One of the pleasures as a volunteer at the National Watercolor Society is to be exposed to all kinds of watermedia art and to see lots of watercolor paintings in real life. While I have learned a great deal just by studying other artist’s works, there were also pretty sobering moments. For instance, it is disturbing to see how many artist’s ‘enhance’ their artwork with photo-manipulating software on their computer and their piece looks only half as good when you see it in real life! That, however is a topic for another post. Or not.
Composition: One of the most important aspects of a picture. There was a time when I utterly underestimated how important it actually is! Luckily, there were people who helped me along. My past teachers of course, but also a lot of studying on my own. A couple years ago I started collecting the catalogs of all NWS exhibitions since 1950 something and whenever I have spare time, I always sit down and analyse artwork of past shows. Surprising how much one can learn doing this!
I also have very good books on the subject matter. One of them by the late Jan Herring, given to me by her wonderful daughter Helen during a workshop. I think it’s out of print, the book title is ‘The painters composition handbook’. Jan talks about letters of the alphabet that can be used as a composition tool by placing them in your work as guidelines for major shapes. Not every letter works, but A, C, H, L, X, Z for instance all work. Then there are triangles, cruciform and other shapes.
Nowadays, I always try to at least apply some of these helpers to my work. Then I let it sit for a bit and double check if everything works before picking up a paintbrush.
These two paintings are almost identical in composition. The big difference is, of course, the light situation. It can’t be any more different, really! Can you see the triangle that I arranged the shapes in this one? To illustrate my point, I drew it on. It made a big difference in this piece. In fact, all the great techniques and beautiful washes etc. are all worthless if the compo is no good!
One last tip: Study great abstract artists like Elaine Daily Birnbaum and others and you’d be surprised to see how much you can learn from them, even if you’re a ‘representational artist’, like myself! I always say that my representational art is 80% abstract anyway!