Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Painting Lesson by Doug Swinton
Be it monsters under the bed or skeletons in the closet, for any artist there is nothing is quite as frightening and intimidating as staring at a blank sheet of paper or the vastness of an empty canvas. Since the day I read Painting as a Pass Time I have always agreed with Winston Churchill's analogy that painting is just like War. "To fight. To go into battle against multiple forces. And to go into combat one must be prepared."
Five simple things to consider before you paint:
1. Dominance of Shape and your Motive.
"You can't paint the fleas on the dog, until you have painted the dog!"
Dominance of Shape (or division of space) is having the essence of your composition or design broken down into its simplest forms to make for ease of understanding.
And just as important, we must have a reason for painting the subject. So, what is your motive? Ask yourself, what is my painting about? Is it about the foreground, middle ground or background? Or is it a sky painting with the other two being the lesser.
The first three elements to consider in a representational painting are the foreground, middle ground and background. These elements are shapes. The second three elements to address are the sizes of these shapes. Each will be either, small or medium or large.
Once you have decided on your three shapes and their sizes, you can now design their placement. If your painting is less representational or perhaps not a landscape, you can still use "The Domination of Shape" concept to determine the design of the painting. All the rules are the same. For example, figure and portrait painting lend themselves particularly well to this method, as the illustrations will show you.
2. Dominance of Interest or Centre of Interest
Once you have decided on some simple shapes in different sizes you need a Centre of Interest. Having your Shapes in different sizes may be somewhat engaging but on its own is not enough to captivate the viewer. The great watercolourist Charles Reid says "if you are adept at compositional direction and leading the eye around a painting you do not necessarily need a centre of interest." Well, if you are as adept a painter as he, then perhaps you can get away without one. But if your not, I suggest you give your viewer some eye candy to look at. Remember to, as Dean Geddes always says" K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid." Keep your centre of interest very simplistic and don't over do it. Just because you have painted an autumn park scene, does not mean you need to include a pathway, fence, bench, and two people walking their dog, watching three squirrels gathering forty seven acorns by the ant hill. Perhaps, instead, a sweet orange bush with subtle undulating colour change could say it all and more. Your centre of interest is separate from your motive. Just because you have a large foreground painting does not mean that you must have your centre of interest there. It could go in your middle ground.
3. Dominance of Value
Breaking visual elements into simple patterns, not only of shapes, but also of values will make your battle go more smoothly, and ensure victory. Try breaking your painting up into three shapes of different values of light, mid-tone and dark. Give each value a distinctive size (small medium or large.) Within each of these three values a range of minor value changes can occur. Try to keep these smaller value exchanges from migrating into your other main values. Example: don't put darks in your mid values that are as dark as the darks in your dark value area. This is where your value sketch comes handy. And of course you are all doing a value sketch before you paint! Doing a value sketch is an invaluable tool to help you establish the Dominance of Value.
4. Dominance of Temperature
Even though Domination of Temperature should be self explanatory, it is surprising how many paintings have a muddled temperature quality.
Elements in a painting are all relative to one another. For example, to see black one must see white. To gauge big, one must have a sense of small. To understand warmth in a painting, the painter must plant some cool. Let's harp on Harley; Sir Brown is the king of Domination of Temperature, especially in his Indian portraits. If you look closely he always has a few moderately placed cools to set of his warms. His use of turquoise is exquisite! The rule of thumb to remember here is to have at least a seventy/ thirty split. Seventy percent warm to thirty percent cool, or vice versa. Please give some consideration to the overall temperature of your complete composition, and avoid ending up sitting on the fence with a fifty/fifty temperature split. Boooring!
5. Dominance of Direction of Light
The most common mistake I see in paintings is Multiple Light sources that carry the same amount of importance. Have one main source from which your light will come. How many times have you seen the painting with the tree shadow going in different directions? William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent often used multiple light sources; however one of the light sources was always dominant, with the other light sources subordinate to it, being used more for reflective light. So pick one dominant light source and stick to it! Using flat photos with little or no dominate light source or plein air painting in the middle of the afternoon is a common cause of loosing the battle.
A good army attacks at dawn when the light is good. Trust me! Taking photos at the right time of day increases your chances of victory! In the movies the last hour before the sun set is known as the golden hour. More scenes are filmed then that at any other time. Perhaps a nice siesta in the middle of the day has been a well thought out idea.
These five simple things can make your painting stand out in a crowd. Though this list is small and can be elaborated on much further, the real idea here is to have a game plan before you go into battle. Your sketch book is the road map; your pencil moves the troops around on the map. You are the commander of your army! Prepare before you attack. Take control of your painting and go into battle with that vast emptiness that lies before you. What hill will you conquer today?
Examples of these five concepts:
William Merrit Chase, “Spanish Girl” 1880.
Dominance of Shape - Large head, medium background, smaller flower.
Dominance of Interest - large face, medium flower, small neckline.
Dominance of Value - Large dark, medium mid value, small lights.
Dominance of Temperature - Though it doesn’t show well in this format, this is a predominantly warm painting with some cools in the skin to off set the warms.
Dominance of Direction of Light. Top lit, one main light source.
Matt Smith, “At Rivers Edge”, 1999.
Dominance of Shape - Middle ground motive, medium foreground, small background.
Dominance of Interest - The rocks in the front.
Dominance of Value - Large mid values, medium lights and small darks.
Dominance of Temperature - Warm painting, nice cools in the shrubs to balance. Dominance of Direction of Light – Light coming from the left.
Tom Thompson, “Early Snow”, 1916
Dominance of Motive - Foreground.
Dominance of Interest - The bendy tree.
Dominance of Value - Large mid value, medium lights, small darks.
Dominance of Temperature - Cool dominant with a few warms in the back trees.
Dominance of Direction of Light – A good feel for light coming from the right with some small shadows in the far trees to the left.