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What's Wrong with Your Picture?

mona lisa,Leonardo,ArtLife,Gauvin  Nothing is more frustrating then to stare at the piece you've spent days or weeks working on, only to realise it's just not right. It happens to all of us in the early stages of becoming a professional artist.  This article will focus on the major cause of this problem and how to avoid it...

Faulty composition is the number 1 cause of the problems you face in this situation. The success of an artwork depends on the thought you put into the composition of the piece. These are the basic rules:

1. In a landscape, the horizon must never cut the canvas in half; it is always placed one-third or two-thirds down from the top.
2. The horizon should never stretch in an unbroken line from edge to edge of the canvas.
3. The focal point, or most important feature of the painting, must always be placed off-centre.

You may know all those rules. You may have followed all the rules. So why does this painting look 'wrong?' A good bet is that you were so eager to start painting, you didn't give enough thought to the placement of 'minor' elements. In truth, there are no minor elements in an artwork. Any more than there are people who are merely 'spear-carriers' in the great Play of life.

  • Years ago, I devised what I call 'The Star' as a tool to automatically keep me from making mistakes in that first, vital phase of setting my composition. I like to draw straight onto the stretched, primed canvas but The Star can be applied to sketches on paper of any size. It is so easy, it will work for anyone. Here is what you do:

On the virginal white canvas, find and mark the centre. Using a T-square ruler, draw in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines, through the centre point from edge to edge of the canvas. You have made The Star. So, how does it help?

  • It reminds you not to place the focal point on any of its arms. For example, you will avoid placing the eyes of the subject in a portrait, the head of the lead horse in a group, or the most interesting feature of a landscape on these lines.

Another point, often overlooked by painters, is the need to keep the viewer's gaze from wandering outside the frame. Experienced artists have learned this can be achieved by placing some element of strong interest on the right-hand side of the painting. Here is why it works:

  • People of the Western world read from left to right. So, you will want to stop the eye by enticing it to linger on the right. Then lead it back, towards the central area of your painting. You will learn to do this, almost effortlessly, by paying attention to the dynamics of shapes within your composition.

Again, I stress the fact that this has to be worked out at the drawing stage. It is too late to try fixing a weak design once you have laid down several layers of paint. Then, there is nothing you can do but destroy the failed thing and start over. I used to call this a 'Doom and Destruction Day' before I began using The Star. I hope you will try it out in your own studio.©Dorothy Gauvin

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