Creating Compositions: Organizing Principles of Design

I sometimes get questions about how I come up with my compositions for my watercolor paintings, many times I think because people see progress pictures and they assume (rightly) that I don’t have everything all drawn out before I start putting the brush to the paper. But, it should be said, that I do have a general picture (usually) in my head before I begin, and I try to apply a variety of design principles to each painting as I add layer upon layer. I learned a lot about this subject from a book that was required reading for my art history curriculum in college: The Art of Seeing.

In this post, I’m going to explore some of the elements of design that I frequently manipulate in my work. I’ll create another post about composition later for further exploration.

Repetition. I repeat a single design element: line, shape, form, value, color–any will work! In my deer painting above, the same heart shape of the ginger leaf is painted over and over again, in a variety of different positions and values, and this holds the overall composition together, unifying fore-, middle-, and background.

In the evergreen forest scenes, I repeat triangular shapes in different colors and values, with the relatively horizontal layering of those shapes contributing the feel of tranquility; if there was a diagonal positioning of shapes, the composition would suggest movement and dynamism. Lots of times, the repetition in my paintings builds up to the point of pattern, and shapes are more orderly than not, and these patterns of elements can create a rhythm, like in music, satisfying our desire for harmony and structure.

Contrast. In hues and colors, values, implied lines (like to figures pulling away from one another and creating mirror arcs with their bodies–opposing gestures)…any abrupt change. This contributes to variety. In the snail painting, I go from green to red hues, and this switch between complimentary colors enhances our appreciation of each. The same happens in the sleeping princess painting: the purplish pinks alternates with golds and yellows, and the complimentary quality of opposites creates unity.

In most of my paintings, I try to make sure that there is a high contrast in values somewhere in the composition. In the Seven Sisters/cave horse painting, the minimalist/gestural figures are painted all black, with many of the stars painted all white. These extreme contrasts are found only a few places in the composition, to provide variety and draw the eye. (The three black figures are also arranged in triangular formation, a very visually pleasing and stable shape–more on that later!)

Balance. Distributing visual weights so that they offset one another. I mostly apply formal or symmetrical balance in my paintings, as in the sailboat scene where the vertical composition is divided into three horizontal parts (on odd, and therefore dynamic number) and there is a central point of focus. In the unicorn painting, the unicorn is the central focus and also holds the lightest value; all other elements in the painting contrast and compliment this central figure.

A painting can also be asymmetrical and exhibit an informal balance (for instance, a large light-colored shape can be offset by a small, dark-colored shape, with the focal point somewhat off center).

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