Category Archives: Composition

Composing with Rabatment

Have you ever heard of Rabatment? I confess that I had never come across this term until I watched a Youtube tutorial last week by the incomparable Diana Mize (her channel is called: In the Studio Art Instruction). She was talking about a way of composing paintings that has been used down the centuries, but was one that I had never seen before. And then when I looked at some of my own paintings I realised that I was automatically using it without knowing!

Take a look at my video and see what I mean :

Have fun!

How to focus on your focal point

Every good painting should be about something. And this something should be communicated to the viewer. Paintings are about communication, and we want our viewers to understand what we are trying to say. So we need a focal point – something that we home in on and that says what the picture is about.

But how can we do this when we are painting a scene from life or from a photo and we are confronted with a mass of details, shapes and colours such as the one below?

I visited an exhibition this week of watercolours by the Spanish painter Alfredo López, and he has found a way to answer this question in a powerful and yet atmospheric way.
Take a look at his handling of a similar New York street scene.

Alfredo López

Can you see what he has done? He has simplified everything right down so that we are forced to look at his mounted police that are the subject of the painting. Everything else is just a background wash. He hasn’t attempted to put any detail whatsoever into the background because it simply isn’t important. However, by carefully creating the silhouette of the buildings, he has still let us see that this is New York. And by painting in monochrome he has avoided any temptation to overcomplicate the background with colours that might distract us.

How we see

This is very similar to the way we see. When we are in a busy scene like this we might feel that we are taking it all in and processing all the information. But in reality we are not counting the windows in the buildings, we are not seeing every person or every car in detail, we are not really seeing much at all. At any one time our focus is on one thing or one small area and that is all. Everything else is a an out of focus blur.

Try it out – look directly at something around you right now and focus your attention on it. Without moving your eye from it, take a look at what is around about. It should all be out of focus, soft edged and a bit more hazy. That is how we see the world! It’s one bit at a time.

When we come to paint the scene however we don’t choose to see in the same way. Suddenly everything is clamouring for our attention and we feel the need to put in all the details. And the result? Our painting loses it’s focus and it’s power and we fail to capture what we intended. We fail to communicate.

Alfredo López

Less is more

So, next time you are painting, decide what your focal point is. What is the message you want to communicate? Where do you want to draw the viewer’s attention? What is your painting about?
Then paint this with more detail, more colour, and harder edges, and leave the background and the supporting elements much looser, suggestive, and soft edged. See how little you need to communicate your point.

Here are a few more watercolour paintings by Alfredo López for you to enjoy. See how he has simplified so much information, and made his paintings really speak!

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?

Making and Breaking the Rules

I was looking through Google images the other day for paintings by the Impressionists and came across the work of Gustave Caillebotte. He is not as famous as some of the others like Monet or Cezanne or Manet, but his work really caught my eye. Why? Because of the strong and sometimes strange compositions.

Take a look at this painting below, Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877), where he seems to break the rules of “good” composition.

As you probably know you should never divide your painting into quarters, but this is exactly what Caillebotte does here. And somehow he makes it work, even though it makes for a slightly unsettling image. He then further subdivides the picture with repeated vertical lines and some very angular triangles. The whole image is a design. It has not happened by accident, but unlike many other artists who worked to a design, he breaks the rules. I suppose his fellow Impressionists were also breaking the rules at that time, but in different ways.

Now look at the painting below, The House Painters (1877), where he keeps to the rules but exaggerates them. Your eye is almost forced to run towards the vanishing point at the end of the road by the strong and unbroken straight lines. And again he has used repeated vertical lines to divide up the image, and added a few of those triangles as well.

Once again in this painting, Le Pont de l’Europe (1876) he has used the same devices – an overpoweringly strong pull towards the vanishing point, repeated verticals and triangles.

And even in this painting, Portraits à la campagne (1876) you can see the same design strategy.
In fact if you look him up on Google images you will find that many of his paintings followed these rules.

So, was he breaking the rules or making new rules?
What do you think? Let us know in the comments!