Friday, October 1, 2021

How to compose a picture correctly.

October 2021 Newsletter: Composition Part I

How to compose a picture correctly?

For the past five weeks we've been covering the subject of composition and design in my studio class. It's been so very interesting because even though I know the subject, it's always nice to review. That's what I'd like to do here this month and next.

Most of us know the rules. Here are a handful:

  • Use the rule of thirds, placing your important subjects on "hotspots"
  • Always odd numbers
  • Must have a focal point
  • Never place your subject in the center, never divide up your drawing into equal halves 
  • Always have objects off center
  • Don't have a lead line go outside the picture 
  • Crop when necessary
  • People should look at the focal point or viewer
  • No kissing allowed (objects touching)
Rest assured, there are more rules. But let me point out, in all my years of teaching and exhibiting my work, I have never witnessed an art cop. These rules are guidelines to help you to put together a pleasing drawing and/or painting. You probably already know all these rules just because we live in a visual world with magazine ads, flyers and billboards. You know what's appealing because if it isn't you'll pass right on by.

But it's nice to know what works and what doesn't. In the next couple of newsletters I will share these composition rules and concepts with you by using pictures--drawings, photos and paintings. I hope that will help you more than a bunch of words.

Let's begin with some terms. In composition there are two distinct parts: Elements of Art and Principals of Design. The elements are all the bits and pieces you have that goes into a painting: 

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Color
  • Space
  • Texture
The principles of design are where you put those bits and pieces, in other words, the layout: 

  • Balance
  • Contrast, 
  • Proportion
  • Pattern 
  • Rhythm
  • Emphasis
  • Unity  
  • Variety

It's about guiding the eye. 


The following photo is a perfect example of line, drawing you into the picture. It's also an example of the Fibonacci sequence, part of which is called the golden mean. It appears everywhere in nature. See this link to learn more. 

I love this picture. It's monochromatic, but speaks volumes through strong values. Notice the triangle in the lower right-hand corner (spit of land), which points to the woman who then takes you to the boats and then the moon. 

There are three basic shapes we work with in art: rectangle (square, parallelogram), circle (oval, ellipse) and triangle.  Notice in this photo there are all three with the moon as the circle, spit of land as the triangle and the boats as a series of rectangles. To give all these shapes a three-dimensional presence, you need to create form.

A simple circle is just that until you add value to it, then it becomes a sphere. As we have discussed in my workshops and classes, the best way to add value is to study a value finder (below) and the lighting of the object. 

The sphere above was drawn with graphite pencil. I actually repeated the value scale on the page to help with the proper shading. It helps also to fine a scrap of paper that's similar so you know how the "color" will look like to help guide you

Rule of Thirds

The golden mean. mentioned above, is too lengthy to discuss here. Instead,  I'd like to introduce a related subject,  the rule of thirds. While teaching, I refer to this visual aid all the time. Here it is visually:

I usually use this as a grid (rule of thirds) to help me with proportion. How many times have you drawn a person and suddenly when you get to her feet, there's no paper left. This grid helps to keep everything inside the picture plane. I also use it to help with placing my elements near or on top of my "hot spots"--those black circles where the lines intersect inside the grid. They not only help you keep your pictures well balanced, but they also help you determine your focal point.

Here is an example using Monet's painting, End of the Summer. Notice that the larger haystack on the right is the focal point, placed on two hotspots. But also consider the shapes and form. We have triangles placed on top of rectangles. He used light and dark to express the volume, giving further substance by shadow on the ground. You can almost feel the texture as well--to be discussed later.

Now that you've been given just a smattering of what's involved with composition. Here is a trick question. Does this painting follow the “rules”?

Paris Street; Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte| 1877 |Oil on canvas | Art Institute of Chicago

Hint: the rule says never divide your drawing (painting) into equal halves 

Next newsletter, we'll cover color, space and texture. 

What's coming up in studio?

5-Week Online Classes

Discover Watercolor Pencils

An easy approach

Tuesdays October 19- November 16  or
Wednesdays October 20 - November 17

10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
$90 per five-week session

Here's another chance to learn more about watercolor pencils in conjunction with ink and watercolor. We'll explore a variety of drawing subjects, embellishing them with color by using the techniques of form.

For more information or registrations, please write me at this address:

Wahoo! Celebrating 40 years in business!

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Glastonbury Studios
August/September 2021

What's my line?

When we start a drawing or painting project, most of us begin with the line. Even Michelangelo, who sculpted the famous La Pietà in Vatican City, began with a pencil and paper. In fact, it's been said that he would create 100-150 drawings before he ever struck stone. He wanted to know his subject. I have done the same with commission work, drawing over 60 poppies to get them right. To this day, I can draw a poppy flower from my mind.

Why go through all the trouble? Simply because, drawings are the skeleton of all art and the line is the foundation. We either use contour lines (French for outline), or sketch lines or gesture lines. A simple drawing with no modeling (creating the illusion of three-dimensionality using value) looks like your typical coloring book drawing, like these: 

They are called line drawings. In the olden days in advertising (I’m showing my age), it was too expensive to include photos in ads, so line drawings were used a lot. If you notice, these above drawings have no values (light and dark). They are clearly two-dimensional

Another famous 2-D drawing is the one that author, Betty Edwards included in her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It's Picasso's drawing of Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer. She tells her readers to draw the picture upside down, encouraging everyone to "see" shapes instead of the object itself (a great exercise, by the way).

Notice the drawing is all lines. There are no values. Just a 2-D object on a 2-D surface. Even so, you can still feel the tension of the subject through his facial expression, seated position and hands. In other words, simple line drawings can tell your story as much as those with more detail and depth.

Creating 3-D effect with line
Fortunately, you are not stuck with line drawings. You can create volume and the illusion of a three dimensional object by also using line (of course you can use the side of your pencil and a blender to shade in values, but we’re sticking with line for now). So how do we create this illusion? By using several marks, two of which I will discuss today: the hatch and cross-hatch lines.

By manipulating these lines or marks you can add depth, value and volume. As you can see in the example below, the hatch marks are simply lines drawn together. The closer they get the darker they become. The same is true with cross-hatch. The more lines you add, the deeper the value.

Here are two line drawings where I added hatch and cross-hatch marks. Can you see the illusion of a 3-D object?

Hatch marks

Notice I have drawn lines farther apart to indicate light and closer together to create shadow.

Again, I have used hatch and cross-hatch lines that are farther apart to indicate lighter areas and closer together to indicate dark or shadow.

Cross-hatch marks 

The psychology of line
Along with creating lines for volume and depth, you can also draw lines that indicate how you feel or how the artist wants you to feel. Look at these examples:

These are random feelings and my interpretation of these lines. Perhaps I may not feel the same way tomorrow. It's all subjective. These type of lines are often used in an abstract way. Take for instance Edvard Munch's Scream.

Notice the variety of lines and how abrupt and scary they are. I really don't know if the figure is even necessary as the marks give me the creeps alone,

 Drawing with one line

Now that we have briefly touched upon the subject of line, I'd like to offer a fun exercise, called the continuous line or one-line drawing.

Picasso is famous for this method. If you ever get a chance to read up on Picasso, you may find out that this guy, who created very confusing portraits (to me), was truly a master. He began his career as a realist probably because his father, who was an art professor, pushed him in that direction. But as we see he went from there, on to creating a whole new form of art, namely cubism.

These fun drawings are done by placing your pen on paper and not letting up until you are done. It’s similar to blind contour drawing, but in this case you look at the subject. What's more, Picasso had a method of reducing an object to one line. Here's how he did it with a bull:

Now let me show you what I mean by showing some of Picasso's many one-line drawings.

So what do you think? Can you do it? I chose very simple subjects, a lamp and a mug. It took me quite a few times to draw it, but I did. Quite primitive, wouldn't you say -- but fun.

And just one more picture. Here is a great example of continuous line by DFT.  I love it!

In conclusion, the line is a fascinating element of art--it's versatile, expressive, a guiding light and so much more. I hope you enjoyed our journey to today. While speaking of composition, keep on going and see the classes that are being offered by me this fall.

 What's coming up for Fall of 2021

5-Week Online Classes

Composition for the Artist

An easy approach

Tuesdays September 7- October 2 or
Wednesdays September 8 - October 3
$90 per five-week session

One of the most mysterious things I faced when I returned to fine art was all these rules I kept on hearing about when composing a picture. No one really explained it fully, just a comment here and there—“always use odd numbers, find your sweet spot, never have subjects in the center” and so on. It took a while, but I found out that yes, there are rules, but rules are made to broken. Let me share my knowledge with you for five weeks.

 Some of the topics:

  • What is composition?
  • The rules
  • Elements and principals of composition
  • Learn how to create a good design
  • What to do and not to do
  • Going with your instinct, expressional self
  • Imitation vs. Imagination

Is this a good composition or not? Come to class to find out!