Spring 2019 / Volume 1 / Issue 4


Compositions in Landscapes

I hope you enjoyed last month’s Art Blog where we discussed the importance of having a good concept prior to beginning every painting. Both the article by John Pototschnik, “Determining the Concept” and my column, “Why isn’t my painting working?” were meant to help you understand the critical component of determining your concept early. This month we are going to explore the next step necessary to make a painting work, specifically in landscapes, which is composition.

Artists work within the limitations of paint to share something with a viewer. It may be about a mood or a feeling we have when we see the landscape. Accurately portraying the subject or precisely rendering what lies before us isn’t enough. A painting works when the image we create successfully communicates our feelings. That’s why understanding our personal concept about the scene and having a good reason to paint is so important.

So once you have determined why you are doing the painting, you can confidently begin to paint, right? Well, you could start at that point but failure would be likely! Why? Because there is still a missing part of the process that leads to producing a quality piece of artwork; a painting that gives enjoyment to its viewer. 

Ask yourself what it is that makes you stop in your tracks and walk across the room to look at a painting? Most likely it is the composition. The composition of a painting is the foundation on which the artist applies his or her concept in order to create unity. This is accomplished by arranging and manipulating the visual elements (shapes) to produce an outcome that helps support the idea. 

There are many rules that have been determined to help us arrive at a good way of composing our painting. Here are three of them.

The Rule of Thirds which is dividing the canvas horizontally and vertically to determine where the focal point should be. 

The Rule of Odds is about the number of objects or shapes used; stating that an odd number works best and should be include a variety of sizes.

The Golden Ratio is where your focal point will be situated in the tiny part of a spiral. Your eye will start there in the center and work its way outward. This will create a pleasing flow in your artwork. These ratios are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing and were used by Leonardo da Vinci and many of the Renaissance artists to compose their work.

As the artist, you determine how you want the viewer to visually walk into and through the painting and where they will exit. If there is a center of interest, you create an interesting path to get there.

To the right are some of Edgar Payne’s some basic forms that could work for the structure of a composition for a painting. When using any of these forms to unify your concept, they will be unseen like the foundation of a house.

Equipped with this understanding that I need both a good concept and a good composition before I start a painting, I will demonstrate how I began a new painting of the Mill at Wild Cat Den. 

So here we go; first I determined my concept. I decided:

  • I want to show a winter day with a suggestion of some falling snow
  • The snow is giving it a unifying grayish color
  • There is a slight bit of sunlight showing to give a hint of warmth
  • The value of the painting will be a higher key (light values)
  • I want the painting to take the viewer out on a cold winter day to walk the bridge across Pine Creek and look back at the mill and water flowing over the dam as he or she enjoys winter’s beauty 

Now I can consider what the composition should be in order to best enhance and support my concept/idea. There are many compositional theories. There is not one that will work for all situations. You decide what is best to support your concept. In this case, I decided to use Notan studies to search for the best composition. Notan is an ideal type of study for finding the shapes and patterns that serve as the foundation of every composition. Notan is a Japanese way of reducing complicated subject matter down to simple black and white shapes. The white represents areas directly in the light, while the black shows areas in shadow. Sometimes a third value will help in understanding the relationships between the shapes. 

Above are the Notan sketches I did as I began to explore possibilities for composition. What format should it be, horizontal, vertical, or square? Each one of these looked good. But which one best supported my concept? I decided that the horizontal composition worked best. I felt this one gave a broader view which supported my idea to see and feel a winter day as opposed to the viewer’s focus being drawn to the Mill as the center of attention.

I prepared my canvas and got started by first putting down an umber wash. I began laying in the basic shapes which I had determined in the Notan sketch.

I normally start with the background to determine the value and color of the sky, which sets the tone or mood. My concept was best supported by a high key pallet so I kept that in mind as I painted.

I started working my way to the foreground putting down colors that were in the range of temperature and value I pre-determined; not being too concerned about any details. I was still trying to maintain the large shapes.

Now I began the refining process. Details were added to each of the shapes. I was intentional about not overworking any specific area of the painting but merely suggested some details leaving room for the viewer to finish the rest.

I then began to make sure I had the right amount of light and color temperature in order to reflect the feeling of a cold winter day. Observation is key once you get to this point in a painting. I do a lot of sitting back and looking. I tend to wait for the painting to let me know what else I need to do! When you are at this contemplative stage you must ask yourself whether will each of the last strokes will help or not. Take your time, really look, it will be worth it.

I have been asked many times by students, “How do you know when a painting is finished?” Here is my answer. Do I see in my painting the concept I originally conceived (what was the painting about)? If my concept was clear in my own mind then I can answer that question simply by looking at my painting. I will see how my composition (how the shapes were placed on the canvas) supported my concept. If an artist can look at a painting and see the outcome he or she desired has been satisfactorily achieved then the painting is ready to be enjoyed by others. You are ready to begin another concept and another true work of art!