What makes a good painting?

I don’t know about you, but I am always searching to find out what makes a good painting. I know that some of mine work out just fine and others are, well, destined to be painted over. I guess we all have a mixture of both good and bad paintings. But wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the ratio, and make better and better art?

Composition comes first

I’ve begun to realise that composition always comes first. If I don’t get a good composition in the first place then I have no hope of making a good painting.
Everything else – the brushmarks, the colours, the details, even the value structure, have to serve a good composition. In themselves they cannot create a good painting.

Original photo

Here’s a photo I snapped the other day. The scene caught my eye because it already had a strong composition. Let me show you what I mean.

I sketched it out in pencil in the dimensions of the MDF panel I was going to paint on. Just look at those red lines which create this scene. There are strong diagonals at the edges of the road which lead the eye to the vanishing point, and in my painting I want to enhance these by extending them into the sky as well. Then there are the strong horizontal and vertical lines that strengthen the structure and ground the composition. It seems as though every element in the picture is doing something to add to this grid of lines.
And this is what will give my picture the best chance of being a good one!

Putting it together

First stage

Here’s my first stage in the painting, and you can see how I have marked in those strong lines. Even at this early stage I can see that I think I’m on to a winner.

Finished painting

The finished painting shows how it all came together. I brushed in the sky using directional strokes that pointed towards the focal point at the end of the road and followed the construction lines I had planned earlier. Can you see how a strong construction, like a strong skeleton, has helped to create a strong painting?

I plan to work on more paintings that are based on a strong linear compositional grid like this. Many old master paintings are based on structures like this and they have stood the test of time, so I’m in good company! Why not give it a go yourself?

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