Tuesday, May 19, 2015

So, What's the point?!

Composing Your Painting

What does that mean? 

It means taking the elements in the image you want to paint, mountains, trees, sky, people, dogs, flowers, and placing them on your canvas in away that tells your story and is pleasing to the eye.
This is something you need to do whether you are working from a photo, or from life.

The first step is to define your

Focal Point

Why do you want to paint this image?

What is your story?

  • It could be something specific - a figure, a tree, a patch of flowers, the sky, reflections, a mountain.
  • It could be something more general - the color, the atmosphere (misty, bright, cold), the mood it evokes in you
 Once decided, this Focal Point will help you make all the other decisions you need to make to create a successful painting. Without one it's easy to get lost in the process Take the time to listen to your own reactions to the scene and put them into words. There was something that drew you to it, now just focus on that feeling and describe it. Grab a piece of paper and write down your impressions. It can just be random words or thoughts that come to mind.

Now you need to narrow those thought down. You may have come up with a number of things you love. The sunset, that sweet bird, the mountain, the shadow patterns.

And here is the hard part. Choose one. Just one.

You can always paint another painting from the same reference. You can paint 5 more! But focusing on one in each painting will help you succeed.

That doesn't mean your painting should be boring, with interest in only one area. It means choose sub - focus elements that support and add to your story.

 Here's an example:
You could choose to focus on
  • The leaves
  • Something in the distance - a building or an animal
  • The patterns and rhythms of the tree trunks
  • The textures
  • The color

When I took the photo I was captivated by the leaves. Their color and shapes. The feeling of being enfolded by them.

So the leaves became my focal point.

And this is the painting


Do you see how in the photo, many areas compete for your attention?
·         The strong contrast of dark and light in the tree trunks
·         The patterns formed by the branches
·         The distant sunlight
·         The leaves

In composing your painting, you want to lead the viewer's eye. You want to take them by the hand and show them around.

So, to draw attention, and lead the viewer to your focal point. Here are your tools:


  • Contrast in Value: where the darkest dark meets the lightest light
  • Contrast in Color: -complimentary colors - vivid against dull
  • Contrast in detail: an area of more detail draws the eye
  • Edges: crisp distinct edges vs soft blended edges


My favorite method for placing my focal point on the canvas is called

  The Rule of Thirds

This means dividing your canvas in thirds in both directions. Like a tic-tac-toe.

Ummmm, you might want to ba a tad bit more precise than this :)

Then place your center of interest on one of the intersections where
the lines meet.


In this case, my focal point is the leaves. so I have chosen one group of leaves to place on an intersection point.

Once I have my focal point placed, I will use my tools of Contrast to tell my story of these autumn leaves and how they made me feel that Autumn day.

  • I placed some very dark darks, in the tree trunk, against the light leaves in the focal point area. Notice I diminished the contrast in the tree trunks themselves. In the photo those very dark trunks created strong pattern against the sunlight behind them. This would be a lovely focal point for a painting, but it isn't the one for this one. So I lightened them up a bit.
  • I also darkened the sunlit field in the distance It still reads as sunlight against the shadow, but diminishing the contrast in value here keeps this area in the distance and quiet. 
  • There are strong darks and lights in the focal area leaves themselves. Dark shadow sides and almost white highlights.
  • I have contrast in the spots of sunlight on the ground. In the photo these spots are more random. Here I have used them to capture the eye and lead to the focal point. As well as to reinforce the story of leaves, dry crisp leaves, golden leaves, in shadow and in sunlight.
In the photo you see a lot of warm color everywhere. Even the shadows feel warm.
  • Instead I used the contrast of purple for the shadows against the the complimentary color of yellow in the leaves.
  • This also sets up the contrast of a cooler color (purple) against a warmer color (golden yellow).
  • And a muted color (purple) against a bright (golden yellow).
All drawing attention to the leaves.

Detail and Edges:
Simply developing the detail and making crisp edges in the focal area sets it apart from the rest of the leaves. As you move back in the painting the leaves diminish in size and detail and their edges become softer. The same is true for the leaves on the ground. In the area near the focal point they are more distinct.

So now, pick up that reference photo you want to paint, and put all these tools to use.
  • Pick one focal point
  • Place it in an intersection
  • Use Contrast to highlight it

More in the next blog about other composition tips and pitfalls.....

P.S. This painting is available in My Etsy Shop


  1. You said
    So now, pick up that reference photo you want to paint, and put all these tools to use.
    Pick one focal point
    Place it in an intersection
    Use Contrast to highlight it

    Sweet and Simple! Love it!