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Lesson 37

Chapter 17 of "The Way To Happiness" deals with Competence. I've found that too many limit their own progress as an artist with the concept that they "haven't got the talent." 90% of being a good professional artist is about looking for yourself, learning (including good study habits), and practicing what you have learned to become Competent. If you are interested in a free copy of "The Way to Happiness", please email me for one.
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Notes on composition basics

Sometimes, what's lacking in a student's instruction, is just the very basics. The teacher, having covered this many times, feels that everybody must know this.

What follows is some basic basic notes on composition. It's not meant to been inclusive and it's certainly not meant to be exclusive. It's just a few ideas to get you started.

Canvases are generally rectangular and they are generally painted on either horizontally or vertically. When the canvas is turned horizontal, it is referred to as "landscape". When vertical, it is referred to as "portrait." This is for the very simple reason that landscapes are usually painted on a horizontal canvas and portraits on a vertical canvas.

Landscape composition

If you were to take a horizontal canvas and divide it down the middle, both vertically and horizontally, you'd have made four equal subrectangles. This is considered a very stable design but very boring as a composition. If, on the other hand, you divided it into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and you used one of the horizontal lines as your main horizontal axis and one of the vertical lines as the position for the strongest vertical thrust in the painting, it seems to be generally agreed that you'll come up with a more pleasing composition. Note that whether you choose the lower or the upper of the horizontal lines will determine whether you are emphasizing the land or the sky.

Note that you don't have to use a horizontal format to paint a landscape. However, I've read that the horizontal format sells better. (Fits above couches, etc.)

Portrait composition

Just from my own experience, if you are doing a portrait, and you are using the "portrait" format, you would do well to loosely apply the same principal. Don't put the focal point of the painting dead in the center of the canvas. Instead, locate the focal point (generally the eyes, but not necessarily) in the upper part and a bit to left or right of center.

I can only speculate on why this is "good" composition. Here's my take on it. The artist wants the viewer to "contribute" to the painting or to "be in communication with" the painting. That requires that the viewer be able to give something back to the painting. If the painting is slightly off-center, it contributes to a sense of motion that leads the viewer to shift his eyes around the painting.

Focal point

One other basic point. You may hear artists and critics talk about "Focal Point." This is a term that also applies to photography. The North Light Dictionary of art terms defines focal point as the center of interest in a picture. It is useful to have some idea of this concept. In using our eyes in daily life, we tend to focus on the thing that we are looking at. Although we are not aware of it, everything else is actually a bit out of focus. Keeping that in mind, as an artist, you may want to assess what you want to be your "focal point" in your picture. Then, the question is, how do we convey this to the viewer? Well, a very simple principle is: The area of greatest contrast is the focal point. I've tried to show that in the simple drawing below, where the simple white triangle, surrounded by the darker forms is the area of greatest contrast.

However, don't get too stuck on the above principles. If you look at a variety of art, you're going to see an almost infinite number of ways to make an interesting picture.

Perhaps the most important principle is: making a painting is an adventure. Each stroke on the canvas is a journey that attempts everything and risks everything. Don't get too serious about it. It's to enjoy.



Last Updated: October 22, 2005