Welcome to the third article in my “How To Paint” tutorial. In this series I intend to share my knowledge of oil painting, and with a little luck I might persuade a few of you out there to pick up a brush and give painting a try. Hopefully I can share a few pointers and get some feedback from you. If you’re just getting in you can see the Intro, and How To Paint: Materials post if you’d like, or read on to find out what you can paint and how you can express it. If you’re coming back after reading the articles, welcome back. Either way I hope you enjoy this article and the others, and maybe we can all learn a thing or two about one of the most rewarding hobbies.
Once again this is a long and in depth post. If you are not planning on reading the whole thing, may I offer you Have Fun With Art, Part 2, and Is It Really Art? to amuse yourself?
The first thing you must do is come up with something you want to paint. To do this you may ask yourself what is your purpose for the painting. There are many reasons people paint and the intended product can be summed up into different categories.
- Is the painting intended to be decorative? If so one may consider the interior design of their home or others. Will the colors be harmonious with the decorations in the room, will the colors be warm or cool (more on this in the Color post)? The subjects of these paintings could be birds on a branch perhaps, or a beach, a landscape, etc. etc.
- Is it representational? Simply put, is the painting meant to be of something, and that one thing the main focal point of the painting? While decorative paintings may be landscapes and abstract forms of color, the representational painting will be of an actual house or a portrait. We’re talking realism here.
- The third category is a creative expression. These paintings don’t have to fall into either of the other categories and are mainly for the artist. Is there a meaning behind the painting, a message to convey? The dadaists and the minimalists probably didn’t plan on their paintings being in museums or hung on living room walls. Painting gives you an infinite amount of freedom.
Painting is a wonderful medium to achieve your goal of expressing something as it gives you total control of the outcome and license to create, remove, or destroy objects in reality. Even though a landscapist intends to directly convey the lay of the land on his canvas, the painting is not intended to be a photograph. There is still some message and meaning behind the painting. And no matter how realistic the painting looks, there is still some abstraction. It is a painting imitating life, and the painter reserves the right of “painter’s license” to alter reality as he sees fit.
The use of “painter’s license” can be seen in the most straight forward of paintings. Even in the landscapes of centuries ago, objects were moved as necessary to make a more balanced and aesthetically pleasing picture. If a water tower on the right of the visual field looks too heavy, it can be moved to the left to balance it.
Whatever the intended purpose your painting will have, all paintings are an expression of the artist. In order to express yourself and your message, a vehicle for this purpose must be chosen. To sum up, a painting can be a decoration, a representation, or an expression. It can one of the following:
- Still life
- Abstract expression
- Representational realism, figurative paintings, etc.
- Types of paintings such as Cubism, some Surrealism paintings, etc. fall in between the previous two categories
Composing Your Subjects
Now that you know what to paint, you have to figure out how it’s going to look. I didn’t say how to paint it, because the actual techniques used to paint will come later. Here I’m talking about how to “compose” the painting. Almost all of the paintings I ever painting were sketched first quickly on a separate sheet of paper, as well as actually on the canvas before I even started to paint. This is a good idea for anybody unless you have a clear idea of exactly how your painting will turn out. The “underpainting” will be just a rough outline of major shapes, so it’s not exactly just drawing and filling in color.
To understand composition in general it pays to understand some very basic visual psychology. Thinking about this helps you realize how people will see your painting in the end, and will keep you from making a visual mess (well, usually). Here are some very basic visual psychology elements that come into play when your painting is viewed:
- Our eyes strive for simplicity and balance
- A visual field has certain forces, which, depending on the statement, must be followed in order to attain simplicity
- Objects on the visual field have a weight which differs depending on its position
- People generally read a painting from left to right
- Certain colors are heavier than others and stand out more (red)
- Certain colors appear to recede (cool colors: greens, blues), and others to advance (warm colors: yellows, reds)
Simplicity and Balance. The visual field is loaded up with energy. A square has its vertical, horizontals, and diagonals keeping it intact, and any object on the invisible lines is at ease. An object off such lines seams to be moving and pulling toward a more simpler position. A balanced picture seems to convey a feeling that it need not move any further to be the simplest composition. The forces in the field are at rest, and there is no tension. This gives us a pleasing experience looking at the painting.
No matter whether the canvas is a representation of real life or a total abstraction, the forces of our world in reality impact the way the picture is perceived. For example, the top half of the painting holds a much heavier presence than the bottom half. The objects toward the top of the painting will appear to be heavy and falling, striving to obey gravity and come to rest on the bottom of the painting.
This notion of picture of gravity is true of any one single object, in fact. Note the number 3 in font or on your keyboard. Close inspection will tell you that the top half is slightly smaller, so as not to appear top-heavy. The result is a pleasing object at rest.
A visual field is automatically broken down by our eyes as we view it. Certain parts are generally more important, certain invisible lines act out in certain ways on the objects on and around them, and the top and bottom, left and right of the field are noted in our minds and so forth. If an object is misplaced or unbalanced, while we may not cognitively realize it, something seems not quite right about it.
Keep in mind that a perfectly symmetrically balanced painting usually doesn’t make for an interesting composition. If there is a field with a straight horizon line and a tree smack dab in the center, it makes for a pretty boring picture. But the method of using mirror symmetry can be used to convey a feeling. In my picture of an Amish man after a hostage situation in which several girls were murdered, the main subject is in a situation of anger and unease. The perfect mirror symmetry with the crossed arms helps to convey this tension.
As I mentioned above with the cat the subjects head being on the left side of the painting with the glance to the right balanced the composition. Part of the prominence of the left side of the painting comes from the viewer reading the picture as one would read printed words. Hence the importance of “stage left” in theater, where the hero would make their entrance as opposed to the antagonist or other less important role coming in from the right. When being photographed, the astute celebrity or prominent figure would be wise to stand in the far right of the group so they are seen first and their names written first in the caption.
When Emperor Napoleon I was to get painted in a scene with Talleyrand, the “power behind the throne,” the painter was met with a problem. Napoleon was painted on the left entering “stage left” and Talleyrand was painted with color emphasis and in the center of the painting. When the artist explained the painting to Napoleon, he was colorfully told that he would be the first thing people saw. Talleyrand, on the other hand was separately told he’d be in the center of attention. Both men were be satisfied.
The fact that the left side of the picture carries more weight is an important one in engraving. The smart engravers such as the genius Leonardo knew that the final product was a mirror image of the engraving itself. When engraving he would actually execute the work backwards so that the actual engraving would be balanced properly to the viewer. Recent engraving methods involve tracing the reverse of the first imprint so the original picture shows up the way it was intended. One common trick to see if your painting looks right is to look at it in a mirror to give you a fresh view. This trick is flawed in that the mirror image should look false if the composition is correct. If it looks more properly weighted, than your real composition is wrong. You get the picture.
Color Theory and Psychology are complex subjects and I won’t go into them in detail here, but more so the post about Color later. It is something I wrestle with constantly and am still learning more and more with each and every painting. Painting being nothing but shapes and colors, it behooves the painter to know everything he/she can about the properties of color and how to use them.
On the visual field colors act on the objects and planes, and on the eyes of the viewer. Van Gogh used the color red to balance out the Bedroom painting. In this painting, the number of objects on the left cause it to weigh more heavily toward the left. Even though the largest object is on the right half, the painting needs to be balanced. He accomplished this by making the blanket red. Red being a heavy color (the heaviest), its use here helps to balance out the composition.
Tips And Tools Of Composition
We’ve gone through an introduction to how we see paintings, and how a painter should consider a few points in making the composition. It’s at this point I must plug my favorite book on the subject called “Art and Visual Perception” by Rudolph Arnheim. In this book I found priceless information about how and why to compose paintings, among many other things. I’ll go through just some of the tools of composition you can use.
1. The Rule of Thirds
This is used by painters and photographers alike and states that the pictorial field is broken down into thirds by invisible lines. Before a photographer takes a shot, he or she might hold both hands up and imitate a “viewfinder” to see how the shot will turn out in turns of positions of the objects and key elements. Once again, it is ill-advised to place the focal point in the exact center, but rather on key invisible lines or points. The rule of thirds places these invisible lines on the field at thirds vertically and horizontally:
This simple model can be sketched onto the underpainting if desired to achieve the best effect, regardless of the size or shape of the canvas. At intersecting points are key positions. Your main focal point of the painting can be at any one or two of these points for the best aesthetically pleasing result.
This model does not have to be followed to the T, and certain parts of it can be used to create your composition. Generally, the main focal point or main subjects don’t have to be at a point but could fall along the lines. The Last Supper is an excellent example of the use of the rule of thirds in general. A horizontal third line can be used for the horizon, or the upper third line can be used for other lines in the picture. If it looks too much like it was used purposely, the painting will look academic. The same is true of all compositional tricks to make the painting look better, they must be subtle or the picture will look fake.
2. The Golden Ratio
Now this little bit of information may a little more intermediate than the other tips on this article, but can come in handy. It’s actually a mathematical ratio (1: 1.61) that is supposedly the most aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It is in this ratio that many great painters stretched their canvases to achieve maximum eye-pleasing results. It is also used as a guide to object placement on the canvas. Whether or not this is true is debatable, but it doesn’t hurt to try it out yourself and see if the results are what you intended.
3. Compositional Guidelines
Try and follow these guidelines and you really can’t go wrong. Use this list as a checklist after you have drawn up a rough draft:
- Is the composition balanced? Are there any objects that appear too heavy, is there enough head space of the people to the top and sides? Have you used the direction and placement of the objects to your advantage, are there any conflicting forces and tension?
- Use the Rule of Thirds. You can map out your scene from reality using a viewfinder or taking the index fingers and thumbs of both hands and holding it up to from a rectangle. Ask yourself if the key elements are properly placed in the scene, and are they on a third line, diagonal, or third line intersection.
- Number of elements. As a general rule, keep the number of elements odd.
- Spacing of elements. Keeping an even space between each and every object can make the painting look too orderly and contrived. Try to vary the spaces between the objects.
- Are objects touching? If two side by side objects are sharing a line, this can make for a confused reaction of the viewer. Remember to either overlap everything or make them obviously separate to avoid this.
- Is the composition obvious? As I said above, you don’t want to make it look like you got your arrangement straight out of a book. Even though following the rule of thirds is a good idea, for example, don’t make it obvious. You can stray from the rule a little bit, and have a key element slightly off of the intersecting point to achieve a similar effect. You want the painting to look natural.
In summary paint what you want but figure out how you want to paint it. If there is a mood or message, you’ll want to figure out the best way to express this. Some of these basic compositional rules can be broken if the intended meaning of the painting is an abstraction, or statement. It all depends on what you want to accomplish.
When drawing up your composition, consider the elements and how they will react to each other. Will the painting look natural and at ease? Use the checklist above to make sure all parts of your painting are placed in the best possible position.
I hope this article is of use to you. If it is, see also How To Paint,How To Paint: Materials, How To Paint: Techniques and Learning Art