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Monday Morning Art School: composition is about light, not objects

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11×14, $1087 includes shipping in continental US.

“From now on, I’m gonna stop thinking about composition being about things,” my correspondent wrote, “and start thinking about it as shadows.”

I feel like a deficient teacher, because composition is always about light and dark. Hue, chroma, line and objects may feed into that, but it’s value that makes a composition weak or strong.

Beauchamp Point, Autumn Leaves, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449 includes shipping in continental United States.

I ask my critique students to analyze their compositions based on Edgar Payne‘s exhaustive list of possible compositions in Composition of Outdoor Painting. (This used book is now so expensive that I can no longer recommend buying it. Check it out of the library.) The idea isn’t to slavishly follow one of his designs; it’s to understand whether you have an underlying design in the first place, and how you might strengthen it.

But these compositional armatures are always about value, even when that value takes the form of an object. There are many times when objects and shadows coincide; for example, a large piñon and some small creosote bushes can combine in a dark triangular mass, because they’re both dark objects usually set against light-colored grasses. On the other hand, sidewalk chalk isn’t going to create any kind of structure against a concrete sidewalk unless the artist thinks about the shadows rather than the chalk.

Quebec Brook, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

By now, most of you have gotten the message that a painting needs to compel on a tiny screen (or from thirty feet) as well from three feet or three inches.

You do this with value. It’s not enough, for example, that an object is at a diagonal; you must make a persuasive shift between light and dark along that diagonal. This is the primary lesson a painter can take from Winslow Homer’s incredible seascapes.

This is also why plein air painters dislike murky grey skies; they make it harder to find compelling shadow patterns.

Composition rests on the following principles:

  • The human eye responds first to shifts in value, and following that, in shifts in chroma and hue;
  • We follow hard edges and lines;
  • We filter out passages of soft edges and low contrast, and indeed we need them as interludes of rest;
  • We like divisions of space that aren’t easily solved or regular.
Best Buds, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, $1097 framed includes shipping in continental US.

But I just want to paint what I feel!

Music, sculpture, poetry, painting, and every other fine art form relies on internal, formal structure to be intelligible. This is easiest to see in music, where the beginner starts by learning chords and patterns. These patterns are (in western music, anyway) universal, and they’re learned long before the student starts writing complex musical compositions. In other words, you start at the very beginning.

Music is an abstract art because it’s all about tonal relationships, with very little realism needed to make us understand the theme. A composer doesn’t need little bird sounds to tell us he’s writing about spring. Likewise, the painter doesn’t need to festoon little birdies on his canvas to tell us he’s painting about spring. That should already be apparent in the light, structure and tone of his work.

The strength of the painting is laid down before the artist first applies paint, in the form of a structural idea-a sketch or series of sketches that work out a plan for the painting.

All good painting rests on good abstract design. Take a good look at Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. Whatever meaning we’re supposed to take from it, it’s a strong triangular composition juxtaposed with a mid-century curving line.

Still, most realist painters don’t spend nearly enough time considering abstract design, even when they understand the critical importance of line and value. Christina’s World doesn’t rely much on hue for its impact. It’s a washed-out pink, a lot of dull greens and golds, and a significant amount of grey. And yet it was the most successful figurative painting of the 20th century. Wyeth was almost obsessive in his drawing habits; that translates into powerful finished paintings, driven by value.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: the number one problem with your painting

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

On Monday, I posted Let’s Paint Some Duds! After about the hundredth person told me they have no trouble whatsoever painting duds, I realized my hook was lousy. It tapped into fear of failure instead of challenging people to be more questing and adventuresome.

I’ve had many emerging artists tell me that half or more of their paintings are duds. That’s shocking; it’s way too high a failure rate, especially when it comes in the learning phase. For that matter, there are other painters who fail just as often but don’t even realize it. (And far be it from me to wreck their happy illusions.)

Duds are a particular problem in plein air painting, so much so that my pal Brad Marshall coined a term for the process of making them: flailing around.

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US

Why so many?

I also get frequent emails and texts that read, “I’m stuck! What’s going wrong here?” That’s why I periodically teach an online critique class; you’ll advance more quickly when you can answer that question for yourself.

But the answer almost always comes down to bad composition. Either the darks are not organized, or the focal points are not clear, or there’s not a clear and compelling armature. Figuring that out in advance, with a value drawing or notan, saves tons of time and effort.

Composition organizes the design elements of a painting. It provides structure and balance, guides the viewer’s eye, and determines where a painting falls on the all-important scale of harmony-to-tension. Composition controls the visual appeal of a painting, but it also controls its emotional power.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

A weak composition is still a composition.

The same student who kvetches about flailing and failing often resists the idea of studying formal composition. “I want to be spontaneous and natural,” he will say. Well, composition, like puberty, is going to happen whether you take a hand in guiding it or not.

Weak compositions impede the very message that the supposedly-spontaneous artist wants to convey. Conversely, strong compositions guide viewers through the content. By strategically placing focal points, controlling movement, and using visual cues, you influence not just what your viewers see, but what they think and feel. And isn’t that the point of communication?

Then there’s the question of balance and emphasis. Just as the cannonades in Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture are carefully placed to emphasize the point of Russia’s victory over the French, your focal points must fall in sweet spots. They must be reinforced with contrast and line. When it works flawlessly, we see a painting that is beautiful individual, and stylish-without overburdening our minds too much about how it happened.

Ketch and Schooner, 8X10 in a solid silver leaf frame, includes shipping in the continental US

How do I learn to be a better composer?

I’ve written extensively on this blog on the subject of composition, which of course you can access for free. Above all, there’s my cardinal rule of painting: don’t be boring. I can’t restate that often enough.

If you really want to give up flailing and failing, I invite you to also take my online course, The Correct Composition, which I just released on Friday. Give yourself a lot of time to do the exercises and take the quizzes; you’ll get far more out of it than you will by just skimming the videos.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: Subject vs. focal point

The People’s Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The number one question you must ask about your painting is: is it boring? If your painting is boring, nobody is going to engage with it.

One way to do keep things interesting is to manipulate where you put the subject of your painting. You don’t need to plop the subject in the center of your canvas and the subject does not necessarily have to be the focal point.

Consider Pieter Brueghel the Elder‘s masterpiece, The Census of Bethlehem, above. It’s unlikely that Brueghel consulted a text about composition, because those things didn’t exist back in the 16th century. He came up with this visual trick on his own and used it over and over.

The Procession to Calvary, 1564, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum. This is a veritable “Where’s Waldo” of a painting.

The subject is not in the middle of the canvas. Nor is it the focal point. In fact, the subject will only be clear to you if you know the Bible story about Mary and Joseph traveling to be counted in Bethlehem. Because of the overall energy of the canvas, you’re engaged enough to hunt for them, and to realize that Mary and Joseph are at the very bottom of the canvas, heading towards the census-taker at the bottom left.

That’s different from the focal points, which are within the swirl of activity that made up the daily life of a medieval village.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558, either Pieter Brueghel the Elder or a close copy thereafter, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts

Brueghel often made the subjects of his painting seem like almost an afterthought to the big scene. Another great example of this is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, about which William Carlos Williams wrote:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning.

In that short poem, Williams says everything about Brueghel’s compositional technique.

The Peasant Wedding, 1566-69, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum. Brueghel also painted many genre paintings, meant to illustrate a known story or moral argument.

So, what’s the difference?

The focal point is a visual engagement, whereas the subject is what the painting is about. The subject of a painting can be a story or fable, as were Brueghel’s paintings. It can be an object or person. Or, in the case of abstraction, it can be nothing at all.

Focal points are something quite different. They are the points that your eye rests on at it moves through a painting.

What draws the human eye to a specific passage in a painting?

  • Contrast in value, hue and chroma, with value being the biggest driver of the three. If you have a dark shape next to a light shape, the eye tends to look at that place.
  • Detail. Assuming the whole painting is not overloaded with detail, if there’s a lot of detail in a passage, that is where the eye will go first.
  • Line. Lines within the composition act like arrows, drawing your eye to the focal points.

Is there just one focal point in the painting?

I sure hope not, because your job as the composer is to get the human eye to dance its way through the composition, to engage the viewer for as long as you can keep them interested. The longer they spend looking at your picture, the more involved they become with it.

My 2024 workshops:

The value of value

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US.

Early this year, I set out to create a seven-step online training class to teaching the fundamentals of oil painting. This morning I’m releasing Step 2: the Value Drawing. Making these interactive classes is a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope the net result is helpful for you, too.

Value (lightness to darkness) is just one component of color, but it’s the most important. Establishing a hierarchy of values before you ever pick up a brush will save you hours of flailing around in the field. I know this from personal experience. Before I became disciplined about value, I wasted tons of time (and much paint) dithering, repainting, and generally making a mess of more paintings than I saved.

The value sketch is the oil painter’s secret weapon. It’s an opportunity to plan your painting before you ever pick up a brush. And it’s critical; if the value structure is compelling, your painting will be compelling. If not, your painting is doomed from the start. Nothing in painting is more important than value.

Birches, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Value is the basis of good composition

“But why waste time on a sketch when I can just paint?” you ask. For the same reason that contractors need blueprints before they start building: great ideas require planning.

Investigating value in advance is the key to compositional fluency. In value sketches, we quickly experiment with different arrangements of lights and darks. This helps us make intelligent choices about focal points, line, and the weight of individual elements in the painting.

By breaking complex scenes down into restricted value planes, we create blueprints for our paintings. This not only helps us simplify ideas, it guides us through later decisions about color, texture, and detail.

Value sketching starts with just a few simple, inexpensive tools: a sketchbook and a mechanical pencil. Working in a sketchbook is a lot faster and easier than working out questions of light and dark in paint. In return for a small investment of time at the beginning of your painting, you’ll reap tremendous dividends as you go forward.

Dropping Tide, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $1087 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Amplifying contrast

Value drawing helps us simplify and amplify (when necessary) the contrast between darks and lights in our composition. Contrast is the visual tool that creates interest and drama in a painting. Too many paintings fail because they’re stuck in the boring midtones.

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Understanding Form

Value drawing helps us understand how light interacts with different forms and objects in a composition. It’s what gives objects volume. You may never paint the nuances of three-dimensional modeling, but you should understand them.

Value is particularly important in realism. It’s how we create convincing illusions of light and shadow, depth and dimensionality.

Who is this course designed for?

It’s comprehensive, so it’s tailored to both a beginner’s understanding and an experienced artist’s continued development. You can go back to it repeatedly and take it at your own speed, so you’ll benefit from it no matter what your starting point.

Step 1: the Perfect Palette

Step 2: the Value Drawing

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School—Greeking

Ice Cream Stand, 8×10, Carol L. Douglas, $652 framed includes shipping.

Artists use the term ‘greeking’ to describe writing that isn’t writing, text that isn’t text, in a painting. The term comes from typography. There’s a famous passage that starts, Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet… It gets subbed in anywhere where the words aren’t already available to the designer.

This text comes from an essay by Cicero, and has been used by typesetters for this purpose almost since the start of moveable type. I don’t know which surprises me more-that typesetters in the 15th century knew Latin, or that so many of us today can recite a fragment of Cicero without having a clue about its meaning.

Medieval scribes were schooled in Latin, but not Greek. When they encountered Greek in a passage, they would note, graecum est; non potest legi (It’s Greek, so it can’t be read). Today we say, “it’s all Greek to me,” meaning it’s in a foreign language. Thus, a Latin placeholder ends up being called greeking. Makes perfect sense.

Poosie Nansie’s Inn, from Picturesque Ayrshire, 1900, by William Harvey. This was a popular subject for photographs due to its association with Robert Burns.

When is greeking appropriate?

Actual words are powerfully potent in visual imagery, as advertising attests. For a more high-brow example, think of Robert Indiana‘s famous LOVE icon and how it immediately changes the landscape when in sculptural form.

There are times when words can stand alone. For example, you might paint nocturne of a bar and put the single word ‘bar’ over the transom, to convey something about the destination to your viewers. That would read differently than if you carefully scribed Poosie Nansies, etc. on the wall of a painting of that Scottish inn. In the photo above, we’re instantly drawn to the text at the expense of the people, road, and fabulous chimney pots. The photographer couldn’t help it, but we painters have the option to deemphasize the writing in favor of the longer view.

We greek words to avoid overemphasizing their meaning at the expense of your overall design.

The Washing Buckets, 20X16, Ken DeWaard, courtesy of the artist.

How do I do it?

In oils, greeking is very simple. You simply scribe in some approximation of text and then push the background colors against it. You can do that neatly, as in Ken DeWaard‘s example above, or mushily, as in mine, at top.

Tums Bottle, watercolor, approximately 4X5, Carol L. Douglas.

In watercolor it is a little more difficult, since you can’t push the paint around in quite the same way. If the text you’re greeking is darker than the background, just scribble it in. If you have to reverse it, I find it’s easiest to write it in with your light color, let it dry, and then push the background in around it.

Try it; it’s fun!

My 30 Watercolors in 45 Days Challenge is an excellent opportunity to try greeking. Anything packaged in your home is bound to have words on it. Or, paint a sign in a landscape and experiment with how muddled or clear you want it to be. How does the painting read differently with different levels of clarity in the text?

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: don’t be boring

Linda Smiley used the big shapes of shadows to draw us across a very familiar lake scene.

Don’t be boring, I wrote last week. This is the first and greatest rule of composition. “What do you mean by that?” a reader asked in response. This, like obscenity, is one of those things that’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it.

The subject is never the issue. We’ve all seen a thousand boring paintings of barns, but when Edward Hopper painted them, they were brilliant studies of light and shape. Very familiar subjects can be seen in new and arresting ways. I took the liberty of illustrating this post with paintings by my students; they all took common scenes in the northeast and finished them beautifully.

Most people would paint the fence from the side, but Rebecca Bense drove us right into the picture plane with that shadow.

The easy out

We tend to draw what’s right in front of us without thinking too much of how changing the viewpoint might make for a better painting. Commit to an idea, and squeeze out every ounce of design you can by drawing it repeatedly in different arrangements. That’s as important in landscape as it is in still life. The time you spend trying out new compositions is the most important part of the painting process.

That is not just a question of large shapes, but of values. Even a typical arrangement of trees, point, and water can be made arresting through dark shapes running through them. Contrast draws the eye.

Beth Carr used the chop of snow shadows to create great texture.

What everyone says is not necessarily true

You’ve heard of the rule of thirds, or that you should never center the subject directly on your canvas. What makes you believe these things? Someone told them to you.

Ideas of division of space are culturally-derived and quite complex. Tutankhamun’s golden mask is beautiful and perfectly symmetrical.

You will have an easier time creating a composition if you abide by these shibboleths, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make a better painting. A deep dive into space division is never wasted time. I think about the abstract paintings of Clyfford Still when I start to feel my compositions falling into dullness.

Cassie Sano crossed the tire tracks and the tree shadows to create a weave of interest.

There are some verities

Defining your composition with long unbroken horizontal and vertical lines will make it start out rigid. Look to Frances Cadell for ways to break out of that. Likewise, you don’t want to lead the eye out the corners of your canvas, or put a focal point to close to an edge. ‘Respect the picture plane’ is a good general rule.

The human brain loves the insolvable. That’s why the Golden Ratio and Dynamic Symmetry work better than the rule of thirds in design. That doesn’t mean you need to spend a lifetime studying design arcana; just understand it and better placement will come naturally to you.

Stephen Florimbi didn’t beat the details to death in this lovely creek painting, instead, concentrating on the patterns of light and dark.

Things to avoid

No painting without a series of focal points can succeed. This is where the marsh painting usually fails. The eye needs to be able to walk through, into, and beyond the work. I’m not talking about anything as hackneyed as the winding path or river, but a series of points that draw your eye around the picture in a planned way. These details reward careful study and keep the viewer engaged for long periods of time.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: composition starts at the beginning

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

It’s been said that a painting needs to be compelling at three inches, three feet and thirty feet. That’s simple enough, but how does the artist make that happen?

Looking at a painting from a distance (or on the tiny screen of your phone), you’re not compelled by brushwork or even-mainly-by subject matter. You’re drawn by the internal structure and abstract masses of value and hue on the canvas.

Music, sculpture, poetry, painting, and every other fine art form relies on formal structure to be intelligible. This is easiest to see in music, where even the rank beginner starts by learning chords and patterns. These patterns are (in western music, anyway) pretty universal, and they’re learned long before the student transforms into another Bach or Ray Davies. In other words, you start at the very beginning.

This structure has nothing to do with the subject matter and everything to do with inherent beauty. It starts before the artist first applies paint, in the form of a structural idea-a sketch, or a series of sketches in monochrome, that work out a plan for the painting.

Larky Morning at Rockport Harbor, 11X14, on birch board, $869 unframed.

It starts at the beginning

What composition isn’t is the sudden realization, when you’re halfway finished, that you have a lot of boring canvas with nothing going on. Slapping a sailboat in there isn’t going to fix an essentially deficient construction.

Music is an abstract art because it’s all about tonal relationships, with very little realism needed to make us understand the theme. (Think of the cannonade in the 1812 Overture, which comes at the very end, but we’ve all gotten the point long before that.) A composer doesn’t need little bird sounds to tell us he’s writing about spring, although they can be cute. Done right, the painter doesn’t need to festoon little birdies on his canvas to tell us he’s painting about spring, either. That should already be apparent in the light, structure and tone of his work.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed.

Abstraction is harder for the representational artist to grasp, even when we understand the critical importance of line and abstract shapes. We still must stuff a huge three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional picture plane. That’s a big job and it must be handled with deliberation.

Just as with everything else, some of us are naturally better composers than others, but that only takes us so far. We all fail when we don’t put composition at the beginning of our painting process.

Mountain Fog, 12X9, oil on archival canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Building better paintings

All of us have closets full of bad paintings we can’t resolve. (“How long did that take you?” “Just the ten bad ones I did before I did this one good one.”) In almost every case, the problem is far deeper than modeling or paint application-it comes from ignoring the fundamentals of composition.

How can you avoid this and reduce the number of bad starts in your painting collection?

Respect the picture plane: the four ‘walls’ of your canvas are the most important lines of your painting. All composition must ultimately relate to them.

Armature: the fundamental lines of movement that connect the main elements of the painting must be dynamic and clearly articulated;

Abstract shapes: these are the building blocks of painting; they must relate as values and colors before they ever become real objects.

Don’t be boring: If you’ve seen that combination of tree, hill and sky a thousand times, do something to make it your own.

Then, and only then, can you move on to specific subjects and painterly detail.

“Remember, that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order,” wrote one of the fathers of modern painting, Maurice Denis. As the direct heirs of Modernism ourselves, we would do well to listen.

My 2024 workshops:

This post originally appeared in March, 2021, and has been lightly edited.

Monday Morning Art School: paint like a pro

Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy of the Atheneum Art List.
Canyon de Chelly, before 1947, Edgar Payne, courtesy the Atheneum Art List.

“It’s the lack of good composition and values that make a painting look like student work,” Bobbi Heath wrote in response to last week’s post on simplifying shapes. That’s where most early artists fail, and why good teachers stress value studies.

“Brushwork, color choices, and level of detail are all questions of style,” she added. “Each of these has a spectrum. A proficient artist can work anywhere in those spectra but they can’t ignore composition.”

Wolf Kahn and Raphael are poles apart in terms of style. One might be more to your taste, but objectively, neither is better than the other-or more representational, for that matter. As stylized as Kahn’s trees are, Raphael’s Vatican Stanze are just as distanced from ‘reality’.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican
Deliverance of Saint Peter, 1514, Raphael, courtesy of the Vatican

What unites them, and unites all good works of art, is composition. That’s true in painting, sculpture, writing, architecture and music-in fact, throughout the creative sphere. There must be structure there, or “the centre cannot hold,” to trivialize a great W.B. Yeats poem.

In painting and drawing our ideas about composition have remained remarkably static over time. Analyze the space in one of Wayne Thiebaud’s desserts and a Renaissance portrait like Bronzino’s self-possessed young man, and you’ll find they’re using the picture plane in much the same way. There are only so many ways to divide a rectangle.

Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery
Ice-Bound Locks by John Fabian Carlson, oil on canvas board, 12 x 16 inches, courtesy Vose Gallery

What to think about

Composition rests on the following principles:

  • The human eye responds first to shifts in value, but contrast in chroma and hue also attract our gaze;
  • We follow hard edges and lines;
  • We filter out passages of soft edges and low contrast, and indeed we need them as interludes of rest;
  • We like divisions of space that aren’t easily solved or regular.

I ask my critique students to analyze their compositions based on Edgar Payne‘s exhaustive list of possible compositions in Composition of Outdoor Painting. (This used book is now so expensive that I can no longer recommend buying it. Check it out of the library.) The idea isn’t to slavishly follow one of his designs; it’s to understand whether you have an underlying design in the first place, and how you might strengthen it.

I also ask my students to tell me where the focal points are in their composition, and how they want the viewer to walk through them. If focal points aren’t intelligently designed, and you’re not drawn through them with contrast, line and detail, then it’s back to the (literal) drawing board.

John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is available in reprint. He’s the guy who gave us the idea of numbering our value levels, which I explained in this post from last year.

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson wrote. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

These masses must be linked, whether obviously, subtly, or by implication. Think of a windbreak of separate trees on a hill. They might be disconnected dark shapes, but they’re held together by their rhythm.

The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina
The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish, drawing for a print, 1556, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Albertina

What to avoid

You’ll note that I’ve said nothing about what’s in front of you, either in your photo or in the real world. Your reference might give you an idea for composition, such as a winding river, a break in the forest, or the strong diagonal of a hillside. But that is your starting point, not your destination.

“Above all, don’t be boring,” I tell my students. This is a lesson from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who often hid the text of his narrative in odd corners, far from the visual focal points. That makes every painting a puzzle to be worked out.

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Monday Morning Art School: five compositional no-nos

There’s more to composition than just avoiding these no-nos, but respecting the bounding box is a good place to start. Treat the edges as if they’re an important part of your composition.

Don’t cut off the corners

This can sometimes be difficult when running an S-curve to the corner of the page, but will make a painting feel boxed in. If you absolutely can’t avoid it, bring the contrast in that corner way down.

Don’t let a line exit through a corner

That’s a variation on the same problem—the energy in the line slams against the corner and is trapped. The viewer’s eye follows with the same effect. Again, if you absolutely can’t avoid it, bring the contrast way down.

Don’t run an unbroken parallel line with the sides of your painting

Nobody told Renaissance painters this, but even Caravaggio gave it up as he matured. An edge at the bottom, an unbroken horizon line, etc., just creates a box-within-a-box. Unless you have a op-art reason for doing it, it results in dead space within your canvas. And it’s a wasted opportunity to use angles beautifully, as Francis Cadell did with his still lives.

Don’t put a focal point on the edge of your painting

Focal points are an invitation for the viewer’s eye to linger, to be drawn in. A focal point at an edge is an invitation for them to just leave.

Avoid shapes just skimming the edge of your canvas

Either bring it in comfortably inside the picture frame, or let the object extend past it. And don’t scrunch trees trying to avoid hitting the edge; that robs them of their majesty. It’s better to start over.

Memory and judgment

Midsummer along the Bay of Fundy, 24×36, $3188 unframed, available.

“Sometimes I just have such a wonderful, fulfilling time painting a certain place, I conclude it must be my best painting ever, because I had such a good time,” a reader wrote. “Then when nobody seems interested in it, I realize I was just getting all those good vibes from the painting but other people didn’t, because it actually wasn’t such a good painting. I have been trying to still keep my focus on making a painting a ‘good’ painting, and not just a record of my fun. Just because I had a good time doesn’t mean I produced a good painting; that still requires work.”

I have a related problem: the more a painting or situation challenges me, the better I believe the painting to be. Thus, a painting that I had to hike for, or one where the subject refused to compose itself are the ones that continue to fascinate me.

Viewers seldom agree, because I haven’t necessarily defeated the challenge; often it has defeated me.

My own experience painting with Sandra Hildreth and Nancy Brossard at Madawaska Pond bears out the idea that memory colors our critical judgment: my painting skips right over its putative focal point so the composition is awkward. The treeline is disjointed. However, it’s a recording of a lovely day, far from the madding crowd. There’s a wee little figure (Nancy) in it, so I like it. I won’t pitch it or sand it out just yet.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11×14, $1087, available.

Meanwhile, Sandy’s painting of the same subject (which you can see here), was right on the money: it accurately depicted the open sky, the enormity of the watershed, and the mood of the place. The public agreed; she sold it before the evening was out.

By and large, painting is not performance art. We hope to bring a whiff of mountain air into our work, or the raking light of evening, but these are illusions and memory.

Yet I still can’t bring myself to believe that the ancillary experiences that went into a painting’s making do not somehow inform the final result. Nor do I think that we or the immediate public are always the best judges of whether a painting is good or not. Had Vincent van Gogh relied on contemporary public opinion to judge his work, he’d have been dead wrong.

Quebec Brook, 12×16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 available.

I did another painting with Sandra Hildreth years ago. This one was of Quebec Brook, on the same watershed as Madawaska Pond but many miles away by road or canoe. It was a sunny summer day and I again had a lovely time. I was relaxed enough that I didn’t worry that my focal point-the beaver dam-was at the very bottom. Being chill allowed me to take a compositional risk.

The painting at the top of this post, Midsummer, was done from the edge of a cliff in Port Greville, Nova Scotia, over two days. The soil being soft, I managed to slide over the edge with my easel, landing in a patch of alders about ten feet from the rim. Had nature not put that ledge near the top of the ridge, I’d have splatted on the road below me. Yes, that experience has changed my view of the painting, but for good or ill, I cannot say.