Archive for the ‘composition’ Category


Recently I had the pleasure of running a few “mini workshops” for the Placerville Arts Association. With only three hours there’s a limited amount of material and concepts that can be covered. The watercolor workshop focused in on creating skyscape’s. Watercolor, by its very nature, lends itself beautifully to the interpretations of clouds, time of day and weather.

Composition and value end up being the primary elements to consider in a skyscape. The artwork needs to have a low horizon line, that sky needs to dominate at least two thirds of the composition. Value is the next key, the most value ‘contrast or pattern’ needs to occur up in the sky. It doesn’t mean that the ground doesn’t have some strong lights and darks, just make sure it is not busier than the sky. Clouds and weather are usually best done with a sensitive light hand, it takes some practice to do the wet into wet and not storm castle_1storm newMex_1aoverdo any lifting. Clouds become almost become calligraphic with loaded flats and rounds, and you need to let the paint find some happy accidents for you.

Here are two skyscapes that we’re done following the workshop. My recommendation is to always start 2 watercolor paintings, not simultaneously . . . rather start one and then work on the other while you are waiting for the first to dry. It really helps you to avoid the temptation to overwork them.

storm newMex_3The horizontal one had a lovely photograph that was used as reference, the vertical one used the sky that was happening around me that morning with ground plane referenced from a prior painting. Being inspired by the actual sky I was looking at produced, in my opinion, a slightly better painting. I like them both, I just like that one a little bit better.

storm castle_4







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The cornerstone of good composition is dominance, we need to have a dominant element to stick in our mind and capture us, not a whole bunch of visual facts vying for our attention. Creating a good composition in landscapes is a much bigger challenge for me in than it is in figure drawing. With figure drawing and painting it seems so much more obvious, the figure is the ‘star’ of my composition and therefore the most dominant element. In painting the subject of a landscape I can get overwhelmed by the many options that I see, yet the principle remains the same, without a dominant element a landscape will be boring, flat or confusing. Both myself and the viewer don’t know where to look first or where to look second.

Now the process of selection is simple, but simple does not mean easy, as you know; simple just looks easy. Here are some basic guidelines for composition that I got from my mentor in landscapes, the famous Canadian watercolorist, Jack Reid.
• What is it about this picture that attracts me?
• What element do I want to use as the “star” of my paintings?
• How do I arrange the other elements in the picture so they don’t detract from the star?

Here are two paintings of the same landscape. Though they share the same basic composition as far as the horizon line goes, there is a distinct difference between the use of values both in the sky and land elements as well as the amount of detail.

Tahoe dawn2 1
In the first one the sky and land seem equally important, they both carry the same amount of texture and  value range  – values are medium to medium dark with scattered lights. You can tell it is early morning but other than that it’s rather boring.

Tahoe dawn1You see how I revised the values of the mountains in the background to let the distant snow-covered one be even lighter. Notice how the addition of the little red cabin brought interest to the picture but does not detract from the overall effect of the clouds and the light on the water. That’s the idea. It’s just the co-star, and we don’t want to upstage the primary drama occurring in the sky. By understating the most distant mountain and adding the cabin we have a greater sense of extreme distance and middle distance but with less detail and we focus on the clouds first and the land second.  When I look at them both together I rather prefer the simpler lighter water on the first … time to make a third painting with the sky and land of the second and the water of the first.

Tahoe dawn2 1 Tahoe dawn1

Just to give myself some direction I overlaid the first painting over the second in Photoshop, cut out just the water and dropped the opacity to 68%. Merged the overlay with the base art and did some ‘healing brush’ work to blend my edges. Using traditional painting techniques to drive my manipulation choices I have a landscape that is starting to work, the clouds are the ‘star’, the cabin is the ‘co-star’ and the land and water are supporting actors.

                   Tahoe dawn3

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Too often we start a drawing without having a clear purpose in mind. While this may feel like an okay idea, it is a slow way to grow in your artwork. Growth is intentional not accidental, you need to start every sketch by first thinking about what it is you want to say. Ask yourself: what is the mood, what is the story, what composition is going to tell that best, what kind of cropping should I be doing?

One of the best ways to avoid the pitfall of drawing in our sketchbook without a purpose or direction is to dedicate the space or composition before you start. An easy approach is to just simply have one drawing per page. I call this having a “playground”. So establish that playground: either dedicate a framed space or a single page and think about the story, then start to draw. I do value multiple sketches/studies as a way of thinking and studying, but for the most part, most of the time I do try and dedicate that “playground” for each drawing.

Here are couple of examples, two of Andy the model in his Charles Dickens get up, and a page from a digital sketchbook done at the zoo.

Andy take2Andy take tea

You really have to hunt around in the sketchbook drawing of the camels to see what is working and what is not, while with the drawings of Andy the success or failure of my choices is clear right away. The decision to really grow as an artist with every sketch requires a bit of focus and planning before that first mark is made.


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