Every painting is a unique challenge, but I do have a standard way that I approach all of my work to get a composition that pleases me. It's always tempting to skimp on the time to compose the painting because I always want to get in there and move the paint around, but I have learned that that is a recipe for disaster. A strong composition is essential for a successful painting, and while it may look obvious, it really does take work to pull it together. So here are my typical steps:
Left: photo taken in Naples after sunset. Right: "Before the Rush – Naples" 14x14 oil $500.
Define the focus
I need to feel excited about an image or the painting will suffer, so I start by thinking about what in the image appeals to me and what story it tells. I'll often try to get a name for the painting from the start. For instance, in the painting above the three waiters are the focus, and I wanted to show them relaxing in the cool light after sunset, so I called it "Before the Rush - Naples". Notice how I moved the waiter in the middle to the right so he is no longer blocked by the one on the left.
Left: "Vespa Envy – Sarlat" , 14x14 oil $500. Right: two tourists in Sarlat's market (Chris is in the background).
Complete the image
Very often I have a photograph of something that appeals to me, but it doesn't tell an interesting story. I may have to rearrange elements in the photo, or even combine elements from different photos. In the painting above, I loved the Vespa in the strong morning light, but by itself, it was not enough. So I added the image of two people looking at it.
This photo was actually taken at a different location, while the couple shopped for produce at an early morning market. I thought their postures would work, so with a little redesign of their clothes, hair and shadows, voila! an interesting scene that never was.
Left: "The Explorers – Capri." 14x14 oil, sold. Right: 3x3 grid for placing focal point.
Place the Focal Point
I almost never put the focal point smack in the center of the canvas. It is too static and your eye gets stuck there. Instead I typically use the rule of thirds; I divide the image into a 3x3 grid and place the focal point somewhere near the intersection of the grid lines. Then the focal point is off center and it allows your eye to wander.
It's amazing how often this rule works. In the painting above, the girl is the focal point (she's larger and is wearing brighter colors) so I put her at the upper right intersection of the grid lines. The mass of the pool and the figure at left (less detail, muted colors) balance the girl.
There's so much more to talk about! Stay tuned next month for: How I Compose Paintings, Part 2.