It’s a lot easier to tell that a painting isn’t “working” than it is to figure out why.

If you could just fix that one … elusive … THING … it would all come together.

As vague as all these “placeholder” terms are (by “placeholders” I mean words we use when we can’t find the right ones), they all point toward the same thing – representational paintings work best when there’s unity (or “harmony”) between their varied parts.

In reality, the best way to learn sound composition is by looking at, reading about, and making lots of paintings. Next best thing is making dozens of thumbnail drawings of strong paintings to get a feel for underlying geometries that work – and why.

Thumbnail sketch of Matt Ryder’s painting, Jebel Jais Mountain Pass (below).

Matt Ryder, Jebel Jais Mountain Pass, oil on canvas, 152cm x 122cm.









(Matt Ryder, who painted the above landscape example, has written about his experiences and his passion for painting in the Middle East here.)

Additionally, it may help to have a list of some of the things you should be looking for. When “something seems off,” check your painting for:


1. Drawing (inaccurate perspective is often the invisible fly in the ointment )

2. Balance (visual weight), including sizes of shapes and values

3. Variety (natural asymmetries) & Harmony (satisfying relationships therein)

4. Rhythm (movement, directional lines that create a smooth path for the eye)

5. Pattern (calculated repetition, call and response, visual rhymes)

In the painting by Matt Ryder above, perspective plays a huge role in the overall effect. Note that there’s a subtle three-point perspective at work; there’s a vanishing point to the left and to the right of the red line, which represents eye level. Everything above the red line we are looking up at, and everything below it we’re looking down upon. The fact that it’s so low in the composition helps create the crucial sense of height.

After that, visual weight (#2) comes in (and now we’re no longer concerned with representation or with pictorial space). Size and value play outsized roles in terms of visual weight in Ryder’s painting; every mountain peak and heap of earth has a different visual weight. More important are the relationships between them.

The first thing to notice is how far over Ryder placed the point to the right of center where he joined the two main diagonals formed by the mountains on the right and the left. As directional lines, with movement and rhythm, they travel from the corners downward toward each other until they reach that point of convergence. Putting that point off so far away from the center creates a dynamic and satisfying tension.

Looking closer, the great visual weight of the tall mountain cliff on the left is balanced by the lesser visual weight of the distant peak to the right of center. The dark value of the lefthand cliff face is balanced by the matching but smaller and even slightly darker shadow in the foreground’s righthand corner. In both cases there’s harmony in variety – the mountain on the left is depicted as the larger (or dominant) one, the mountains to the right are much smaller (or subdominant, and these terms emphasize not just the character but the relationship between the shapes).

Referring back to our list after perspective, numbers 2-5 are concerned only with what’s happening on the flat, two-dimensional “plane” of the painting. After drawing, it’s all geometry and relationships. And every one of these items could (and probably will!) be a separate piece for Inside Art.

A representational painter’s first step in understanding composition and design is forgetting what they’re looking at. In other words, you have to look past the drawing – the barn either looks like a “real” barn or it doesn’t; if not, you correct it until it does. THEN you are ready to assess things like balance, variety, rhythm, etc.

For that, you must learn to see a painting as a flat surface consisting of  more or less significant relationships between shapes, lines, color, and value (relative lights and darks). That’s step one of “making it work,” and I’m not going to lie: it takes practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Wyn Ericson, Cello Practice, watercolor, 30 x 20 inches





Wyn Ericson captured the Peoples’ Choice award in the Plein Air Salon for her large-format watercolor titled Cello Practice.

Entries for this month’s salon are being accepted until Jan. 15. Plein Air Magazine’s salon is an open competition that culminates in a lavish award gala with cash prizes for the best paintings overall in multiple categories. Visit the Plein Air Salon website for your chance to enter your work.