I want to talk/write a little bit about composition and how it can help or hurt a work. There are so many things to consider when designing a work that it can often feel like 3 dimensional chess…..finished size, focus of interest and how to get the viewer to look where you want them to, the supporting players, color, edges, even the type of support you are painting on.
I was commissioned to paint some hawks for a collector who live near Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and wanted an homage to that part of their world. I chose some images and did several thumbnail sketches to hone in on a design. Once I chose the design that I thought was best I drew the painting completely ignoring what I had chosen. And then I continued to paint, never once going back to look at my original design. Big mistake. A fixable one, but none-the-less, what a silly thing to do, right? After the work was completed I showed it to a friend as it felt so off. Wisely, she asked if I had done a thumbnail as the painting was weighted to one side of the canvas with no balance. Duh…..
If you think how your eye is moving (or rather barely moving) around this painting you can feel yourself hanging out on the left side of this work. There is nothing helping you to move around the the scene. Even if you want to look at the hawk that’s eating his prey, too quickly your eye is pulled back to the left side and, for me, I barely notice the hawk but am focused on the mountain.
Here it is after repainting the background.
You can see that the design elements are much stronger now. Not only is it better balanced, but the sky is a nice foil for the standing hawk on the left side of the painting. The verticality of the hawk moves the eye up and down the canvas where the tails of both hawks are on an internal horizontal design line leading the eye across the canvas. The fence further supports movement to the right helping our eye to rest on the hawk that is eating. Then the vertical line of the eating hawk’s prey, beak, and head move us up to where the mountain will direct us back to the left to the standing hawk. The sky is a resting spot and the clouds mimic the horizontal line where the ground plain meets the mountain. Nothing was changed from the horizon line down. But change at the top 1/3 of the painting made a huge difference to the whole piece.
So some notes……Make thumbnails. Try different formats-square, rectangle. Design where your lights and darks will be to see what will be best to get your idea across. Using your thumbnails play with how the work is weighted. You can ask your friends which design they like better. If in doubt, paint a small study. And finally don’t be afraid to change your work if it doesn’t work.