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What Makes A Painting?

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

If you’re new to painting or maybe you don’t paint at all but love #art, you might be intrigued to know how artists create their work. If you already paint you will no doubt be eager to read on and maybe pick up a few tips.

"Often my subjects are captured from places and angles that you wouldn’t be able to erect an easel".

It all starts with composition.

Composition is the arrangement of shapes and elements that form a harmonious assembly. It begins with shapes but there is far more to it than that. For now, let’s just think of shapes. Shapes give us scale, drama, excitement, connection and contrast. When a collective of shapes attracts my eye the #composition radar kicks into gear, and I explore the subject further for a harmonious arrangement. Interestingly, when I’m out looking for things to paint, it’s not always the subject that attracts me, it’s the shapes and dynamics. If they are present, there is usually a painting to be found somewhere, but not always. That is when I consider the content, for example I have found super interesting dynamics in mud ruts, but occasionally I have to stop myself and ask, would this really make a desirable painting? I mostly use a camera to capture my subjects. I know, I know, it’s all about plein air #painting nowadays and don’t get me wrong, I love to work outdoors, but often my subjects are captured from places and angles that you wouldn’t be able to erect an easel. That puts me in very different viewpoints, and I like the intrigue that it generates, for example why would I look at this from the top of a wall? Well, look at the dynamics of what I’m finding. The castellated patterns of top stones in the light, the long triangular #shadows pushing the eye into the picture, the #perspective lines, the dancing horizontals, the vertical posts, the balance, division, repetition. What I’m finding within an everyday subject is #design.

Clearing Winter Snow, Watercolour 56 x 38cm

This is the road back to the village where I used to live. People would walk their dogs and look out at the expansive view (it really was a big view), but never notice the more focussed view in front of them. Here I'm using warm and cool, light and dark, near and far, varied shapes, an off centre arrangement, perspective, verticals, and repetition.

Design starts with Harmony.

It’s a pretty well established notion that a subject set off centre is more intriguing to the eye than a subject placed dead centre. It’s just a way of making #shapes varied. We can still enjoy a central subject but the symmetry can be perceived as being less interesting than one with a larger space at one side than the other. To assist in the layout of subjects I use the #compositional #grid. The simplest method is to not take it too seriously, but to begin by dividing the picture space into three equal sections both vertically and horizontally. This helps to place key features off centre and generates a variety of different sized shapes and spaces.

If you have never worked with the compositional grid before, you can easily make one in the form of a #viewfinder. I’ve seen all sorts of methods from bought viewfinders with the grid printed onto a clear acetate window, to homemade ones using a card window frame with cotton bound around the third lines to generate the grid.

Easier still is to select grid on your phone camera or iPad. You will usually find it in settings, then #camera, or in the camera’s independent settings. Select grid and your screen will superimpose the compositional grid whenever you use the camera. Try framing a subject using the grid arrangement, zooming in or setting a focal point somewhere around where the third lines intersect. I never have preconceived ideas about an arrangement of shapes because this is led purely by the subject. However, I do like to fill the #picture space if possible with some sort of link through the shapes from top to bottom and left to right. Little breaks in those links help to make the scene more engaging for the viewer.

"Sunlight can make a painting, in fact I’ve painted subjects that are streaked in fascinating shadows, yet on a dull day the design content of the same scene just isn’t there".

Shadows make it.

Sunlight and shadows enhance design in three ways. Firstly strong light creates contrast and #contrast is very attractive to the eye. Second, cast shadows connect, enhance and disguise shapes, which create links and intrigue through the painting. Thirdly, strong light generates saturated #colour, and saturation combined with #tones and #shades creates that all important interest. Sunlight can make a painting, in fact I’ve painted subjects that are streaked in fascinating shadows, yet on a dull day the design content of the same scene just isn’t there.

Cold Day, Three Puddles, Watercolour 28 x 38cm

Without the shadows there is nothing to this subject, no contrast, no dynamics. I've walked this track so many times but on this day I saw design - the perspective, the shadows, repetition, colour, contrasting values, saturation and tone,

Perspective gives depth.

Perspective need not be the impossible nemesis that is often regarded as. Lines converge and so long as you adhere to an eye level (a horizontal line at the level of your eye) and make sure the #perspective lines rise above the eye level and fall below it, you wont go far wrong. Aerial perspective is the visual depth into a picture – a paler distance, the lines of posts decreasing in size, the stronger values up front. I enjoy using a strong presence of perspective in my paintings.

Colour enhances.

Colour is an amazing design element, especially when only a limited amount is used. I often think in terms of cool and warm rather than the identity of colour. Using a small amount of saturated colour against a greater amount of toned colour will put emphasis on the lesser. Imagine combining that with more warm than cool, and with more #dark than #light. Boom! The offset of colour proportions can be cleverly used to a design advantage.

Boats in Staithes Beck, Acrylic 38 x 28cm

At first you see some boats set against the cliff side. This is Staithes Beck, once full of boats and wonderful designs like this, Looking further into the mechanics of the painting, there is a lot going on in terms of colour. First I have used offset proportions of warm against cool. Second there is a small amount of saturated colour against a mass of tone (grey colour) and third, light against dark. Look again with these in mind and enjoy the exploration and wonders of colour.

Edges tease

A clever painting is one where the #edges constantly appear and disappear. It’s like a dance, teasing the viewer with reveal and hide, hit and miss, lost and found. Edges that come and go seduce the viewer. It’s like we can see them but we can’t. As the brain fills in one gap, another appears, then another and another until the mind becomes spell bound. It’s not an easy task creating lost edges, because it has to be done whilst maintaining the identity of the image.

"A clever painting is one where the edges constantly appear and disappear".

Making a focus

Paintings tell a story and generally there will be a place where the artist wants your eye to rest. It doesn’t have to be busy, it doesn’t have to be entirely obvious, but in a traditional painting, all the elements work together to enhance one particular area or focal point. When everything works its hard to put a finger on why it works because there is so much going on at once – hard and soft edges, big and small shapes, warm and cool colour, saturation and tone, contrasting darks and lights, near and far, action and rest. A good thought out planned painting is a symphony on #paper and it takes time to build all the required compositional skills and bring them all together into a harmonious arrangement.

In the heat, Provence, Acrylic 28 x 19cm

In this image, design is the dominant factor. The subject is merely a platform on which to set out all the design elements. How many of them can you see? Let me know in the comments below.

If you are looking at art, or maybe you are considering buying an original piece, enhance your experience by thinking about all of these elements that have gone into the work you are viewing.

If you are making art, break down your design into its component parts and practise the bits that you are weakest at until they all become second nature, until they all come together in a single painting, until they make something truly #dynamic. Take a look at my tutorials page for helpful tips and techniques or attend one of my art courses to find helpful lessons in these aspects.

Whatever your interest, enjoy your painting.


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