I was on my way home from the recent International Association of Pastel Societies convention and was thinking about subjects for new paintings. It was a long drive, so I had plenty of time to think. It occurred to me that some paintings are stronger and more compelling (and interesting) to look at than other paintings. This is true of both my work and that of other painters. One of the things that makes a painting interesting is the arrangement of the shapes in the painting. Lots of little shapes feels busier, requires more of the viewer to sort it out. Fewer big shapes feels calmer and requires less of the viewer to get into the painting and enjoy the journey. While this is pretty basic Art 101 composition stuff, it is easy to skip over when starting a painting.
As I was driving along, I started scanning the scenery through the windshield. Some of the scenery was a complex pattern of shapes and light and shadow. Some were filled with vibrant colors. Pretty nifty stuff. Other scenery was an arrangement of fewer, simpler shapes: A hill with a band of trees, a meadow with a line of trees in the distance, a river lined with a mass of bushes, a big barn standing alone. These were really compelling to look at and think about. Rather than a tangle of little shapes, these big, simple shapes really stood out. They had presence. They had attitude. They felt solid. They had a sense of quiet in the simplicity of their structure. Whereas the complex scenes were busy and required me to put on my hiking boots and wander around, these suggested less energy and effort to take it in. I could really get into these abstract arrangements of value or color and dig around.
One of the big benefits of thinking about these shapes is that simpler shapes make it easier to see compositional boo-boos and correct them. These include the placement of something precisely in the center, the "Bulls eye", running things out at corners, having all of the subject crowded into one side of the painting and almost nothing in the other side to balance it. The list goes on. There is a rule somewhere that artists should make a thumbnail or value study at the beginning of the painting to spot these before the painting is under way. The rule of thumb is: 1 to 4 values, and less than 5 shapes.
My take away in this little lesson was that one of the most important exercises in picking a subject and planning a painting is the ability to see the shapes. Squint. Really squint. Look for a way to simplify the shapes on even complex subjects into fewer, simple masses. These masses will be broken down and nuanced during the painting process but they need a good structure to start with. If your goal is a high energy painting, it can be achieved with value shifts, textures, edges, and color choices. If your goal is a restful painting you can use these tools to make that happen. Composition matters in paintings