I think values – the pattern of lights and darks in a painting – are the most important aspect of composition. Without a strong value plan, the painting does not read well, and all the beautiful brushwork and colors in the world can't rescue it.
I took several plein air workshops from Camile Przewodek, a painter of wonderful California landscapes. She says, "Value does all the work and color gets all the credit." For me that means that value creates the foundation in a painting that allows the colors to shine.
A painting with a strong value plan will read clearly from across the room, even if you can't identify any of the objects. It's the values, shapes, and angles that create an attractive overall abstract design, and this draws you closer to see more.
In the painting above, "Too Cool – Paris", Notice how the darks in the center command attention while the light/medium light of the background moves your eye around the painting.
So how do I get a strong value plan? Simplify and organize! First I do two very basic sketches to help me break down the scene into clean shapes and values.
I divide the composition into its most basic shapes, usually four but no more than five. This helps me understand how to group the smaller elements that make up the scene in a way that will help it to read well. In the sketch above there are four main shapes. Shape 2 is composed of two figures (see the final painting below), which are both in the middle distance. Shape 3 is all of the umbrellas and beach chairs that create an angled form.
Next I do a value sketch, breaking up the darks and lights into no more than four values; light, medium light, medium dark, and dark. I ignore details and define the overall values of the large shapes, arranging them in a way that reads clearly.
At this point I start to think about using diagonals for energy, emphasizing unequal shapes for tension, and placing light areas to move the eye around the canvas. For instance, I have created a darker triangle of sand in the bottom left hand corner to define the foreground and create an angle that echoes the line of the beach chairs. (See the sketch above and the final painting below.)
Of course, the subject of painting composition is a whole book in itself (and I have many excellent ones on my bookshelf) but that's the idea in a nutshell.
In next month's blog post I'll take a break from talking about painting composition to give you a look at my preparations for an art festival.