Always Reconsider Your Work: Is Your Composition Strong?

I recently entered a painting into a major competition.  After I entered the painting, I looked at it using the Value Viewer app.  I  realized that I didn’t have enough darks in the painting, and the composition wasn’t strong. The juror in that competition must have agreed, because the painting didn’t get accepted.   I was glad, because it gave the opportunity to create more value changes.

I had painted what was in my image, and had forgotten a key concept – the painting has to stand alone.  No one is going to have your image when they look at your painting. Just because your painting looks like your image doesn’t mean it’s a good painting.  The image may not have the value changes you want in the right part of the composition.   You must create an interesting composition and value changes are one of your tools.  Are your darkest darks against your lightest lights in or near your center of interest?  Or, do you have a dark against a light that is dragging the viewer’s eye to a secondary part of the painting?  Do you have enough darks, middle values and lights?  You control your composition.  You are making the decisions where the dark, middle and light values should go.  You need to move your viewer’s eye through the composition, and if the image you chose doesn’t have the compositional elements you need to accomplish this, you need to add them.  You can change the values, lose edges, make some more prominent, change the colors, etc.

Here is the image of my painting Trail Boss as originally painted, with the Value View scale of darks and lights.  As you can see, the head of the subject wasn’t connected to the bottom of the painting, and there wasn’t enough middle or dark areas.  The light value area was too big.

After I got the rejection, I reworked the values, particularly the shirt and pants on the left and the background to the left.  The result is a much better painting.

Value viewer is a great tool to use to check your values.  I use the app on my iphone.



The next time I entered the painting, the juror agreed – Alafia Trail Boss has been selected for the 2017 Watercolor West exhibit.

Sculpt with Your Paint

When I am painting a face, I think of myself as sculpting.  With watercolor, I need to work light to dark, yet I am still adding layers of color to build up and mold the structure of the face.

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Simplify Your Composition with Values

The effective use of values can create the composition.  It can help you pull the viewer to your center of interest, and make sure that the viewer sees what is important to you.



I am not necessarily religious about doing a values study before I paint.  Sometimes I can see the values in the image and have an idea before I start painting.  The act of drawing can help me understand and work out the issues in my painting related to values.  Values studies are particularly helpful to seeing how to connect the portrait to the background, and what edges to loose in the process.

In Skulls, I had been trying to focus on contrast and making sure my darks are really dark. I keep my camera with me at all times, constantly looking for images that might make good paintings. I saw this individual watching the musicians playing at a Sunday farmers’ market (bright sunny days typically give me images with good shadows) and only after reviewing the image in the studio did I notice the skulls on his jacket.  I particularly liked how I could compose the painting drawing the viewer’s attention around the man’s crossed arms.  I also wanted to connect him to the background, which I did usingIndanthrone Bluein his hat and the background.  Also, I like to use complementary colors in my paintings, and loved being able to use purples and Quinacridone Gold of his wrist.   I paint vertically because I want to see my entire painting while I am working.  When I paint flat, the image is distorted.  Also, with my loose style of painting, I get these wonderful drips by painting vertically.  


Jewelry Seller

Jewelry Seller

Jewelry Seller Study was a study for a more finished painting, with an emphasis on values.  It turned out to be better than the finished painting.  This painting was all about the strong shadow across the woman’s face, connecting to the shadow down her neck and jacket.  The study also helped me see how to connect her to the background, enhancing the composition.

Drawing is the Framework For Your Painting

Many artists can’t wait to start painting.  However, the success of your painting will depend on the quality of your drawing.  Think of your drawing as a framework or scaffolding that you hang your colors on.  The scaffolding has to hold together or the entire thing will fall down.

Many times, I get half way through a painting and can’t figure out why something looks off – it doesn’t work.  I know I need to get out my pencil and start measuring.  Inevitability, something is off in my drawing.  I find it is so important throughout my painting process to continually check my drawing.

A good drawing provides a quality framework for any painting.  If you have a good drawing, you can start painting loosely, connecting colors and letting them blend on the paper, knowing that your dark and light marks will be effective, and that your colors laid down next to each other will blend beautifully.  

The Last Painting of Ana

The Last Painting of Ana

The Last Painting of Ana was created at the end of a life drawing session, when I had 1 hour left on the pose.  After I got my drawing down, I could place colors next to each other, letting them mix on the page.  I had the assurance that I had a good framework.  The result is a very effective and loose painting that asks the viewer to use his/her eye to see the darks and lights and interpret the painting.

Involve the Viewer in the Art through Color Mixing with the Eye

One of my objectives in my art is to involve the viewer in experiencing my art.  I want to draw the viewer into the painting, and involve him/ her in the art.  I do that through a variety of approaches, one of which is an approach used by the impressionists.  I don’t typically mix colors on the palette.  Instead, I lay colors down next to each other on the paper, and challenge the viewer to use his/her eye to mix the color. 

For example, my painting Mountain Man, includes a hat with fur and an animal skin.  Rather than paint the image literally, using only the colors that were in the fur, I applied a number of different colors to the hat, involving the viewer in interpreting the image as a furry hat.

In the painting, Betty, rather than mixing the colors of Raw Sienna, Bright Violet, Quinachridone Burnt Orange, Opera and, in some areas, Undersea Green, together on my palette, I painted them separately on the painting of Betty’s face.  The result is a vibrant image of skin.  If I had mixed them together, I would have created a much duller color, and the viewer would not be involved in interpreting the painting.