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Enhance Your Painting Composition by Planning the Value Structure

Updated on February 01, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie:an artist believing in the power of positive thinking, she paints images intended to bring joy the viewer and loves to share art tips.

Learn the essential compositional elements that can be skillfully used to capture and guide the viewers’ eye within the picture, making a painting successful.
Learn the essential compositional elements that can be skillfully used to capture and guide the viewers’ eye within the picture, making a painting successful. | Source

A Good Composition Acts as Strong Armature for the Painting

The most important factor for the success or failure of a painting is its composition.

The composition of a painting is the supporting structure of the painting. A good arrangement of elements acts as a strong armature and makes the piece strong and interesting for the viewer.

While most artists have great visual taste and can often recognize a good composition almost immediately, just from instinct and visual preferences, an effective design is rarely achieved just from instinct and improvisation. Typically it takes some careful planning.

Planning a painting spending time making value studies and testing out different compositions, may seem like a big waste of time, especially to those that have only a very limited time that can be dedicated to creating art.

However, the time spent on the initial planning makes it much easier and faster making the hundreds of small decisions involved with painting.

Elements of a Strong Composition

To plan your painting well, you need to keep in mind the elements that make a composition.

The following compositional elements are very important no matter the subject of the painting. They can be skillfully used to capture and guide the viewers’ eye within the picture:

  • Shapes and how they are arranged
  • Relative value of those shapes
  • Lines and their direction
  • Value contrast
  • Color temperature and intensity

Composition Structures in Painting

An armature, or composition structure, in a representational painting, is a structure that will determine the placement of the main masses in the painting and help guide the eye's movement through them.

The different kinds of compositions are characterized by the shapes and the sizes of the abstract value masses. Each design calls for a different layout of the light and the dark patterns.

In deciding which structure to use, you can combine more than one type of armature in the same painting.

Below are sketches of eight of the common armatures in representational painting:

  1. S shape
  2. L shape
  3. Diagonal
  4. Triangle
  5. Radiating lines
  6. Fulcrum
  7. O shape
  8. Cruciform

Composition Armatures in Painting

Compositional structures in painting. All rights reserved.
Compositional structures in painting. All rights reserved. | Source

Why Do We Use Armatures for Guidance in Painting?

The point of using armatures in a painting is to create a structure that will guide the placement of the major masses of your composition and how the eyes move through them. The armature you choose to use should somehow already exist in the interplay of the shapes and values of your subject.

All you have to do is to recognize it, and sometimes apply small edits to push some characteristics and make it work while keeping it looking natural and not forced.

Before you begin to paint, plan your big shapes. Make sure that when you paint they keep their value and don’t break down in several smaller shapes with distracting details of different values.

If the arrangement of the big shapes is strong and coherent, it’ll carry the painting. You are 90 percent of the way toward achieving a composition – and consequently a painting – that will work.

— Ian Roberts
Making this painting I focused on radiating lines formed by the tree branches and the grass. "Just Mowed". Source: ©RobieBenve, all rights reserved
Making this painting I focused on radiating lines formed by the tree branches and the grass. "Just Mowed". Source: ©RobieBenve, all rights reserved | Source

Value Is the Most Important Element in a Painting

Some paintings show amazing drawing skills, good color mixing, great shape placement, but are still not very successful.

Often times the problem lies in the value arrangement. If you squint at those paintings, the scene disappears in one single mass of the same value or appears as a confused camouflage of light and dark values without a planned layout and pattern.

This typically happens when the artist has not successfully created interest in value contrast and has not created a way for the viewer’s eye to move through the painting, following light through dark or dark through light.

Definition of Value

Value refers to how dark or how light a color is. Value difference is easy to see in black and white or gray scale; it is a little trickier to see it in color.

The best way to see difference in values is to squint. Look at a scene squeezing your eyes and using your eyelashes as filter, and small subtleties will disappear, grouping in bigger shapes of similar values.

In the preliminary phases of your planning, squint at your subject and notice the value structure.

Bank on the value structure of your composition and feel free to exercise your creative license by exaggerating contrast or editing proportions or direction of masses for the sake of the painting.

Gray Scale and values.
Gray Scale and values. | Source

The best way to plan a winning composition is by focusing on creating groupings of similar value and arranging in a visually pleasant way.

— Robie Benve

Do you think about relative value when you paint?

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What Happens When You Squint

Squeeze your eyes just enough to be able to still see through your partly closed eyelids. As you do this, your eyelashes create a natural filter that allows less light to enter the pupils and dulls all colors.

Although squinting can make your subject a bit blurry, it helps you seeing beyond the details, and ignore small shifts in values and shapes.

You’ll notice that the shadows get darker and the highlights appear lighter, which, as a bonus, leads to more defined shapes.

By drawing or painting what you see while squinting, you’ll be able to simplify shapes and group the design into similar values.

In this painting Monet used the Steelyard composition, with two main masses, one smaller, one bigger.
In this painting Monet used the Steelyard composition, with two main masses, one smaller, one bigger. | Source

Squint to See the Main Masses

The amount of information found in nature can be overwhelming. By squinting you are able to see simplified shapes, and it’s easier to “see” the composition.

If you are choosing a subject to paint, and even squinting you can't see a potential composition made by a few simple masses, move on to something else.

How to Make Value Studies

The best approach to plan a successful painting is to create small, black and white value studies. All you need is a pencil, a pen, or gray markers, and some paper.

The goal is to create small designs that simplify and group similar values into bigger shapes. Aim to use no more than three values in your study: the white of the page will serve for the lights; then use a mid-gray and a black.

Make your value study small: 2”x3” or a similar scale. If you are going to use a specific canvas size, ensure that your thumbnails sides have the same proportions as your support.

A design that looks appealing in a rectangular thumbnail may be unpleasant if painted on a square canvas (and vice-versa).

Different value studies (thumbnails) of the same scene with slight variations on cropping, focal point, and/or light and dark patterns, will provide different options on how to design your painting.

Keeping the Value Consistent when Adding Color

Once you have your design options and you pick your favorite one, it’s time to start painting on a support that is consistent in proportions with your value study.

The tricky part is usually mixing colors that are uniform in value with the original design. Make sure you squint a lot, keep comparing. After you mix each color, put a touchdown and test it against the adjacent colors.

Tip: To compare and identify values, keep comparing your color to a value scale. You can create your own or buy one. Many commercial value scale cards have handy holes that make determining values easier.

Some colors tend to trick our brain. For example, we see yellow=orange and we think “light”, but if we squint that yellow-orange might blend into a mid-value shape. Make an extra effort to keep the value of colors you use consistent with the value of the shape they belong to.

Example: sometimes a color may seem dark enough on the palette, but when we put it down it looks much lighter than his neighbors and “breaks” the shape, disrupting the composition.

In this other painting of the Haystacks, Monet grouped the masses and also used a triangular structure.
In this other painting of the Haystacks, Monet grouped the masses and also used a triangular structure. | Source

Advantages of Using a Mid Value Ground Color

Any color applied on a white canvas will look darker than it really is.

For this reason, many artists use a palette that has a mid-value gray.

It also helps to paint the canvas with a ground color and cover all the white. It is easier to see the value of a painted color when compared to a mid-value substrate (ground).

You can approach this in several ways:

  • A. Cover your canvas with one ground color - when in doubt use burnt sienna.
  • B. Use two different ground colors: a warm hue for the light areas, a cool one for the shadow areas.
  • C. Cover your canvas with several colors, applied in an abstract way.

B makes easier to see if the color we mixed to fill a shape is really belonging to that value group.

"Field with Cypresses", by Vincent Van Gogh.  If you squint at this painting you can see the L shape formed by the tree and the foreground, and the diagonal line following the tree profile, the central bush, and the bottom of the bush on the left.
"Field with Cypresses", by Vincent Van Gogh. If you squint at this painting you can see the L shape formed by the tree and the foreground, and the diagonal line following the tree profile, the central bush, and the bottom of the bush on the left. | Source

By no means I consider myself a master artist, but what I know I enjoy sharing with others. I wrote this article hoping that it will help beginner artists in their creative process.

I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! : )

© 2017 Robie Benve

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    • galleryofgrace profile image

      galleryofgrace 7 weeks ago from Virginia

      Thanks for sharing your expertise, I really appreciate it. I'll have to come back and read again to make sure I didn't miss anything.

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