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Scott Brown
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Composition Overview


Composition is a progressive series of decisions.

Composition begins with the selection of a subject to paint and an identification of your purpose in painting this particular subject. All subsequent decisions flow from and support this purpose.

The essence of composition is sensing, judging, and acting. Each step involves sensing the wide array of possibilities, making a judgment as to which option best suits your purpose, and acting on that judgment. In this dynamic process, each decision influences all those that follow.

Decide What to Paint and Why

For many beginners this first step creates a tremendous barrier that keeps them from painting anything. Don't worry about finding the perfect landscape, the perfect still life, or the perfect photograph. Paint what attracts your attention. Then try to identify what it was that attracted your attention. Was it the color? the contrast between light and dark? the drama of the sunset? the angles?

Sense the vastness of the ten thousand things around you. Pick one and paint.

Read more about purpose >>

Decide on a Format

Format is the shape, size, aspect ratio and orientation of the watercolor paper. For example, the format might be a horizontal rectangle, 5" x 10", with an aspect ration of 1:2 (height to width).

Select a format that best fits your subject and best serves your purpose. It may be large or small, tall or wide, square or circular. Choose one of the commercially available formats or create your own.

Read more about formats >>

Decide How to Divide the Format

Once you have decided on a format with its size and orientation, the next decision to make concerns the divisions of the format.

The format can be left undivided and considered as a unified whole, or it can be divided in a variety of ways. The format can be divided by a single emotional gesture or by a highly complex cerebral matrix of lines. The divisions of the format can be premeditated and carefully constructed or they may emerge spontaneously as the painting progresses.

The format can be divided by lines that are horizontal, vertical, diagonal, radial, or a combination. The format can also be divided by geometric shapes, letter shapes, or irregularly-shaped value patterns.

Read more about dividing the format >>

Decide Which Elements to Include and Which to Leave Out

Identify which elements of the scene could be included in your painting. Select a few and disregard all the rest.

Decide How to Simplify the Major Shapes

The first way to simplify is to eliminate unnecessary shapes.

The key to simplification of the remaining shapes is to view the scene as a collection of artistic, design shapes rather than shape-things that have names. Rather than seeing a house with a roof, windows, walls, and doors, focus on the interlocking shadow, light and midtone shapes.

Then combine the remaining shapes into 5 to 7 large to medium-sized interlocking shapes. These will form the building blocks of your painting. When possible, combine the roof shadow, wall shadow, ground shadow into one large shadow shape. When two people and a dog are touching, combine them into one large shape.

Decide Where to Place Major Shapes

Arrange the simplified shapes into several layout options. Use thumbnail sketches or paper cut-outs to explore the possibilities. Choose the one that suits you and your purpose best.

Decide how to Design the Major Shapes to Engage or Entertain the Viewer

Use the elements of design (lines, shapes and their attributes — size, direction, edges, value, color, and texture) to create a work of art that engages and/or entertains the viewer. An engaging painting is one that attracts the viewer's attention, maintains their interest, guides them through the composition, and rewards them. The principles of an engaging composition are simplification, emotional content, irregularity, exaggeration, distortion, repetition with variations, contrast, and dominance of one of the values, one of the colors, one of the shapes.

A engaging and entertaining composition is a dynamic tension between opposites:

  • balance and imbalance
  • unity and variety
  • harmony and discord
  • areas that attract attention and areas that are easy to ignore
  • contrast and similarity

Decide how to Design the Edges of the Shapes

Edges are of two basic types: those you can see and those you can't see. The edges you can see can be divided into hard, firm, soft, and rough. The edges you can't see are referred to as "lost edges." In some cases, an edge will disappear and then reappear a short distance away; these are called "lost and found edges."

Read more about edges >>

Decide on Point of View, Perspective

Decide whether the point of view will be above, below, or directly in front of the objects. Decide whether the painting with be a close-up view or a view from a distance. A close-up view reveals more details and allows the objects to run off the sides of the paper. This creates an open composition in which the frame canot contain all of the subject. A view from a distance reveals the background. This creates a closed composition, where all of the elements can be seen within the borders of the paper.

Consider numerous viewpoints, including uncommon ones that can add visual excitement. Choose the one that best serves your purpose.

Decide on Direction of Light, Season, Time of Day


Decide on an Area of Interest

An area of interest is where you want the viewer to look. It is an area that should attract the viewer's attention. The area of interest often contains the sharpest edges, the brightest colors, the highest contrast, and the most detail. In addition, it often contains a color that exists nowhere else on the painting. This is the area toward which visual movement is directed.

Consider first whether you even want an area of interest. Some artists prefer to consider the entire painting as the area of interest.

If you decide to have an area of interest, consider several possible locations, and choose the one that accomplishes your purpose.

Read more about an area of interest >>

Decide on a Light Path to the Area of Interest and Movement through the painting


Decide on a Value Pattern

A value pattern is a carefully chosen arrangement of tonal values.

A well-designed value pattern guides the eye through the composition, distinguishes each plane, and unifies the painting into a meaningful whole.

Using only three tonal values, a variety of patterns are possible. Choose the one that accomplishes your purpose.

Read more about value patterns >>

Decide on a Color Scheme

Select an effective color scheme that helps you accomplish your purpose. Choose one of the many standard color schemes that combine compatible colors or create one of your own. Color combinations based on the twelve-hued color wheel include the simple monochromatic, complementary, double complementary, split complementary, analogous, and a variety of triadic combinations.

Additional color schemes can be created by eliminating any four analogous colors on the color wheel and using the remaining eight hues.

Read more about color schemes >>

Decide on a Key

The key is the overall lightness or darkness of a painting. A painting with a high key ranges from medium to light values. A middle-key painting includes values from the middle of the value scale, avoiding the contrasts of light and dark. The values of a low-key painting range from medium to dark values. A full value contrast painting takes advantage of all the values from light to dark.

Choose a key that helps communicate your purpose to the viewer.

Decide on Creating the Illusion of Depth

One of the challenges facing artists is depicting a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional flat watercolor paper or canvas.

The first decision you need to make is whether you actually want to create the illusion of depth in your painting; many artists do not. If creating a sense of depth is your objective, there are several techniques that have been developed over the centuries that allow you to create this illusion. Which technique you use depends on whether you are painting objects that are nearby or objects that are in the distance.

Nearby objects are considered to be in "shallow space." A single object in shallow space can be painted in three-dimensions by adding form shadows and cast shadows. Two objects in close proximity can be overlapped to give a sense of depth. One of the two objects can also be placed higher on the picture plane to give the impression that it is farther in the distance.

Read more about creating the illusion of depth in shallow space >>

Artists use two techniques to create the illusion of depth in "deep space": atmospheric (or aerial) perspective and linear perspective.

Atmospheric perspective deals with how the appearance of an object is affected by the space or atmosphere between it and the viewer.

Read more about creating the illusion of depth with atmospheric perspective >>

Linear perspective uses lines and vanishing points to determine how much an object's apparent size changes with distance.

Read more about creating the illusion of depth with linear perspective >>


Now the process of composition changes from planning decisions to the decisions associated with the execution of the painting. Now you must decide

  • how to draw your composition
  • how to transfer your drawing to the watercolor paper
  • how to prepare the surface
  • how to preserve white
  • how to apply the paint
  • how to manipulate the paint
  • how to recover white
  • when to quit
  • how to critique your painting
  • how to sign your name
  • how to mat and frame your creation

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