Composition and Color in Portrait Painting

With this post, I want to talk a little bit about painting composition and color. At the point in time when I did this painting, which was a couple months and almost 30 paintings ago now, I was watching a massive amount of videos from expert artists to try to learn more. I kept hearing the word “composition” thrown around in painting videos…and I’ll be honest, I had to Google it to study up on what specifically it means when it comes to painting. Such is the life of an amateur trying to fumble his way through the learning process. This conversation takes place using an interesting painting that seems to give different impressions based on how its oriented.

The short version: Composition is all the aspects of a painting added together to make the complete package. Stuff like how the color selections fit together, how objects or people are arranged, and things like that. Subtle aspects can have a huge impact in how the audience views a piece of art and the reaction they might have to it. Are their eyes drawn to specific areas of the painting? Is it balanced? Do the colors combine in a way that makes an impact or provoke a response? There seems to be so much to consider, sometimes it makes real expertise seem very far away from where I sit. Thinking about all of this really puts into focus my appreciation for what professional artists are able to do.

Left: Rule of Thirds grid, Right: Dynamic Symmetry grid. Both overlaid onto the painting in this post.

So, getting into those specific pieces of composition – things like spatial arrangements, color, and eye movement. One aspect I’d been pondering quite a bit around the time of this painting is that question of balance, or where your eyes go in a painting. I’ve read about several ways to arrange things to focus attention, or present subjects in an interesting or appealing way. Some involve sharpening or blurring specific areas, relying on color, or spatial arrangements like splitting up a piece into a grid. From what I’ve read, this grid method is referred to as the “Rule of Thirds,” and its really interesting to see this applied to famous paintings. I’ve shown an example here of my painting on such a grid – interestingly, although I didn’t plan it this way, it does somewhat align to the Rule of Thirds. Not completely, but if you squint just right, parts seem to.

Another arrangement I’ve seen is called “dynamic symmetry”…although I have no clue if that’s an official name for it. Basically, you draw a line from corner to corner, then another at a right angle to that one. From what I’ve read, this pattern can help frame or move your eye around the painting. Applying this vertically and horizontally to my painting is where this starts to get a bit interesting (at least to me anyway). Laying down the dynamic symmetry lines in horizontal position puts the subject eye right in the focal point, whereas the vertical orientation doesn’t seem to fit the grid at all. That goes back to what I mentioned in the opening paragraph; how there seems to be a different effect/impression based on how this painting is oriented.

I guess the orientation thing is true for pretty much any painting – if you flip a normal portrait on its side, it’s not going to look right. But with this one, I initially worked on it in vertical position, mostly because that’s what I’m used to with other portraits. But since it’s a lady laying in the grass, the intended orientation of the finished version is horizontal. It was sort of strange working on it one way, then flipping it on its side when I was done for the “real” view. I didn’t plan this at all using the composition tools/guides I mentioned, so it’s funny this ended up matching in the intended “end state” position by coincidence. Speaking of the “end state,” I’ll share that finished product now, then we can talk about color as a composition tool.

Lady lying in the grass, oil on paper.

Although I’ve only given a couple of examples, there are many other ways to look at composition – so many in fact that I don’t have the space here to cover them all. In fact, I don’t have the necessary expertise either; such an overview would probably legitimately be enough for an entire class or book. I’ll leave that comprehensive view to the professionals. It might speak to my lack of formal art education that this subject feels so vast and mind boggling to me. Anyhow, putting all that aside, one more aspect to composition I want to look at here is color. Although I didn’t achieve anything of note with this one in terms of color, I was hoping a nice palette selection would make this particular painting interesting.

I started off on a good path I thought – some nice, varied blocks of color in the face. and I felt the greens I would use in the background would contrast well with the reds, yellows, and brown mixes in the subject. As I progressed, it wasn’t turning out as I planned – as I added the green hues, it completely drowned the other colors in the piece. To the point where my subject immediately began to look washed out. I was really surprised by this effect, which I think speaks to my inexperience as a painter and probably also generally as an artist. I did try to revivify parts of the face, but there’s only so much you can do without reworking completely. And I’m more inclined to just take something as a lesson rather than bang my head against the wall over and over trying to fix something.

I’m glad to report though, I think those efforts to bring back some color to this piece were largely successful. Although there is still some definite paleness in effect, the final result is actually pretty solid. In fact, looking back over the paintings I’ve done since, and the ones that came before, this painting is sort of a mile-marker for me. It’s one of the first paintings that I actually like enough that I would consider worth selling or making prints of. Not that it’s any kind of masterpiece, but it’s not as significantly flawed as previous oil paintings.

So, that’s pretty much it for this one. Although overall, I can see the improvement in my painting skills, there is clearly a long way to go in the composition realm. I’m okay with that though – I know I need to work on the nuts and bolts of technique more than anything. I can focus more heavily on the theory and academic sides of things down the road. This is a hobby after all, so I’m not in a hurry. But at least I know it’s a thing to add to my learning checklist – which is probably bigger than I even realize right now.

And an administrative note; I’m now 29 paintings behind in terms of sharing to this website. That list continues to grow, since my urge to paint hasn’t diminished at all. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I may never actually catch up to this backlog, and that maybe eventually I’ll be so far behind that the website doesn’t reflect anything current. In the short term, I’ve reconfigured the home page to be more reflective of Instagram and YouTube, which are always more current now. And I’m going to keep trying to combine and consolidate paintings within posts, so maybe that will help a bit. Eventually, I may just have to dump a dozen paintings or so into one!


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  • Revivify – what a word !!

    As an alternative to revivifying the face, as you’d noted it was good before? How about dullifying the greens? I’m thinking a very thin layer of cool grey to mute those tones behind, something towards the bluer end would have the reverse effect of the face becoming pale and perhaps introduce more depth to the overall piece?

    Composition – grab a coffee and start reading about golden ratio and why 1.618 is an important number. It’s a rabbit hole worth falling down, though I confess to doing the most basic of composition checks when planning layouts. For a quick check I sometimes take a photo and then flip it horizontally to see if it still looks right.

    • Haha yes I’ve been hitting up my thesaurus! And man, that’s outside the box thinking on the background. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t try that first, it might have been easier. The only thing I can think of is maybe since I’m so weak on backgrounds that I was afraid to change that at all.

      On that golden ratio situation, I have come across that before. But to be totally honest, I didn’t really understand it! I figured I better not even try to discuss that here, since literally the only take away I had was that the little overlay seems to look like a seashell. Do you happen to have any good resources or recommendations on the subject?

      • I find that most guides, even those in books, seem to try to find a connection between paintings and the composition lines, often to the extent of shifting the lines around to meet the painting. To my mind I could take almost any picture and find and force composition lines to fit, to me proof needs to be exact which is how they portray it but is factually incorrect.

        In other words, it’s not something I’m going to get hung up on. But I still have it in mind for when I’m being a bit more creative.

        I find it easier to think of that seashell in its box form like on the link below. And even easier to think of it as a variation on the rule of thirds with thinner boxes rather than an even split.

      • That makes sense, I think I’m in that same mode. Maybe it would be cool if I could get to the point where I could keep that stuff in mind as I make something. But I could never see myself actually changing a painting or drawing to fit something like this.

        It’s all very interesting and I do enjoy learning more about it. But man, it can get so complicated! I really just want to have fun painting, you know?

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