How to Fix Basic Composition Problems

I can hear you now, saying to yourself,

“Oh yeah, it’s all very well my learning to paint with watercolours ….but my first attempts turned out a flop! It looked like a jumble of colours. Why was that?”

That is a composition problem. Nothing to do with your articulate skills! The following advice will show you how to  create more effective paintings.

How three tonal areas creates impact.

A5 watercolour: “Muddy road ahead” was painted basically in three basic tonal areas: Sky- light toned; middle ground- dark toned; and foreground- medium toned. Also notice: to make pathways and roads show up, use contrast of tone.

First: Drawing attention to what’s important and giving your painting dimension.

Most beginners paint everything on one tone level, some intensity of colour and tone value, making their paintings look bland. There needs to be contrast of tone and colour somewhere in your painting, to make things to stand out and be recognizable.

 “How do we do that?”

  • It is important to give prominence to your main topic of interest, by giving it strong contrast of tone, colour and sharp edges, thus giving it a bold `bull’s eye target’ treatment.
  • But if everything has strong contrast of tone, colour and sharp-edges, your painting will look over busy and confusing too.
  • There needs to be variation of tone, colours and types of contour edges to make your painting interesting.
  • Why, because perspective and diminution is regulated by difference in tone intensity. That is, things in the distance have light tones and are blurred without fine detail, even misty. Whereas things nearer to you are in focus, depending of cause on their importance.
  • Things around the outer edges of your painting are generally out of focus, so as to draw more attention to the main point of interest. This is called tunnel vision.
  • Round curved things generally have blurred graduated contour edges, eg: balls and rolling hills.
  • Whereas detailed and sharp things generally have sharp-edges, along contours and outer-edges, eg: knives and sharp rocks.
  • Selecting detail and keeping detail to a minimum, keeps the eye on what’s important, thus reduces confusion.
Where and how to place your focal point.

You don’t have to use only the position depicted here. You can use any of the four overlapping lines junctions as your focal point.

Another shot at tone format: Three basic tonal areas.

If you divide your painting horizontally (or vertically) into three main tonal areas or planes, it makes the painting easier to `read. It also creates bold impact. For example:

How to compose with 3 tonal areas.

Three possible tonal areas.

  • These basic tonal areas don’t have to be in same order as this. Example if there is a storm the sky may be dark.
  • And there must be a contrast of tone on one of the tonal planes to emphasis the main point of interest. For example: if it’s a seascape the rocks are generally dark with white foam for contrast.
  • The tonal areas aren’t necessary `striped’ vertically or horizontally either. They can be subtly interlaced, but each area is distinguished by its overall tonal level.
  • The three different tone vary in size and shape, depending on the subject matter.

Second: Symbolic forms and colours.

First we will start with tree examples:

  • “Why does my tree look like a fan?” Trees have branches and leaves all around, not just on the sides.
  • “Why does my tree look like an ice-cream cone?” The brown tree trunk is too wide and solid-looking. There is no hint of branches. The out perimeter of the green foliage is confined to a neat ball shape. There are no loose leaves blowing in the wind. And there are no ‘pinhole’ openings in the foliage for birds to fly though with freedom.

 This proves things have symbolic shapes and colours.

  • Generally you don’t get bright red, blue or purple lollypop trees! Tree trunks are usually brown and the foliage different shades of green.
  • Grass is acceptable as grass when it is green in summer and earthy yellow or russet in winter.
  • Skies are generally depicted as been blue with white clouds. Skies been acceptable in the upper section of your painting and cloud shapes differ according to the weather.
  • Men and women’s body shapes differ, eg: as seen as toilet placards.

These are all things we learnt and observed since childhood. Anything different or foreign isn’t acceptable.

This is where artists can play with their imagination, creating moods and dimensions that evoke our attention. Even though you may add unusual colours to create mood, don’t push you luck too far that people reject what they see and become confused.

 Third basic problem: Been over-neat and precise.

There should be a variety of blurring to that of fine detail.

 Action:

You want to know how to put action in your paintings? Remember moving things are blurred, and live things breath:

  • Painting blurred feet is acceptable. It shows they are actually walking.
  • Car and bike wheels are blurred when the bike or car is moving.
  • Bird’s wings look blurred when they are flying.
  • Grass blowing in the wind is blurred.
  • Oblique angles depict action, and wavy lines and contours suggest motion in your composition.

 Style:  Sharp-edges verses soft-edges:

Active paintings are better than static painting!

  • Static things have sharp contour edges. So if all your objects in your painting have all sharp contour edges, your painting will look stiff and contrived.
  • Blurred and out of focus things create mood and mystery. It makes your painting forever fascinating. That is why people like to gossip, they like to use their imagination.
  • There is more emotional impact in a painting that has a greater amount of blurring and gradation (out of focus) to that of a painting which has an overdose of sharp-edges and strong contrasting tones (distinct focus).
  • Freedom of expression in your brushstrokes and freshness of your washes is more appealing, than small fussy brushstrokes.
How out of focus things have a romantic appeal.

A5 watercolour: “Deep in the forest there is a glade with a stream running through it” How out of focus paintings have a romantic appeal.

Concluding remarks:

After all that, it’s wise to prop you painting up a few feet away from you to see if it looks okay from a distance. When you working close up, you think all is well until you look at it from a distance.

Even turning your painting upside down is a good tip. It helps you to see how the composition holds together or not. It’s amazing how this trick shows up any flaws there may be in your painting. I sometimes double-check by looking at my painting sideways as well.

There are many more problems, but these are the most probable composition problems novices have to begin with. They are easily overcome with a little more observance and patience. And as people say, “Practice makes perfect!”

 Want to know more?

  • If this is the first blog you have read in the series, I suggest you go back in the archives and check out from the beginning of the “Watercolour Secrets” category.
  • And also download for free, the three watercolour books on the Free Art Books” page.
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