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!

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