by George Allen Durkee


Choosing what to paint is the beginning of an intimate relationship. If you don't find yourself falling in love with your subject, maybe it's time to look for something different to paint. You can paint what others will be pleased by, but if you paint in order  to please others, then what is authentically yours will be missing. To begin composing, ask yourself why you want to paint this particular subject. Whether you're attracted by an arrangement of colors and shapes or simply by a quality of atmosphere, try to say what, specifically, you want your painting to express.

Composition, in the broadest sense, is deciding what to put into your painting and what to leave out. It is deciding where to locate objects on your canvas and how big or small to make them. The laws of composition are simply guidelines. They show how the parts of a painting fit together most pleasingly -- most of the time. Although it is important to understand the agreed upon conventions, your  compositions may deviate from what has been tried before.

Finding your way into a composition will depend on your personality. A logical, analytical person may tend to over-plan in order to stay in control and feel safe. In doing creative work, there is a point where we need to go into the unknown, to take risks where the results are unpredictable. Without risk, a painting may be technically correct, but without life. On the other hand, if it is your nature to be more intuitive, there will be a point where you will want to consult your analytical side. Trusting intuition alone, you may occasionally produce a highly original painting, but more often the work is likely to be disorganized. 

In composing a landscape from life, first find the most interesting point of view for your subject. Imagine boundary lines framing an area. Make the frame larger or smaller; move it around. Move yourself around. A comfortable location under a shady tree or a smooth and level patch of ground may not provide the most interesting vantage point.  Select and arrange those elements that say what your want to say and discard the rest. Thumbnail pencil studies can help with the planning stage. A well conceived beginning is more likely to yield a successful outcome.

The principles of composition are not absolutes. 

Hold them lightly.

George Allen Durkee

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