Monday, July 29, 2013

Composition Boot Camp Wrap-up...and plans for the next one!

Scattered Evening Light, oil, 10x8

Meandering, pastel, 8x8

This past weekend I taught a workshop titled "All Media Composition Boot Camp." In my experience, I've found that composition is the one area that artists tend to "fight" learning. It involves a little up front planning before paint is mixed, paper is taped to a board, pastels are set out, etc. It's not the fun, colorful part of the painting process, and usually involves those rough-looking, sometimes unattractive, black and white sketches.

I used to fall into this category. There was a time when I just didn't "get" the purpose of a thumbnail sketch. Why draw it small when I'm going to draw it all over again big?

Over the years I've come up with my own, somewhat unconventional method for working out my compositions. It's a quick, easy and accurate way to put my painting puzzle together before I put a single mark on my expensive surface. And these days, I actually enjoy this planning's where I begin to see the possibilities of the painting. For my studio work, I feel it's a crucial process for the success of my work. But honestly, with the method I use, I really don't spend very much time laboring over the process.

Like most artists, when working from photos, I begin my composition process in the camera. The process then moves to Photoshop (I use Photoshop Elements), where I can very quickly look at additional cropping possibilities. There are many other digital tools (iPad, etc.) that also allow you to quickly and easily do this. But even after additional cropping is done, I find that, in order to get the most ideal composition, I still need to tweak, pull stretch, etc. This is where I stray a bit from the norm and pull out the old fashioned tracing paper...yes, tracing paper...and shift things around by placing it over a cheap print out of my photo.

In my classes and workshops I explain my method more thoroughly. But following below are some shots of thumbnails and my block-ins. In this particular workshop, the focus was on planning the composition, and holding true to the original plan in the block-in stage. In my demos, I took the painting just a bit further than the block-in stage, and finished them off later back in my studio. (Finished versions are shown above.)

oil demo - block-in

reference photo...cropped from the original photo

original version of the same reference photo

pastel demo - block-in
loose pastel application over block-in
One thing I always stress when initially developing a composition is to simplify the landscape into as few shapes as possible...connecting shapes wherever possible. This is what needs to be worked out in the thumbnail stage, and then followed during the block-in stage. When I block in a painting, I look at my thumbnail, not my photo.

I should note that I only do this much planning with my studio work. When I'm painting out on location, my goal is to capture the mood, atmosphere and lighting conditions quickly before it changes too significantly. I still go through all of the same thought processes that I use when planning with thumbnail sketches, but it's done in my head rather than on paper.  I don't always get it right, but often the goal with plein air painting is to come back with a good study that can be refined into a larger studio piece.

In September I'm teaching this workshop again in Dahlonega, GA. It's a two-day workshop, Sept. 5 & 6, at The Art Loft. Visit or see the workshop page on my website,, for more information.