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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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