About composition

downtown crown morning square

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.

triangle compo

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!

6 thoughts on “About composition

  1. Missy Cassidy

    Hi Frank

    I find your comment about software ringing home…. As a student I work hard to create original work. I find myself in classes now where fellow students use projections of photos to draw the image and paint from there. I suppose that is ok but somehow I come home from class feeling less than successful – my work is never as good…or so it seems…

    Do you have words of encouragement?


    1. frankeber Post author

      Great comment, Missy. I know how you feel. However, in my opinion when people trace or use photo projections their artwork usually looks pretty lifeless. I think there is much to be said about solid drawing skills and a loose, lively drawing! I have to be careful what I say on here, but there is too much of the copying of photographs with super tight drawings going on out there. Just ask yourself: how creative is it really to project something, or worse yet, use watercolor features in photoshop or similar software, then project it onto the paper and fill in the spaces…a bit like painting by numbers, isn’t it?
      Words of encouragement: practice your drawing skills any time you can and you will be way ahead of them down the road! It may be more work at first, but later the word ‘artist’ after your name will actually ring true!

  2. lesliepaints

    I love studying composition, Frank! I find it even more interesting than learning techniques. I look back at the times I drew and painted before I understood anything of composition. Once I began using elements of composition, I rejoiced in the things I could change and manipulate in my 2D environment. I also like studying others’ paintings and asking myself why I like some more than others. It always comes back to composition. I marvel at a nice abstract done well; one that includes a center of interest and a pathway for the viewer’s eye. Good post!

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