Learning How to Paint in Oils by Elaine Ostroot

Archive for the ‘composition’ Category


  A big word.  Probably the word for the most important tool the artist has.  Another word for composition is design.  I like this word better.  It’s more descriptive.   For me, this is the real deal.  It’s what I have the most problem with.  It’s the first thing I look for, not only in my own work, but also in any painting by anyone.

   Many books have been written about this subject.  If you are in to landscapes, one of the best ones is “14 Formulas for Painting Fabulous Landscapes” by Barbara Nuss. I started out painting portraits of children.  There’s not too many ways to arrange a child’s face in a painting, so when I wanted to branch out into flowers and landscapes I found myself in trouble.  Where to put what?

 So – the best way to show you what I’m writing about is – as usual – paint a picture!  I have chosen a 30 x 40 canvas, My son, Scott has decided to showcase my work in our dining room, which is large enough to house a bar – so it’s more like a room for intertaining and has several large walls. St. Louis zoo fall colors

The first photo is one my son took on his cell phone.  As you can see the center of interest (the waterfall) is dead center.  It’s a beautiful picture, but for a painting that waterfall is going to have to move.  I took a copy of the photo and drew lines dividing it into four equal sections both horizontally and vertically (we did the same thing in Portraits, part one).  The center of interest should not be in the center – any one of the four box shapes surrounding the center is the logical place for our waterfall.  I have cropped the picture to move the waterfall to the right upper box.  Now we have some editing to do.   I want more water than sky, so I will crop the sky down a bit.  I also want to retain the orange tree on the left side to balance out all that red.  I will eliminate the rock in front of the waterfall and move the rock at the right far edge closer to the rock adjacent to it. Or leave it out altogether. 

I have a program on my computer called Picasa 3. This allows me to straiten a photo, crop it and even add more light to a dark photo. To make the grid more visible to you I have used black fishing line taped to the edges.  Normally, I use a 6H pencil to put the grid in lightly, so that the lines can be erased more easily.blog 005-001blog 003-001

 I used some leftover paint from another painting to do the drawing.  It is very loose and sketchy, but that’s all you need to start.  Just an indication of where things are.  Don’t get too caught up in details at this stage. blog 009-001

 Most of designing – especially using photos – is leaving out stuff.  My rule is generally, if it doesn’t contribute to the painting – leave it out.  That’s hard to do.  We have a tendency to paint everything in and that results in a cluttered and scattered painting.  My initial lay in will simplify as much as possible.  First notice (or decide) where the light is coming from.  This is critical – your light source must come from a single direction.  That is not always the case – in portraits and still life paintings the light can come from other directions, but in landscapes, the light will come from one direction.

 Now I will decide what elements to retain. Which ones to leave out and if I need to change some elements to create balance.  I don’t want to lead your eye out of the painting – especially out the corners.  I also want to lead your eye to that beautiful waterfall.  I want to use my brightest colors, my sharpest edges and my highest contrast near or on my center of interest.  My darkest dark is the cave behind the falls and my lightest light is the top of the falls.  So, let’s begin. I have my initial lay-in and my decisions are made.  I’m going to add my first darks – you will notice that my darks are larger than they will end up. blog 021-001 Darks have a tendency to disappear very quickly, so this is a hedge against that.  I will start adding more values of green to the trees and add the orange and darker values to the trees behind the green trees.  I think some are evergreens. blog 022-001  

As this next photo shows, I’ve blocked in most of the elements, keeping the darks as much as possible.  The red I’ve chosen for the red trees is a transparent one.  I chose it primarily because it leans to the blue a little and the green behind it will help serve as my darkest reds. blog 029-001

Now I will pull this painting together by adding all the other values.  I will also add some lighter tones, but not the lightest quite yet. blog 032-001

Now I’m ready for the lightest lights. So here is the finished work.blog 037-001

 Composition is worth your careful study.  It will make or break your paintings.  You will notice when you look at paintings that most of them are dull and uninteresting.  Then there are those that knock your socks off.  Make more of those.  Good design is the answer.