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).

Evergreen Tutorial


Hello, all. I’m presenting my step-by-step painting process of the 5″ x 7″ watercolor Evergreen.

1. I always start out with an image in mind. Most of the time, I don’t like to draw it out before I start painting. I like spontaneous things to happen, for different ideas to occur as the painting emerges. So, the only thing I draw in the beginning is the focal point object/subject. For this one, I looked at a bunch of pictures of little woodland cottages for inspiration.


2. Next, lay down a wash surrounding the focal point–in this case, the little cottage. I usually do this by selecting an undiluted color of medium strength and then apply it around the lines of the drawing with a fairly small round brush, like a #2. I then blend outward with water using progressively bigger round and filbert brushes, covering the entire sheet (it’s a good idea to have two glasses of water when working: one for cleaning, the other filled with nice, clear water for blending). To the clear wash covering the sheet, I begin dabbing color in in large swathes with a big filbert brush. I also add color straight from the dabber when using Dr. Ph Martin liquid watercolors (calypso green, here).



3. The next step involves picking out shapes around the focal point drawing. When fashioning the shapes, keep in mind placement and orientation, hard vs. soft edges, symmetry and asymmetry, etc. With my paintings, I want the individual shapes to work together and harmonize visually. For this particular piece, I used my hiking excursions in redwood forests as inspiration for the shapes. In general, the shapes in this piece are predominantly geometrical and hard-edged (as opposed to rounded and more organic), with the exception of the wild ginger groundcover that is added later.


4. Keep layering in complementary shapes. I use small round brushes for the initial outlines of the shapes and then blend with either a flat or filbert brush. A note on color: I wanted this piece to be a bit muted in color, so I added most of the greens and golds within the first few layers. The greens and the golds in these layers are unmixed, though pretty dilute.

5. In the ensuing layers, I added a lot of Payne’s Gray to the greens and sometimes used just Payne’s Gray in order to tone down the color. Remember to blend outward with every layer using the clean water. Blend to the edge of the paper; the edge of where the water ends always dries visibly (sometimes, this proves to be an interesting effect, sometimes not so much).

6. Usually, when I feel I’m done layering in shapes, I offset the last ones with a dark wash of color. I like to save a significant space for this; here in this painting, it will be the night sky. This gives a good amount of contrast to the upper part of the painting.


7. The bottom foreground portion of this painting require some thinking. I didn’t want to add more similar shapes to the background conifer shapes–no ferns or the like, something different, yet consistent. I decided on the heart-shaped leaves of the wild ginger that can frequently be found in the redwood forests. I basically picked out a few shapes in the immediate foreground, like I did with the conifer shapes behind the cottage, and kept adding layers. I also snuck in a Stellar’s Jay in the bottom left corner for added interest.


8. Lastly, I finished filling out the bird with blues and blacks and filled in the stars using white acrylic. The house was painted using the negative technique, with the lines in white, using only a single layer of paint. Blue, green, and yellow are next to one another successively in the color wheel, and this gives an overall calming effect to the piece.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask!!