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The Millrind Press


Boat at Wivenhoe

The Millrind Press

INTO COMPOSITION A Painter’s Guide John Kay Copyright © John Rowland Kay 2004 All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by means, electrical or mechanical, without express permission from the publisher. A Selection of John Kay’s Paintings may be seen at his website: email: Limited edition. Typeset in 11pt. Minion Pro. Designed, printed and published by The Millrind Press 22 Hall Road. Fordham, Colchester Essex CO6 3NQ ISBN 1 902194 07 1

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS First I am indebted, as always, to the patience and kindness of my wife Jennifer who has helped to edit and refine my prose. I must gratefully thank Frank Webb who gave his kind permission to reproduce his work. I owe a long lasting debt to all the artists of the past and present whose work has inspired me. Lastly and not least to the many skilful artists whose wisdom I have quoted and whose example I have tried to follow. Ars longa, vita breva. John Kay


Contents 1. Introduction ...............................................................7 What is a painting?...................................................8 What is composition?...............................................9 2. Aspects of Composition............................................11 Golden Section ......................................................11 Lines joining significant points .............................12 Centre of interest and sweet points .......................12 Rabatment ..............................................................14 Eye Line .................................................................14 Emphasis and contrast...........................................15 Dominance .............................................................15 Repetition & variation............................................17 Tonal balance..........................................................17 Linking the mid-tones............................................18 Strong verticals and horizontals.............................18 Rhythm of forms.....................................................19 Diagonal lines give action & dynamism ................20 Pointers to the centre of interest............................21 Compositional faults..............................................23 3. Working Methods ....................................................26 Planning .................................................................26 Using a viewfinder..................................................26 Sketching................................................................28 Tonal values - natural and stage set................29 Quick tonal sketches........................................29 Simplification.........................................................30 Photography ..........................................................33 From the sketch to the painting.............................35 Some practical advice:......................................36 5. The Process...............................................................39 Bibliography..................................................................42


Canal lock near Birmingham

Tollesbury, Essex


1. Introduction This book is mainly about composition, how to recognise it and how best to use it. It doesn’t matter which medium you use, composition is always a consideration. I seek to explain the more practical and therefore the more obvious factors of this fascinating subject but I will leave a fuller discussion to others. There is a set of standards for composition shared by many great artists of the past and a large number of practising artists today. These represent a consensus which links good sense, good practice and sound judgement. They are a well-established set of values, handed-down, preserved and developed which give direction, coherence and meaning to all art.

Aldeburgh House, Suffolk

An awareness of the basics of composition helps you to appreciate this quality in other people’s work and also helps you to structure you own work no matter how skilful your drawing or your painting technique. I hope this will lead you to a greater satisfaction in

what you do. Good composition is very important to painting. I work on location and in the studio using sketches and photographs. I paint landscapes, townscapes and still life mainly in watercolour with some mixed media but composition applies equally to every medium and subject. I do want to stress the importance of planning before a main painting is embarked upon. I find that a methodical approach does much to help me to make sense of a situation where all the decisions seem to arise at the same time.


What is a painting? Any study of painting should include an appreciation of the traditional emphasis which, before the use of photography had two genuine rôles: to record the appearance of people and objects and to represent history and mythology. Commissions by the rich and famous enabled artists to earn a hard-won living, something very difficult to do nowadays. In my view there are two aspects to the definition of a painting, the philosophical and the practical. Philosophically, it may be helpful to regard a painting as an offering or submission Street scene, Cambridge by the artist. The artist’s motivation to paint could be equated with the need to share the delight of something which has been found or discovered. Only in this case the discovery is through the explorations and particular vision of the artist. Herbert Read commenting on the distinction between art and nature wrote:

Most simply we might say that the artist in painting a landscape (and it is true of whatever the artist does) is not seeking just to depict the visible appearance of the landscape, but to tell us something about it. That something may be an observation or emotion which we share with the artist but more often it is an original discovery of the artist’s which he wishes to communicate to us. (READ, 1931) This raises the question of how much attention the artist gives to detail. The aspirations of many beginners are often based on their experience of looking at photographs. This often results in paintings that are highly detailed all over. If art were merely a record of the appearances of nature the closest imitation would be the most satisfactory work of art and the time would be fast approaching when photography should replace painting. (READ, 1931) Photography has still not replaced painting nor ever will. An attempt to represent objects and scenes exactly as the camera would record them, with every detail clearly defined, evenly lit and focused is a lost opportunity for the painter to share a personal vision and create something unique. 8

We are entitled to know where an artistic endeavour begins and ends, there should be agreed borders, which define the area of professional responsibility. I believe therefore it is essential that the edges of the painting are clearly indicated and that is the purpose of a frame, it clearly defines that which is presented and separates it from the wall and the surroundings in which it hangs. Within that frame lies the work, so that there is no doubt in our minds as to the extent of what is presented. Some artists have challenged the concept of clearly defining the picture by continuing the painting onto the actual surface of the frame and in some rare cases onto the wall surrounding it. This is technically described as “breaking the picture plane�.

What is composition? Composition means, literally and simply, putting several things together, so as to make one thing out of them; the nature and goodness of which they all have a share in producing. (RUSKIN, 1857) and Frank Webb:

Many painters use composition intuitively, without conscious awareness that they are doing it. However many painters ignore composition. First of all many who are painting do not realise they are composing,‌ Since the French impressionists, there has been a feeling that a painting must be an improvisation, and that composing thwarts improvisation. Others stray because they are so focused on technique, materials and media. Then there are those impatient who are also anxious to slap on paint. Then, too, laziness takes its toll, for composing is hard work and we wish to avoid not only work but pain. And last, but not least, composition is ignored by painters who cater to a public conditioned by photography, believing a picture must have elaborate detail. Thus the Farmhouse, Little Cornard


world is overloaded with non-composed pictures insinuating themselves into every corner of our lives. (WEBB, 1988)

Snow, East Fordham

I see composition as the basic skeleton of a painting, all the flesh of colour, texture, detail and technique need strong bones to carry the weight. I believe that composition is the secret key to success in painting. To give some meaning to the term composition two aspects need to be considered. First, in a good composition the parts of the painting should link to or have a special relationship to the frame. Second the various parts of the painting should have an internal coherence, the forms, the shapes and the interrelationship of tones should form a cohesive whole , i.e. every part of it should have a reason for being there. Leaving just one part out would detract from the whole. If you have ever, on entering an exhibition hall, had your attention forcibly drawn to one picture in particular, taking your immediate attention as no others do, it is highly likely that that particular painting had a very skilful composition . 10

2. Aspects of Composit ion In order to describe the separate compositional features of a painting they have to be dealt with in isolation but in practice they are used in association with each other. A picture is composed and seen as a whole and in one picture an artist may use many of these elements to achieve a composite which makes a statement. Some features of composition use lines which refer parts of the picture to points on the edge of the frame others are about Moat, Moat Hall, Fordham achieving balance, defining the centre of interest and leading the eye into the painting.

Golden Section This is a Golden Rectangle Ratio 1 to 1.67

Throughout history the proportion we know as The Golden Mean has always had a great significance in structured composition. The Golden Section is the division of a line or the construction of a rectangle of approximately these proportions.– 1 : 1.67

This proportion coincides with the Fibonacci series. This is formed by starting with one and adding the last two digits to form the next one. Like this - 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 , 55 etc., any two adjacent figures indicate the proportion. The further along the series goes, the nearer it gets to the true ratio. Like pi(Î ) however, we never get to an end of this progression. The most fascinating quality of this proportion is that it derives directly from a natural origin and has a close affinity with the growth patterns in nature. Some 11

book sizes, old and new, adhere fairly closely to these proportions, namely Demy, Royal Folio, Royal Octavo, Foolscap Folio and Foolscap Octavo. This is a Nautilus shell. Tangents at right angles to the walls of the shell, (shown in red) will be in the proportion of the Golden Mean. Ferns, pine cones and other natural forms also seem to demonstrate this proportion in their structure.

Lines joining significant points Significant points are the corners, the halfway points and the eight golden section points (ie. Where the Golden Section lines touch the frame. These are lengthily described by some writers on composition and there are complicated drawings showing these lines superimposed onto many famous paintings. In particular Richmond, 1933 and Gordon, 1934 are worthy of mention. It isn’t said that artists actually construct their paintings with these lines in mind but it may be hinted that they may have been aware of them, if only subconsciously. Using just these points it is possible to construct a net of ideal lines for compositional purposes, this however would probably result in far too mechanical a process for most artists. even though many treatises of old went into great detail over these measurements. I am more inclined to the view expressed by Frank Webb that these relationships are more felt by artists than measured or plotted. There are also particular lines to be wary of when placing shapes in your picture, particularly diagonals and lines of bisection. The Union Jack demonstrates all of these and sums up the type of composition that designers and graphic artists studiously avoid.

Centre of interest and sweet points Artists don’t usually use the centre of the composition to place the most interesting parts of their paintings but place them slightly to one side or other of the middle point, these places are often referred to as the ‘sweet points’ of a painting. These are often de12

The four possible sweet points

Dabchicks YC, West Mersea

The sky and the clouds here are entirely a figment of my imagination but have been placed in that particular way to draw your attention to the main subject which is on a sweet point (the white building), and direct attention away from the corners. The lines of the road also help in this.

scribed as the four places where the lines which divide the painting into thirds, cross. This is accurate enough for most purposes but to be slightly more correct I think that these should be described as the places where the Golden Section dividing lines cross. There is no definite requirement to use these places however. The centre of interest may well be a long way from any of these but you can be sure that a well planned painting will have striking ways of drawing the spectator’s attention to it. I always try to ensure that there is only one centre of interest more than one dilutes the interest of a painting but there should never be two of equal importance.

E.Bergholt Church, South Side

The centre of interest here is the extreme contrast of the light hitting the bushy tree on the sweet point of the painting, the lighter area in the foreground also points to this.


Rabatment Not all paintings are made in the proportion of the Golden Section however. If a square is drawn to overlap a picture with its side being the length of the shorter side of the rectangle, the resulting vertical line is called a rabatment. This Trinity Street, Colchester line can be measured from either side of the rectangle. Many artists deliberately use this division as the place to put the centre of interest of their composition. Obviously it is not possible to use this vertical in either a square painting or in a painting with the sides in the ratio of 2:1 (when a rabatment would coincide with the vertical centre line of the picture). Vineyard Street, Colchester

Eye Line This is a line parallel to the base which represents the horizon (sometimes called a Horizon Line ) and it is related to the actual height of the eye of the observer above the scene depicted. A high eye line results in a view which approaches a plan view, the individual objects show very small Fordham Schoolhouse differences in height due to distance. Low eye lines however ex- The low eye line gives drama, many triangular elements and diagonals give tension. 14

aggerate differences in size due to distance from the observer and hence tend to dramatise the view. The norm is an eye line which approximates the height of a standing observer. A common compositional fault is to place the horizon at the mid-point of the painting and this should be avoided.

Emphasis and contrast You can increase the importance of the subject by making sure that dark and light contrast most strongly around it. Toning down the contrast in the rest of the painting helps to strengthen what is left.

Dominance Dominance is probably the most often used way of drawing attention to the main subject of a picture. If there is one main subject in a picture and it is larger than any other part of the painting it automatically becomes the centre of interest. The effect can be extended if there is also a smaller shape included, sometimes echoing the shape of the dominant one as a way of emphasizing the size difference between the two.

Parkeston Quay, Harwich

There is no doubt that the car ferry is the largest object in this painting and therefore the most dominant part in it. The tonal gradation of the sky directs interest, the smoke and the quayside features also point to the main subject.


Willie Lott’s Cottage, Flatford Mill The cottage is the central and dominant subject, the surrounding forms pointing towards it.

Dominance is most evident in still life groups. I find that still life painting is probably the most satisfying way of spending a dull winter day. It is the one occasion where an artist has full control over his subject, every object and its placement is completely under the control of the artist which can be placed in the most attractive way, everything about it can be changed, even the way the light falls upon it— total control. I find it easier to tackle a still life painting if I use a close-up view. This has two main advantages, the objects are larger and therefore easier to draw and paint and the background is reduced in size and thus does not distract attention from the group itself. Red Still Life

I have tried here to give a certain tension to the group by placing most of the mass above the centre line. The shadows help to link the objects to the frame. Still Life with Stoneware Jar

In this group the lines of the wall, the table cloth and the floor lead the eye in to the main group.


Repetition & variation It needs three objects to form a series, two objects are not enough to establish a sequence and the use of four is overstating it. Thus when repetition is used there are usually three of the same kind of shape. Most artists avoid a mechanical, monotonous interpretation by changing one or more aspects of the shapes. Variation may be in the tone, colour, angle or size. Sometimes the repetition is even more subtle where two or more factors are varied. Logan Square, Philadelphia

I was extremely pleased that I was able to balance all the separate shapes in this asymmetric way even though the main emphasis of the picture is horizontal. Also I was able to echo the theme of the three children in three fountains.

Tonal balance The apparent weight of shapes depends upon on their size and tone. Darker shapes appear to have more weight than lighter ones. In a composition the aggregate, or the joint result of the balance of all shapes should present a form of equilibrium and the best solutions tend to have a asymmetrical form. These are usually illustrated with the analogy of a seesaw, or even better, the sort of balance attained by a steelyard.




R.Colne in Snow

Here I tried to maintain a balance across the picture of light shapes and dark shapes so that they represented an asymmetric tonal equilibrium.

Linking the mid-tones Mid-tones are the glue which holds a picture together, if they stretch across from one side of the frame to the other they help to unify the composition. East Bergholt Church

This view of East Bergholt Church is an example of where the mid-tones are extended across the frame to unify the whole picture.

Strong verticals and horizontals If these are very striking elements, there should be emphasis on either horizontal or vertical, not both. They can provide a good support for the whole composition.


Hotel Svon, Mariensky Lazny, Czech Republic

A good example of the grandeur of Austro-Hungarian achitectecture. The diagonal lines help to break up the horizontal and vertical emphasis of this interior view. The extreme darks and lights of the reception hall contrast with the sunny day outside.

Pink Rudder, Burnham on Crouch

I chose this view because it offered an exercise in shapes. Both horizontals and verticals play their part, verticals predominate and the telephone pole is on a rabatment. The street furniture helps to link the whole picture together. The curved shadow on the boat, the curve of the wall on the seaward side, the triangle of the boathouse roof and the shaft of light from the break in the wall help to pull the whole interest into the centre where the pink rudder is.

Rhythm of forms Where there are several verticals, such as the trunks of trees, vertical supports to a fence or any other vertical shapes most artists will take steps to avoid a repetition of equal spaces between them. They will use this opportunity to vary the intervals in a certain rhythm which will promote visual interest. In addition they 19

Jumbo, (the water tower), Colchester

I have varied the positions of the pillars which hold up the water tower and as a result the sky shows through as a rhythmic progression of shapes across the picture which is further divided by the verticals of trees.

will also vary the height of each vertical, also to add variety. This applies equally to horizontals or in fact all shapes. As a general rule all artists try to introduce some variety in tone, shape and colour whenever possible in order to avoid monotony.

Diagonal lines give action & dynamism Strong lines or pointed shapes give dynamism to a painting and indicate a definite compositional movement or thrust. Burnham on Crouch, new quay

The perspective lines of the buildings, the path and also the horizon all point to the main subject but in addition the dark lines of the boom and the jetty frame it as well and introduce an interesting tension into the composition.


The Dalles - Frank Webb

Two major thrusts of the picture are represented by the white shapes surging across from left to right. The top one originates and stays close to the line joining two golden mean points on the frame. The bottom one follows a line from a corner to another Golden Mean point. These diagonals together with the diagonal of the roof shadow make a determined movement towards the right but this is successfully countered by the struts of the structure which strain backwards to produce a tense equilibrium. Deckchairs, Clacton Pier

A typical example of objects which have an animation within themselves, I caught this on camera and was very pleased with the way that the wind had animated the cloth of the deck chairs. I also loved the opportunity to make the shadows lead into the picture.

Pointers to the centre of interest Some features act as pointers within the composition, I sometimes have to reduce the importance of very strong lines which don’t help and sometimes emphasise those that do. Perspective lines pointing to the main subject are very obvious in many of my paintings, it is after all probably the easiest device to arrange in a townscape where perspective shows up most markedly. 21

Trinity Street, Colchester

Still life in two colours, FrankWebb

Burnt Sienna, prussian blue and their mixtures go to make up this very minimal yet telling flower arrangement. Particularly note the direct, clean and well-considered brushstrokes. The horizontal strokes in pale grey effectively link the group to the frame.


The presence of people immediately commands attention in a composition. The eye is drawn to them and they add scale to a painting at the same time. If they are pointing to something, the viewer looks there. The figures don’t even have to do this, they only have to be turned towards a subject as if looking at it to provide a strong compositional pointer towards it. Roads, pathways and streams perform a

Detail from a nude - Frank Webb

A good example of the consummate skill of a mature artist. Simple brushwork delineates the subtle shapes which make up the modelling of the face. Heavy shadows of the robe point effectively to the face as well. The left side of the robe is blended into the background linking the figure to it. Note the use of violet and green and their mixtures to contrast with the warm tones of the skin.

similar function and can prove to be very convincing pointers, so strong that occasionally the artist has to blur the lines a little to reduce this effect and make it less obvious. You may think that the treatment of a painting is beginning to sound as if it is most contrived, well that's exactly what art is or what art should be. An artist should be making something, imposing his rationalisation upon what he creates, he doesn't take his subject the way it comes, he makes it into what he wants it to be. This is the difference between matching and making. Honfleur Port

These perspective lines direct attention into the painting and point to the centre of interest which in this case happens to be the red spot, whatever that is. Note the balance formed by all the white shapes and all the dark shapes.

Compositional faults These further paintings of mine have more than a few compositional faults. I always think that if I am to underline shortcomings they might as well be mine rather than embarrass somebody else. I would urge you to keep your failures, think how encouraged you will be when you later can say that you are so much better now. I plan, when death seems immanent to destroy them completely, I have seen more than enough examples of poor quality work rescued from dead artists’ studios that would have shamed them had they lived to see them exposed to the public gaze. These are all my early efforts in watercolour, mostly painted on the spot, on holiday. A lot of this work represents the learning process. All the way through college I painted in oils and didn't touch watercolour, at the time watercolours were regarded as impermanent and only suitable for children. Although many pigments were fugitive in this medium they did not deserve this condemnation. In any case, at this time, many galleries and exhibitions were reluctant to accept watercolours as finished pieces of work. I used acrylics for my work as well. I didn't start to use watercolour until I felt as if I had enough time to master it fully. 23

The Waterfront, Porec

Barton Broad, Norfolk

I painted this many years ago on the waterfront at Porec, Yugoslavia. The sheer complexity of the subject drew me to it. The main fault is that I chose a flaton view. There is no Centre of Interest, the whole painting is just a collection of details. The positioning of the people here does not help to guide the eye, They don't know whether they are coming or going and I obviously didn’t know either.

Crail Harbour, Fife

This painting of Crail harbour, is rather heavy in tone and very dark on the right hand side,. It's not well balanced as a composition.

Barton Broad, Norfolk

The most significant thing about this particular painting of Barton Broad is the broad, and the broad is all you can see, much too central in emphasis and very little tonal contrast. A typically tentative piece of work which identified me as a real beginner in watercolour. One of my early attempts.


Satuna, Costa Brava

I was intrigued by the dominance of the buildings on this promontory. This painting turned out to be rather bland and I must have thought at one time that it was finished but I don’t now. I could have developed the tones and made more of the contrast of the shadows against the buildings. The sea is not convincing and the sky is too pale.

Workshop, Charney Manor

Anstruther, Fife

This painting has become a historical document as the workshop depicted no longer exists. As to the composition, the whole picture is flat on, not a very original viewpoint . The overworked wall dissipates the attention and there is no distinct centre of interest.

Once in a while things turn out well without a great deal of fuss and labour I was particularly pleased with how this painting turned out. The two great curves of the cirrus cloud and the shoreline point satisfactorily towards the main centre of interest. The dark shapes balance each other very well too.


3. Working Methods I like to draw a parallel here with a television programme where a full orchestral rehearsal is shown, the conductor taking the players through the piece slowly, describing exactly how he wants the work to be performed and why. We watch the mood and spirit of the piece being gradually worked out. To finish, the piece is played in its entirety. This both illuminates and increases our understanding and adds immensely to our appreciation of the final work.

Planning I always plan the composition before I make a mark on the support (watercolour paper, board or canvas). I select the view and fix the frame, checking for the most favourable arrangement. There is a distinct difference between active looking where the looking is part of another action (finding, avoiding, comparing, reading) and seeing, meaning being receptive to the scene before you “for its own sake.�

Learning to "see" the large simple masses of shape, value and colour becomes intuitive after some trial and error. It can be learned and like anything else requires some patience and discipline. Looking is very different from seeing, the act of looking presupposes a mental image of what is sought. Seeing is a much more passive action, which allows the scene viewed to impact upon the viewer. (STABIN, 1999) I use subsequent sketches to explore different possibilities in interpretation, selecting and refining at each stage. This avoids the trial and error approach which rapidly leads to overworking and losing freshness. If the bigger areas of the painting are not well-designed there is little use in going on. No qualities of colour or texture can save a painting that has undistinguished shapes and unreadable values. (WEBB, 1990)

Using a viewfinder Always use a viewfinder, providing it doesn’t make you feel too self-conscious. It ensures that you draw a picture that is level, i.e. at 90 degrees to the angle of vision. A 26

small piece of card about 2½ x 4 in. With a central hole of 1½ x 1 in. Will serve very well. Use the viewfinder to frame the subject and relate the lines and shapes to the frame. This is particularly relevant if you are painting out of doors. Ruskin advocates the use of a viewfinder:

It is good, in early practice, to accustom yourself to enclose the subject, before sketching it, with a light frame of wood held upright before you. It will show you what you may legitimately take into your picture, and what choice there is between the narrow foreground near you, and a wide one further off; also what height of tree or building you can properly take in, etc. (RUSKIN, 1857) Don’t accept the first view that seems suitable. Look at it through the viewfinder from as many angles and distances as you can before you decide upon one. If you intend to paint sitting down, don’t make your judgements while standing up. Think ahead and you will avoid predicaments later. Always be prepared for the situation to worsen. Someone may well park a car or a van in front of you, boats which may loom large part in your painting may suddenly sail away. Many artists cannily take a photograph before they start, this not only insures against future disaster but also records and fixes the fleeting shadows which can change drastically as the painting progresses. When you look at a magnificent panoramic view you have an awe-inspiring sense of place. This is difficult to convey within the bounds of a picture frame. I would advise against attempting to capture the magnificent. It is hard to establish a centre of interest and difficult to establish a foreground and middle-ground. A viewfinder is particularly useful for transferring a line to your sketch that you may find difficult to see accurately, particularly when drawing buildings in perspective. You can get this angle just right by looking at the scene you have chosen and using a pencil across the opening of the viewfinder to lining it up with the line in question. Then without moving the pencil, place both pencil and viewfinder down upon your drawing and you can readily see the angle you need to draw. You can also use the outside of the viewfinder as a template to draw a pencil frame in your sketch book to use as an aid to composition.


Sketching You may be satisfied with the subject but don’t rush straight into paint, several compositional sketches will enable you to make critical decisions about tonal balance and relationships early in the process. Don’t confuse finished drawings with preliminary sketches, these can be very rough indeed, just enough lines to plan out the areas. Once you have started the painting itself, it is too late to make major changes in form. If the painting fails you still have the sketches to work from if you want to start again. I believe that a preliminary sketch, preferably a tonal one is best for planning out a composition. I also think that it is important to enclose preparatory sketches within a drawn border on the sketchbook page. Leaving a white space between the sketch and the edge of the paper offers many advantages. It gives the border a proper importance in the composition and makes you fully conscious of its importance while you are designing; if you have misjudged the extent of the area you wish to include it makes it possible to extend the frame somewhat in any direction without redrawing and it gives space for colour notes or any other information. Frank Webb calls this a Graphic Border:

Many artists draw in a sketchbook, letting the edges of the paper be the edge of the design. It is far better to draw a borderline an inch or so inside the edge, taking care that the proportions match your intended painting. By doing so you will be more conscious of the composition. It is also easier to scribble tones up to this border without the pencil getting caught at the edge of the paper or pad. The chief advantage of working up to a graphic border is that at the conceptual stage it effectively separates the picture from ordinary reality. (WEBB, 1988) It is at this stage it is important to ensure that there is a way for the eye to enter into the picture which is not diverted or blocked off. 28

Tonal values - natural and stage set The first diagram, based on a sketch by Frank Webb, illustrates the natural tonal differences that can be found in most landscapes. Tonal values here are dictated by the general way that light behaves over large areas. lightest of all SKY

MOU NTAINS slightly darker

The second diagram draws a parallel between a view and a stage set which sometimes proves useful as a concept. This uses the faded tones of aerial perspective to simulate distance.

darker still GROUND

Both of these schemes are employed as a rule of thumb in many paintings to give depth. I N A T U RA L T O N A L V A L U E S don’t feel however that either of these places any obligation upon me as to how I allocate tones in my own work. I vary these according to the tonal pattern I wish to use. TREES & HOUSES

darkest of all



Quick tonal sketches Many people take careful note on their sketches of the actual colours in a view. Once you have decided on a view, you can use whatever colours and emphasis you like, these are not as fixed as people may think. How you apply them is up to



you and the colours you use are a matter of choice as well.

Here are a few tonal sketches (or value sketches) where alternate tonal schemes are tried out. This is the optimal way of working out where best to place and balance the tones within the picture frame.

Most people like to see artist’s sketches especially those which lead to finished work because they give a more detailed insight into the way the artist’s mind is working as he goes through 29

the preparation and process of making a painting.

Simplification Simplification is an integral part of the sketching for composition process. Abstraction is a result of this simplification.

Remember, also, that painting is a process of subtraction, not addition. Resist the urge to include everything you see in your painting. Include only those elements that are expressive of your subject, and ruthlessly eliminate those that are not. (STABIN, 1999) It is helpful to think of every shape we create as a position on a continuous spectrum of degrees of abstraction. This spectrum ranges from photographic realism at one end and an arrangement of shapes and colours at the other. The Addington Common

I simplified the dominant tree by looking carefully at the branches and the way that they formed abstract shapes and these I simplified. Being able to identify trees can actually get in the way of depicting them simply, all you need to do is to use your eyes and discern the way the tree grows in order to draw it. I emphasised the lines that lead in to the main subject and reduced the background to a mere silhouette. To establish dominance I made sure that the main subject contains the greatest contrast between dark and light.

latter extreme seems at first sight to have no meaning at all, apparently a pleasantly arranged design and nothing else. Piet Mondrian painted a series of paintings which showed the stages in a process of abstraction from a conventional depiction of a tree to a fully abstracted composition. Every time I paint I use a certain amount of abstraction. Every time I paint I use a certain amount of abstraction. The human eye, being what it is, cannot rest without imposing some meaning 30

Frank Webb – Flat Musicians at Market Square

This is a good example of how a skilful artist directs attention to the main subject. The attitudes of the audience point to and make it perfectly plain where the centre of interest lies. This is further strengthened by the lightest part also centring on the musicians. Although predominantly cool in colour scheme the picture is relieved by the occasional warm shape. This is an object lesson in how to abstract the forms without compromising the statement of the whole.

upon everything it sees and will pick out something for itself whatever happens. This very fluidity of meaning is very attractive to some people as it appears to offer the chance to interpret the picture in a very subjective way. Any drawing and any painting requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer the more skilful the artist the more complete the co-operation between the artist and his audience. A good abstraction is a joy to behold. Largely speaking, abstractions make sense because of where the abstracted objects are placed. These still need to be proportionate to everything else. When you are looking at a scene or even a photograph you immediately become aware of the seductiveness of detail. Every luscious object in all its detail sings sweetly to you just as the sirens did to Ulysses, “am I not wonderful?, paint me, paint me.� 31

Don’t be conditioned by the many detailed photographs you have seen and imagine that a painting consists merely of a collection of accumulated detail. Frank Webb says:

West Mersea

Boatyard at Pin Mill

Any painting is a bad painting when a part becomes more interesting than the whole. Over attention to detail spawns confusion and chaos – the opposition of design. (WEBB, 1990) It is my particular duty as an artist to allocate priorities to the forms in front of me. I am the one in charge, I am entrusted with the privilege to extract, to establish order, to play down some things and to emphasize others and to change according to my own vision. There are always those who are content to paint subjects ‘the way it was’. I believe that an artist must take charge, where there is full control there is also full responsibility, each of us must bear this for our work. Artists are not cameras. We must be obliged at some stage or other to abstract what we see and convert it into shapes and forms that are paintable.

Beer, Devon

Tony Couch calls these shapes, symbols:

To symbolise means we don’t report each object in all its detail, as would a camera; rather we invent symbols for them. The painting has a language different from the real landscape or seascape, so a translation job must be done. (COUCH, 1987) 32

Abstraction and simplification is a personal and subjective response to the subject. This is one of the ways in which an artists develops a distinct style.

Photography Many artists have very guilty feelings about using a camera to help them. They shouldn’t. Many do not realise the enthusiasm with which artists, since the time of the renaissance have embraced and used every technical aid as soon as they became aware of it: the camera oscura, the convex lens and finally the camera. Canaletto, Guardi, Caravaggio, Watteau, Vermeer, Pissarro all used technical assistance at some time or other in their work. A good photograph is in focus over its whole surface, when we use our eyes however, only the centre of our vision is in sharp focus, the rest fades as it gets towards the edge of our vision. A photo therefore represents a summary of everything we see once we have let our eyes wander all around what we are looking at. “A camera does so much for you but it doesn’t take a point of interest. Instead it focuses on the whole thing, it takes a picture of the entire subject.” (Tom Coates as quoted by Oliver Lange, The Artist, May 2001) In general use a camera gives you a reduced angle of vision putting you further away from the scene, affecting scale. Grandiose scenery is reduced in impact and this can make the view unrecognisable when the film is developed. In spite of these limitations the camera is an invaluable aid, its builtin viewfinder helps us to find promising potential compositions Seafront at Aldeburgh


and is a quick and ready source of reference. It captures otherwise fleeting shadows, it makes the life of a sitter far less arduous and it enables detail to be recorded in its entirety for later use in the studio.

Willie Lott’s Cottage, Flatford Mill

On the question of copying directly from a photograph. Many painters do this, some actually project an image from a photograph using some kind of epidiascope and draw round the image. Detailed work of this kind, although popular, conveys very little of the artist’s vision to the viewer.

It is always best if the photograph you work from is your own, you are then able to bring the experience of taking the photograph and the ‘feeling of place’ to your work and additionally there is no difficulty with copyright issues. Working directly from a photograph without making a preliminary sketch is probably the worst thing you can do, there is so much detail you are tempted to go into detail right away whereas the first thing you should do is to simplify what you see. One of the greatest values an artist can offer is the interpretation from what he sees. There needs to be a buffer between the photograph and the painting and that is best realised by interposing a sketch, preferably a tonal one. This way the tonal balance can be worked out at an early stage and that is itself an abstracting process. Your painting becomes a much less hit and miss affair when you have already made important decisions about the structure and the composition you will use. 34

Artists have to arrive at their own practical ways of simplification which are still acceptable to the onlooker, any object must of necessity be subjected to a degree of abstraction at the hand of the artist.

Connere, France

From the sketch to the painting When painting directly from the subject the compositional sketch is often overlooked but I have found from experience that even the briefest and scrappiest sketch is useful for sorting out priorities and deciding upon the best plan of action. It is not necessary to redraw a complete version of the sketch on the support. The sketches and photographs are to refer to as the work progresses. Panther Hollow Stairs, - Frank Webb The ability to draw well does not automatically ensure good painting. Many good draughtsmen will spend no time on preparatory sketches preferring to spend a great deal of time drawing, in great detail, every contour of every object. Some even take this further by shading to show shape. It is only when they start painting that they might realise that it was badly planned or that the colours were rendered dark and messy by mixing with the graphite. Many become discouraged by this that they steer clear of colour altogether for a while. 35

French town with canal and flowers

Some practical advice: Use good quality watercolour paper but you don’t need to buy hand-made. Buy the best brushes and paint you can afford. Use the biggest brush you can for the job, you wouldn’t paint a wall of a room with a one inch brush. As to paint, always mix at least three times the amount that you think you will need and at least twice as dark as you think it should be while it is wet. Nothing is more disappointing than to realise that the perfect wash you have manfully desisted from messing about with and is really fresh and good is nonetheless far too light in tone. Whether completing work on location or from source material in the studio it is best to paint in your initial areas according to the main divisions of your compositional plan even to the extent of ignoring what is directly in front of you. The painting should progress from the largest shapes to the smaller ones. Do not work in just one area at a time but bring all of the painting forward together. Normally in watercolour practice the lightest shapes are dealt with first, a midtone wash covers the paper and leaves the lightest shapes as negatives, being the 36

white of the paper. The darker mid-tones are dealt with next, finishing off with the darkest shapes. Check at this stage that you have achieved an acceptable balance with the tones. I find it is best to refer to the compositional sketch for as long as possible, only using the photograph, providing you have taken one, for fine detail. If you do this it may surprise you how far you have come in interpreting the original stimulus. This is when you must be selective and sparing, choosing only the most telling detail to draw attention only to the centre of interest. You do not need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. A subtle hint can suffice, the viewer will supply the rest, and gain a greater amount of enjoyment from doing so. I have heard many artists say that you have to stop just when you feel that just another small detail could be added but it is far more complex than that. There is a particular awkward trait in us all which believes that all we have to do to achieve perfection in the painting we are working on is to keep at it for long enough and we will get get there eventually, perhaps to perfection itself? In watercolour where Bowness Boatyard


things can rapidly go wrong, the more one works on it, the worse it gets. This is not confined to watercolour I have seen very many acrylics and oil paintings that have been worked to death resulting in passages of purple/brown sludge.

Tollesbury quayside

For myself I find that giving a demonstration is a particularly good occasion for placing just the right amount of pressure to the progress of the painting . Under this constraint there is no time for dwelling on any stage too long and every reason to finish when a statement has been achieved. Not going on too long is built into and part of the whole process.


5. The Process

Maldon Yacht Club

Be adventurous, risk failure, spend as much time painting as you can. Open yourself to other people's work, see as much as you can, read as much as you can, experiment as much as you can and don’t look ahead all the time to a preconceived end point, instead regard your artistic work as a process.

It is far better to create many paintings– being focused and working quickly and simply– than to try to paint a masterpiece. Production is important. Some of your paintings will fail. Some will succeed. We learn from our failures. Look forward to them. They are part of the process, if my watercolour is a more successful than yours. It is because I have failed more often than you have. Remember, it is “the process” that is important. A painting is a by-product of “the process.” The joy and excitement is in the act of painting itself. (STABIN, 1999) Feel confident that you will gain from the process. The ability to use composition transcends technical facility in painting and drawing although gaining competence in these is very important. 39

Fordham Place Cottage

As Mel Stabin also points out:

Technique will emerge as a result of production, but does not make a painting. ... when you become proficient in the application of technique, don’t feel that you have “arrived.” Unfortunately, many artists do. (STABIN, 1999) Don’t judge yourself harshly, painting, like learning to play a musical instrument, can be learned and you can only learn if you can truly suspend self-criticism or at least temper it so it is commensurate with the standard you have reached. Enjoy yourself, I will finish with a very apt quote from William Hogarth:

The active mind is ever bent to be employed. Pursuing is the business of our lives; and even abstracted from every other view, gives pleasure. Every arising difficulty, that for a while attends and interrupts the pursuit, gives a sort of spring to the mind, enhances the pleasure and makes what else be toil and labour, become sport and recreation. (HOGARTH, 1753)


Small garden view


Bibliography COUCH, Tony - Watercolor, You Can Do It - 1987 - North Light Books ISBN 0 89134 188 9 – pp. 34 GORDON, Jan - A Stepladder to Painting - 1934 - Faber & Faber Ltd. London pp. 56-57, 146-169 HOGARTH, William - The Analysis of Beauty - 1753 - §V, 24 READ, Herbert - The Meaning of Art - 1931, (Pelican Books) Penguin Books in association with Faber and Faber – p. 130 RICHMOND, Leonard - Essentials of Pictorial Design - 1933 - Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd. London pp. 86-111 RUSKIN, John - The Elements of Drawing - 1857 - Dover Publications Inc. New York 180 Varick Street, New York NY 10014 -ISBN 0 486 22730 8 – pp. 18, 188 STABIN, Mel - Watercolor, Simple, Fast and Focused - 1999 - Watson-Guptill Publications ISBN 0 82230 5706 0 – pp. 9, 12, 14, 44 WEBB, Frank - Watercolor Energies - 1983 - North Light Books ISBN 0 8914 751 422 WEBB, Frank - The Artists Guide to Composition, 1988 - Published as Strengthen Your Paintings with Dynamic Composition, North Light Books, - 1994 David & Charles, Brunel House, Newton Abbot Devon ISBN 0 7153 0337 – 6 pp. 1, 8 WEBB, Frank - Webb on Watercolor - 1990 - North Light Books F & W Publications, Inc., 1507 Dana Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45207, ISBN 0 89134 346 6 – pp. 93, 139


The Millrind Press ISBN 1 902194 07 1

Into Composition  

An Introduction to Graphic Composition for artists

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