Tag Archives: composition

How to Choose Your Subject

Lone Tree

Lone Tree
Oil on gessobord
©2012 Lucinda Howe


At a recent meeting of the Log Cabin Art Guild at Sesquicentennial State Park, I gave a talk about how to decide on a subject when painting outdoors and how to get started on your painting.  This demo was quite an adventure because I forgot to bring any white paint!  Fortunately, I had a tube of a warm light gray paint that I had received as a sample and was able to use it to mix a light sky.  Whew! I might have make the sky lighter, but in the end I thought this gave  nice subdued color harmony and left it alone.

Here are some notes from my presentation and the finished painting.

  • Paint (or draw) outdoors if possible.  You can see colors better than the camera.  Absorb the feel of the place.
  • Scout around and pick a spot in the shade.  Look for light from the side.
  • Frame with a viewfinder or camera.
  • Stay off the “idiot line”.

Stay off the “idiot line”. Don’t put the horizon or a major linear element in the middle of the picture plane.

  • Compose using the rule of thirds

Use rule of thirds to establish location of the horizon line.

  • Place the horizon at 1/3 or 2/3. Is it about earth or sky?

Low horizon line, focal point at lower right

  • Establish focal point (area of impact) in one of the sweet spots using contrast of color and value.
  • Tone your canvas or board with a warm color (red or yellow ochre) in advance
  • Use a limited palette and mix colors in advance
  • Paint darks first, then lights.  Once you have established the value structure, the middle values can be any color.

Remember:  You are the artist.   You control the composition.  Don’t be confused by reality!

Posted in Oil Painting, Plein Air

Is This Painting Finished?

Secluded Gardens, Lexington, SC

This past Saturday the plein air group painted in a private garden in Lexington, South Carolina.  The garden features extensive flower beds and grass paths, an old barn, and whimsical sculptures.  Surrounding trees create a feeling of seclusion.  Day lilies and other perennials were in full bloom.  It was all beautiful and quite overwhelming.

After a stroll around the property with my camera,  I found a place in the shade and selected a support.  I decided to use a 14×11” piece of watercolor paper with a purple underpainting to contrast with the yellow green that was the dominant color in the landscape.  To simplify the  details in the plants, I planned to use value layers to separate the dark shady foreground from the light flower beds in the middle ground with a middle value representing the tall trees in the background.  I painted two hours until critique time at noon.

Design Concept

Design concept using value layers

One of the best things about painting with this group is the critique.  The discussion is informal and everyone participates (sometimes all talking at once), and I always learn a lot.  Comments from the group were that the dark foreground looks like water.  The s-curve of the path was working as a design element leading to the focal point in the upper right.  Unfortunately that wasn’t where I intended the focal point to be.   I could see I had some more work to do.


Original on location painting, 14x11", Acrylic on paper, Lucinda Howe

Back in the studio the next day, I considered revisions.  The acrylic paint was dry, so I could paint over it. Too much of the space was occupied by the dark and middle values top and bottom and the middle value was too dark and solid, so I decided to crop the painting to 12×9” with a utility knife.

I intended for the dark sculpture in the lower right to be the focal point, so I eliminated the red flowers in the upper right.  I also made the dark area look like stepping stones instead of water, and strengthened the s-curve without losing the value structure.  I added some lighter value and texture to the background and made some minor adjustments in the flowers to establish the direction of the light from the right.

At this point, I feel it’s closer to my original intention, but I’ll let it rest a few days before I decide if it’s ready to sign.  What do you think?  Is it finished?

Secluded Gardens

Secluded Gardens, 12x9", Acrylic on watercolor paper, ©2012 Lucinda Howe

Posted in Acrylics, Plein Air, Studio Also tagged |

How to Find a Plein Air Location

Framing a painting

A landscape painting being framed with a view finder.

View finder

Line up major lines of the image with lines at thirds in the viewfinder. Don't forget a landscape painting can be in a vertical format.

Now that the weather is getting warmer, it’s time to do some plein air painting!

Last fall I suggested starting in your own back yard to get comfortable with setting up your easel and making sure you have all the necessary supplies.  So what do you do when it’s time to venture out beyond your own yard?

When I first started painting outdoors, I spent a lot of time driving around looking for the perfect spot.  Believe me, there is never a perfect spot.  There is always light at the wrong angle, or there’s a cell tower in the way, or the sun sets too fast.  Not to mention BUGS.  Anyway, I wasted a lot of time and gas looking.  Then I started painting with a group where someone else chose the location, and I had to make something out of whatever was there.  I also saw other artists make beautiful little paintings of an old tire swing or a fire hydrant, and I began to realize that the artist’s job is to see what others don’t and to create beauty from mundane situations.  If you can do that, you can make a painting almost anywhere.

Even though no location is perfect, some are better than others.  Here are a few suggestions for your first few excursions:

  1. Paint with a group if possible.  It’s safer than going alone, and you can learn from more experienced painters while enjoying the camaraderie.
  2. Find a place in the shade for your easel.  If you paint with the sun on your easel, your painting will be too dark.
  3. Find a spot where you are sideways to the light.   That is, the light comes from the left or the right, not from behind your back or directly in your eyes.  This helps to create a 3-dimensional look to your objects because they will have a light side and a shadow side.
  4. Use the viewfinder in your camera or a piece of cardboard with a rectangular hole about 1×1.5 inches to narrow your field of vision and help you focus.  Imagine two vertical lines and two horizontal lines dividing your image into thirds each way so there are 9 sections (think tic-tac-toe).  Adjust your viewfinder so that major horizontal and vertical lines in the landscape are along the imaginary lines.  For example, place the horizon or edge of a lake one-third of the way up from the bottom.  And put a tall tree or building at one of the vertical lines.  With the basis of your composition established, draw the main lines in the same position on your support, and then draw the rest of the shapes as they relate to the main structural lines.
  5. Don’t worry if you don’t get further than the drawing the first few times.  Painting outdoors can be overwhelming, so don’t stress about whether you finish your painting.  Just relax and enjoy the process.

If you are ready to get started, you’re invited to join the About Face group for a plein air day this Saturday, February 19, at the USC Horseshoe.  Meet at the Sumter Street gate at 8:30 a.m. or look for painters around the Horseshoe during the morning.  We’ll meet at Diprato’s Delicatessen at 11:30 for lunch.  See you there!

Posted in Basics, Plein Air Also tagged , |