How to Pick the Best Composition on Location

Too often, I let nature dictate the composition rather than me decide what is best for my emotional response to what I am seeing or painting

8x10 pastel plein air sketch, available

Job one for me as an artist is to figure out what about a scene drew me to think about painting it. That's easier said than done. This barn was surrounded by trees. There were many possibilities -- in fact I was painting with two other artists doing the same scene in Plein Air. We all reacted differently to the same scene. It meant something different to each of us and that is why art is so personal and why every artist has something unique to say.

The Creation Story Behind the Barn

Selecting a color scheme also plays a role in how I might express my emotional response to the scene. For this I chose red-violets, oranges, reds and yellows. I had my color wheel out but based on these choices I'm only guessing but bet it was what is called a split complementary. It was our first outing. It was late winter but a warmer day than usual, so the feeling of sun and warmth was important to me. That's why I picked yellows and oranges, I wanted to convey that warmth. After picking those colors, that then begins to narrow down the cooler colors for the darks. I used my color wheel to find those.

Anyone who has been a reader of my blog will note that the four notan sketches are something different from past posts from plein air outings. Here I have used the pen and ink to create a quick sketch but unlike past pen and ink thumbnails -- I added graphite over the pen and ink. This allowed me to play with the highlights more than just using a pen and ink. Also, unlike studio pieces, here the thumbnails are of the same scene and four different approaches to the subject.

Four Versions Explore the Emotion

After drawing the first image pretty much as I saw it, the upper left drawing -- I stopped drawing to think about the "WHY" I wanted to paint this. The first drawing did nothing for me. It was the bunch of trees to the right of the barn not even drawn in the first sketch that added contrast of texture and light. The end of the barn was somewhat lit and the trunks of the trees were lighter than the most of the barn and roof of the low barn addition to the right of the barn and behind the clump of trees. The second sketch top right, explores the trees but the lighting on the barn, roof and ground had to be changed.

The bottom two sketches became the most interesting after I zeroed in on the light and darks of interest in the scene. Again, creating light and dark contrasts became a factor as I worked through this composition. The angles of the larger planes of the bottom far right were interesting because of the intersections of lines.

At this point, I knew the sky and distant trees of the background had to be much darker than they appeared in life. I am an artist, not a photographer, so depicting the barn as it was would defeat my purpose of creating something from the subtle things that were in front of me. It was that creation process, selection of color, and placement of light and dark shapes that determined how this painting would end up -- not a reproduction of nature's dictates.

The above painting is only about 90 percent done. The darks and lights are defined but not balanced yet. The group I paint with, they paint fast. Sometimes they are done in 40-45 minutes after the easels are set into place. This day, they took a bit longer. This was all I could get done by the time they wanted to have show and tell and get out of the cold.

What I Learned

  • The first drawing in plein air sometimes is just a starting point and a pause is needed to think about "WHY" I like what I am painting

  • I have rushed in past years with these guys; this year I see I can get only so far and either finish it after they leave or back in the studio if I have enough information down. I want to get 90 percent or more done on location when doing plein air.

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