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Artist Community
Written by Johannes Vloothuis
I have put together a series of “ rules” (I’d prefer the word, tips) of composition that when used properly should reduce the flaws in your landscape paintings. These are a compilation of what appears in most books on composition plus some of my own ideas. A word of caution; do not allow these to hinder your work. They are to help you out when you are in doubt on where to place diverse elements in your work. Rules are made to be broken, in which case you should at least know what rule you are breaking and why and not err due to insufficient knowledge. There are 23 pages so get a cup of coffee and prepare yourself for a long haul.
  1. Look at the picture to the left. A Landscape painting should contain a center of interest, which is the most predominant and beautiful area in a painting. The center of interest can be further enhanced when it contains a focal point creating a "bulls-eye" effect by adding a touch of purer color, and/or value contrast. This area will become the star in your play. The surrounding area should be subordinate.
A well developed center of interest contains:
  • The strongest color and if possible complementary colors.
  • A strong shift in value contrast (Light-dark or vice versa)
  • Preferably, not essentially, it should take up a good portion of the picture plane and gradually become subdued while withdrawing.
  • Man made structures, animals or human figures will further enhance the center of interest. They take the role of main actors.
  • The subordinate and surrounding elements should direct or lead the viewer to that center of interest by means of pointers and visual paths. See fig 1 &2.
  • It should not be placed in the center nor halfway in the picture, preferably in any of the 1/3 portions.
  • This area should not be blocked, not even partially. This will diminish its importance.
  • An effectively designed center of interest will grasp and hold the viewer's attention.

Fig 2. The logs correctly placed are great pointers that lead the viewer’s eye to the area the artist prefers.

Fig 3. The shore serves as a visual path that leads to the bridge which is the center of interest.

2. You may want to include a second center of interest. This will add another chapter to your story. I don't condone this practice though unless you are very skilled. There is a risk that they will compete with each other.

Do not place one on top of another. Only one should predominate in size. The best way to place them will be across each other in a diagonal format. In case this can’t be done then placing them horizontally is the second option.
  Fig 4. This painting didn’t need the flowers in the foreground. However, the artist decided to add a second center of interest.
3. Avoid pushing the viewer out of the painting. This can be avoided if the elements don't point towards the edge or run out of the picture, such as tree trunks, roads, and rivers. You can add "stops" to avoid the viewer from exiting. A rule of thumb; animals and people should be facing and looking inwards.
  Fig 5. Observe the horse on the right. The artist subdued the value. Squint your eyes. See how it merges with the trees. If this horse were lighter in value the viewer would mount the horse and ride right out.
Fig. 5a. Observe the first painting. See how the log is too straight and pointing towards the edge. The one in the middle has been edited. Some broken off branches were extended to slow down the speed as well as a branch added at the end (a stop). (Last picture)A better alternative might be to remove the log completely. Now the viewer will follow the shore line.
4. Rivers, streams, roads, etc. should enter the picture with an “S” movement. The second option, not as good, in a curve. Straight lines should be avoided at all costs. The velocity is too fast. Allow the viewer to take a slow visual “walk”.

  Fig 6. This stream in this composition has a nice lazy “S” shape”.
  Fig 7. The visual path is a curve. Compare the both pictures and see which one takes you for a slower ride, more enjoyable ride.

  Fig 8. Incorrect: The road enters in a straight line. The visual path is too fast.
  Fig. 9. The image to the right shows a much better approach.
5. Logic doesn’t apply to art. What counts is the visual impact. Sunlight on a field of grass may appear even if it is a cloudy day. Linear and atmospheric perspective can be distorted if the result is a better look. Cast shadows can be longer than they would appear at a specific time of day. Feel free to use your artist’s license.
Fig. 10 Observe how the trees give the appearance that the wind is blowing from right to left. However the direction of the rain shows the opposite direction.
6. Group your subjects of importance within the center of interest. Don’t scatter them around where they would compete for attention.
  Fig. 11 . All the people appear in the same radius within the center of interest which is located at the bottom right.
  Fig. 12. The horse is wrongly placed. Had the artist positioned it near the bench, the composition would’ve improved.
7. You may wish to allow the viewer to interact and become a participant. Let him look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow instead of you providing all the visual information. Set your painting up for the viewer to wander around using his own imagination.
Fig. 13. What is around the bend? Will there be a lake? What about a town? Here the artist left it to your imagination. The path doesn’t go anywhere. You tell me.
8. Depth. An artist is limited to creating the illusion of three dimensions on a flat two dimensional surface. We are to trick the people who see our paintings to believe that what they see looks real. Sometimes I have heard people ask me when they see my paintings. “Is it a photograph?”. How far from the truth they are! There is nothing real about my work, just a representation of reality. Here are a few gimmicks that will work to create the illusion of depth.
  • Place objects so they overlap.
  • Atmospheric perspective. Colors get cooler (bluer) and lighter in value as they recede into the background. They get warmer and the dark values become darker as they get closer. Note. In nature this doesn’t always prove to be right. When we look at a tree that is 100 yards away it will still be dark and a warm green. The value shift will be very subtle in comparison to a tree right next to you. This slight difference wouldn’t even show in a photo. If you paint it this way you won’t be creating the illusion of depth. However, If you add more mauve or blue to your greens as well as lighten them, this will push them farther into the distance. The more you apply this concept the further they will recede. Simulate it is a humid day with a lot of moist in the air. This has to be exaggerated to a point.
  • Elements are smaller and less defined in the distance than in the foreground.
  • Create at least three planes. Each should have a predominant value. Usually known as foreground, middle ground, and background.
  • Linear perspective.
  • Subtract texture from objects that are in the background. See Fig 13 on the previous page. There is a good feeling of distance. The pine trees are placed in front of the mountain which in return is behind telling us they are farther away. The intensity of the yellow that appears on the highlights in the foreground is much warmer, whereas in the background some mauve was added to cool them. The shadows in the far mountain are lighter and bluer than in the middle ground. There are three planes.
Fig. 14. You can add more planes which will enhance the feeling of distance if you darken the foreground.