Art: What is a Perfect Composition?

First of all: What is A COMPOSITION?

Composition! This question may surprise some folks who are familiar with artistic terms, but still it provokes a great many other questions of importance, if you want your paintings to sell well and quickly!

So what is a composition?

  • To the general public they would perhaps associate the word composition with composers of music. An arrangement of score that makes up a beautiful melody.
  • Or perhaps the composing of poetry!
  • To artists it’s an arrangement or placement of elements or things in a picture. And how those elements should interact comfortably and flow effortlessly through the composition (just like a melody of music).
  • The fact is, artists are composers too.
Its all about composition.

A5 watercolour: A field of wild lavender.

That leads to the second question: What is A PERFECT COMPOSITION?

Haw, now that is debatable!

Why? Because artists have different opinions on what they favour. That is: it depends on their style of work and how their imagination pans out.

But here are the basics:

  • The selection of the boldest shapes take command of the scene.
  • Smaller shapes are supportive.
  • And fine details are reduced and selected according to their directive and decorative need. And of cause the selection of detail is at your discretion depending on your subject matter and style.
  • Variation of shapes and their size is important. Everything is the same shape and size within the composition, it gives the painting a regimental stiff appearance.

As to format:

The best compositions are those which are simple and uncomplicated, because they make the most impact and are easier to ‘read’. That requires simplifying planes down to three major planes: background, middle-ground and foreground.

  • These planes can lie or interact horizontally or transverse vertically.
  • The important thing is to have one plane more prominent than the other two, and one  with strong contrast. That can be  within the same plane or not.
  • Generally speaking: Each plane seeming to have its own basic or general overall tone level. That is: one light tone, one medium tone and one dark tone plane. The order doesn’t matter, as long as the main point of interest is attractive by contrast.

As to action and creating life in your paintings:

Besides shapes, lines and brushstrokes are read unconsciously like shorthand.

  • Oblique lines or slopes suggest action.
  • Crossed oblique lines suggest opposition and inter-action.
  • Varied and diminutive zigzag lines describe action, growth and lineal perspective.
  • Wavy Hogarthian lines create flow and movement.
  • Varied arabesque lines, whether curved Lyric or scrolled lines, they create flow of reasoning.

As to visual perception:

  • The main point of interest is generally in focus or in contrast.
  • And the outer edges of the painting out-of-focus.
  • Thus creating a tunnel effect, that draws people into your picture.
  • Of cause atmospheric conditions play a huge part in perspective.

So what about colour?

Is it important when discussing composition? Yes. And Why?

  • If the colours are mainly dull with close analogous hues, the painting will look flat and is boring.
  • There must be impact of colour to attract peoples’ attention in the gallery.

So how should that be done?

  • The first thing most people would say is: contrast of tone and colour.
  • But also contrast of warm and cool colours.

If you have other questions you would like to ask, first consider reading the introduction page:

Click on: Questions & Answer page.

All About Lost & Found Edges

Did you know?

That not many new students know the contrast of tone controls the perspective and dimension of objects in their paintings, or how the quality of edges can turn a mediocre painting into a masterpiece just by:

  1. Creating a 3D effect: In order to see form within paintings, from that of its surroundings, one has to be able to judge the difference and contrast of dark and light tones.
  2. Using lost and found edges: Controlling the quality of contour edges adds drama to your paintings and helps to settle objects comfortably within their surroundings.

 It’s a fact that without these two factors, a painting will mean nothing if people can’t distinguish what is actually in your paintings. All is not lost if you read on….

All you need to do is use strong contrast.

The strong darkness of the dry trees gives the watercolour depth.

What are ‘Lost and found’ edges?

Lost and found edges describe the quality or state of perimeters, ie outer contour edges of shapes, brushstrokes and planes.

Found-edges are sharp-edges or hard-edges. They happen when the paper is dry.

  • Neat detail has sharp-edges and outlines. Detailed things are seen as static.
  • Neat well-defined contour edges and brushstrokes are easily read.
  • If sharp-edges are overdone, your painting looks lifeless, contrived and stiff.
  • Sharp-edges convey an object has sharp edges, eg: knife blade, jagged rocks, etc.
  • Sharp-edged planes: Example mountain ranges. If the contour edge is sharp all along the mountain range, it isn’t natural. Perspectively, things in the distance are out of focus. You only find sharp edges where there is a distinct severe cliff face. Rolling hills have soft-edged contours.
  • If all the things in the painting are sharp-edged the painting looks stiff and contrived.

Lost-edges are soft blurred edges, that is blended contours and graduated auras between form and its immediate background. This happens when the paper is wet or damp.

Things that live grow and move:

Examples: grass, trees and washing on the line blow in the wind. The wings of flying birds are not easily seen because they are blurred. Therefore:

  • Soft-edges suggest movement, action and motion.
  • All moving things are blurred. Moving feet and bicycle wheels are blurred. You don’t even see the feet of people walking in the distance. This confirms that fewer brushstrokes say more.
  • Blurred contours also suggest that something is round, sphere shaped, like balls, eggs and rolling hills.
  • You create mood when you blur things.
  • Blurred areas imply smoke, mist and mystery.
  • Blurring suggest atmospheric dimension (aerial perspective).
  • Importantly, soft-edges stimulate our senses and create emotion.
All edges

The difference between lost and found edges.

All things have shadows.

The egg has a round contour, therefore its shadow edges are blurred.

How do you make lost and found edges?

  • You get lost-edges when your watercolour paper is wet or semi-wet.
  • You get clear found-edges when your watercolour paper is dry.

Where do you use lost and found edges?

  • Lost edges are generally used around the outer edges of your painting. Why, because this creates a tunnel effect, drawing the eye inwards, into the painting and towards the main point of interest.
  • Found-edges and strong contrast of tone are generally found at the main point of interest in the painting. Sharp contrast of tone attracts the eye, bringing the main subject into focus and giving it importance.

Why use contrast of tone?

If everything is neatly detailed at the same tone level throughout the painting, people can’t cipher what’s happening in your painting. There needs to be a big difference of tone at the main point of interest to distinguish its importance from that of the rest of the painting.

Variation of edges is important:

  • Sharp-edges make things look static, lifeless.
  • Sharp-edged objects stand out away from their surroundings. If you soften their outer contour edges they melt into place, settle nicely into their environment.
  • Blurred edges make it easier for the eye to travel over and through your painting. The perusing of the eye is not jarred from one form to another or from one plane to another.
  • Variation of edges is more appealing.
  • Blurred areas give the painting atmosphere and endless fascination.
  • Flower petals are delicate, so give them soft blurred edges. Unless of cause you want to draw attention to the main point of interest.
  • Textured things have ‘broken’ edges, intermittent contours.
  • Gradation of colour and tone along contour edges also softens an edge.
All along the edge.

Softening the edges of flower petals with gradation.

Here I did one flower at a time, from left to right.

  1. First the flower colour,
  2. Then wetted the contour edge of the flower with fresh clean water.
  3. Then I added an intermediate transitional colour to the wet contour edge.
  4. Then the green background was added to the right.
  5. I dropped in a little colour into the green background to suggest out of focus buds.
  6. Lastly I added the stamen and pistils to the flowers’ centers.

That is not all:

If you want to experience more, download the free books on watercolours on the page: Free Art Books.