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Composition: Format

Introduction

One of the first design decisions you must make before embarking on a new painting is what format to use. This choice is critical, because it influences all subsequent design decisions.

The term "format" refers to the shape, size, aspect ratio and orientation of the picture space on your watercolor paper. This picture space may be the paper itself or a shape drawn within the paper's dimensions. For example, the format might have the following characteristics: rectangular, 8" x 10", with an aspect ratio of 1:1.25 (height to width), and horizontal.

The choice of format depends on the idea or feeling you want to convey to the viewer, or the response you want to elicit from the viewer. You might choose a horizontal format to depict a calm, tranquil landscape. A vertical format might be selected to create a more exciting, visually dynamic composition. A square format is sometimes used to focus the viewer's attention on one single object, such as a flower by Georgia O'Keefe.

There are several reasons why many watercolorists stick to traditional sizes for their paintings. First, it's economical to use a quarter, half, or full sheet of watercolor paper. In addition, frames and mats are cut to these standard sizes. But even though standard sizes are less expensive to frame, pack, ship and store, don't let yourself get trapped. Be creative. Try new ideas. Take chances. Experiment with ordinary subjects in a variety of formats.

To select the right format, make a series of thumbnail sketches. Move the subject around, pull it into the foreground, push it into the middle ground or background. Experiment with horizontal and vertical rectangles. Try a square. How about a very long rectangle?

From these sketches, choose the one that best emphasizes what you want to say about the subject.

Once a format is selected, the task of composition is selecting appropriate elements and arranging them within the picture space to communicate your ideas and feelings effectively to the viewer.

Standard Formats

Sheets Blocks Pads Image Area Standard Mat Opening Mat Outer Dimensions
Full Sheet (22" x 30")          
    18" x 24"      
Half Sheet (15" x 22")     14" x 21" 13.5" x 20.5" (Cheap Joes) 22" x 28"
  14" x 20"        
    12" x 18"      
    12" x 16"      
Quarter Sheet (11" x 15")   11" x 15" 11" x 14" 10.5" x 13.5" 16" x 20"
  10" x 14" 10" x 14"      
    9" x 12" 8" x 10" 7.5" x 9.5" 11" x 14"
Eighth Sheet (7.5" x 11") 7" x 10" 7" x 10" 6" x 8.5" 5.5" x 8.0" (Art & Frames) 9" x 12"
      6" x 8" 5.5" x 7.5" (Michaels) 9" x 12"
      5" x 7" 4.5" x 6.5" (Dick Blick) 9" x 12"
Sixteenth Sheet (5.5" x 7.5")     5" x 7" 4.5" x 6.5" 8" x 10"

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