Designing Compositions

“Pop’s Corner”
Watercolor, 22″ x 30″

A favorite pastime of mine is to create something from absolutely NOTHING. That is, make well designed, non objective paintings. This does not mean just sliming on the paint and hoping for a great outcome or waiting for a happy a accident to happen. It means carefully designing overall light shapes (groupings of light values) and placing that or those groupings into a context of other dark and medium valued shapes. Shape design (making appealing shapes) is at the center of this as is the consideration of the relative sizes of lights, darks and mediums. One value must dominate and the others be subordinate. (This is a huge factor in successful paintings). The character (e.g. organic, geometric, linear) of the shapes in context with others also is a consideration. Then direction / movement plays in as well. Once that is established, color and texture come into the scheme and must play out with the shapes and values to set an overall mood. In keeping with the mood, the artist must also decide how to hold the viewer’s attention with contrasts of various kinds . . .and where to put them in the composition.

Now that it has been mentioned, the exact same ideas and principles apply in making an objective painting of a subjet. EXACTLY the same! Abstract / Non objective / Realistic are all the same in the eyes of the basic structure of a painting. Surprisingly, subject has no bearing on the actual attractiveness (or repulsiveness) of the piece. It all lies in how the artist structured the underlying design and composition.

This piece is going to be featured at my open studio and not offerred for sale, since I plan to enter it into various watercolor competitions. Squint and you can see a great abstraction of values in this piece . . . .and you can feel the musty, dark corner of an old, neglected workshop.

(I post this because I am so darned busy framing and organizing the house and the show. Hopefully, I will have something to show in the next day or so. And besides, “Opa” is waiting to be painted too!}

Notes to Self

“Placing Opa”
Notes and sketches in the sketchbook

There is little time to paint today considering all that needs to be done for open studio. But that doesn’t mean I am not thinking about it.
In a small village called Montpazier in the Perigord region of France, I snapped photos of an old gramma shopping for the day with her companion. This is a daily occurrance in Europe. Walking to town to buy the day’s groceries is the norm.
(I call her Opa). She is stooped with age and is obviously fighting back pain as she has her hands supporting her lower back when she walks. To me, the image speaks loudly of the human condition. I want to paint her . . .the scene. But design must first be done to get the max from the image and to keep it simple.
So, instead of painting, I can sketch for a few minutes and make notes to myself for when I can spend the time to paint. Eliminating details and having the overall shapes say what needs to be said is my goal. Contructing her on the canvas will be the key to the mood of the piece, as well as her placement in the overall design. What mood to I want to project? That is the question I must answer before painting.
So, here are my thoughts regarding placement. Eventually, I combine the shape of Opa with a younger woman pushing a baby carriage for more interest and contrast. I think it makes for a more interesting idea. You can see how I arrived at the idea of putting the two together. It was a process of trial and error and suggestions from each sketch.
You can also see the right angle of light crossing the pathway. Opa’s head will be in the vertical part of that light in the final piece as the center of interest, well to the right of center.

Developing an Idea

The first idea. But it needs development . . . .

The second idea is better, but the light valued shape does

nothing for the figure.

The third idea is better . . .much better, but needs simplifying to say more about the figure.

Finally, the figure is set into the right value structure to bring all the attention on it. After all, this isn’t about the surrounding scenery. It is all about the mood of the figure.

“Decisions, Decisions”

oil on linen on panel, 10″ x 8″


Its A Little Like Golf

“Pompous Pear”
oil on linen on panel, 10″ x 8″
When I was learning to play golf, the ball went everywhere except where I aimed it. Years went by after playing a lot and I noticed I wasn’t in the trees as often . . or in trouble. Almost without noticing, those ‘lucky’ shots came much more frequently. As time took the years, I could almost predict where the ball would land . That IS the intent of the game; to be deliberate and thinking about where you put the ball and avoid obstacles and traps.

The same goes for painting. It isn’t as simple as hitting a ball, but one does subconsciously and gradually solve many of the awkward puzzles and challenges of the process. It really is about avoiding traps and obstacles. It is Waaaaaay more than technique. Deliberation and thought are the cornerstones to good painting. And, it’s also about those little teensy tiny realizations that if you do this, then that happens. (Just like golf.) Sometimes, all it takes is someone else’s comment to help us connect the dots suddenly. And, suddenly, the game takes on new meaning and direction. We actually win a few.

For example, I teach color theory and practice in watercolor. I KNOW that in most circumstances, as the light turns to shadow and a surface turns away from you, the color becomes cooler. I have several exercises in my classes about this! Yet, it wasn’t until three or four days after another painter said ‘that needs a cool back edge to help it turn away from you, that I suddenly went Oooohhh!!!! Fer goonesss sakes! I already knew that! Why didn’t I connect the dots ?!!
Now, if someone would just make a comment about my putting. (pleeeeze!!)

Special Little Challenges

“Dordogne Pastures”
watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

In teaching folks to paint, one of my most sacred lessons is about value structure and value sketching. Lights, Darks and Mediums . . . .putting them together in a desirable ratio . . .arranging contrasts and laying together an interesting abstraction of light and dark shapes. That’s all there is to it. Riiiiiiight! This concept is, ofr some reason, extremely difficult for most people to grasp. The idea is to arrange the values, then essentially go and paint how ever the painter wishes . . . . . .because it usually is not the color that makes a painting work, but the value structure.

After a few days of wrestling with values, a challenge was brought forward to paint our very green landscape without using green. Of course, this turns most people’s minds upside down, but it really does show the power of a strong value design.

Here is a little watercolor sketch done without greens in about 15 minutes to answer the challenge.

Today, now that my jet lag is settling down, I am going to the studio and opening up my oil paints again. After all, I have a goal to meet; 100 paintings by Sept 1. I have some 20 to go. Gotta git er done!