluation process: you need to think about design over subject. Most students look for a good subject, for example, a building with a pretty garden. Of course, a representational painting contains a subject, but it’s essential to train your eye to find a strong design. So if you can’t see a distinct and effective composition in a particular photo, dismiss it and move on to the next one.
A 3-Step Method for Strong Art Compositions
Study your photo to see how many elements and details you can cut out so only the most salient masses remain. (Digital photo programs all have cropping tools.) Everything else is filler and dilutes the impact of your painting.
You need to be ruthless in cropping, asking yourself whether your photo will translate into a painting. Going ahead with a questionable design — thinking you’ll figure it out later as you paint — becomes a low-success-rate proposition and leads to frustration.
2. Drawing a Road Map
This road map isn’t a sketch of the scene; it shows the main horizontal and vertical thrusts of the design on the picture plane. in a landscape the horizon automatically creates a horizontal tension engaging the two sides of the painting, but you need a vertical tension engaging the top and bottom as well to connect and energize the entire picture plane.
You also need a few major value masses to fill that picture plane, some big, some small. Most of the photos I end up using I take in the early morning or late evening, when the shapes of light and dark are more dramatic. That’s also when I paint outdoors, for the same reason.
Knowing the path you want the viewer’s eye to take through the painting allows you to simplify more easily. You definitely don’t want to just copy your photo. The art comes from extracting and emphasizing the gist of the scene. You can eliminate the rest of the detail. As an experiment, try to see how much you can eliminate in your next few paintings. Ignore detail and let a few major value masses carry your painting.
If you want to paint something from your last trip to, for example, Jamaica, know that viewers don’t share any of your experiences or memories, and those can’t be put into paint. The design itself has to carry the painting. Also, if something looks odd in a photo, it will look odd when you paint it. In the photo, at least the viewer will know it was there; in the painting it will just be distracting.