Thursday, November 21, 2013

Composition and Block In...5 Shapes or Less

A Moment's Peace, pastel, 8x10

I had a packed house at my studio this morning for class. After scaling back my local teaching schedule to one class per month and adding oil painting students, I may have to rethink this schedule. Maybe I'll end up with a happy medium of two classes per month? We'll see.

Today's demo was in pastel. The focus continued with a composition topic, this time using an exercise I revisit often: the Five-shape Landscape. This method of starting a painting is one that has helped me boost my own skills with developing a strong composition and simplifying busy subject matter, so I use it quite a bit with my students.

The objective: divide your subject matter into 5 (and only 5) shapes. To do this, you'll need to combine shapes of similar values. Stronger compositions will typically still have a variety of sizes among the five shapes. And, yes, I still use the old fashioned tracing paper to do this...

reference photo


Using my top thumbnail for placement of my shapes, and bottom value sketch to block in, the starting point of the painting isn't so overwhelming. When starting the painting, I reference my thumbnail sketches, not my photo. I'm only concerned with the placement of my five large connected shapes, and their approximate values.

I managed to snap several progression shots on this one. Although I take great care to place my large shapes exactly where I want them, I keep my edges soft and very loosely defined at this point in order to push and pull them in later stages of refinement. Adjusting values and color temperature on these big shapes is the next task, and then lastly I carefully choose only the details necessary to communicate the mood of the landscape.


  1. I love your color palette! Beautiful painting and interesting and helpful post. Lovely!

  2. Thanks Barbara! It's always so helpful to see how you build a painting!

  3. Thanks for the comments, Judy and Donna!

  4. This is so helpful! Can't wait to paint with you in January.

  5. I love your method. It makes the start super simple. I have used it many times, and those paintings almost always are the successful ones. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Alejandra! Glad to hear that this method has helped you!