Composition is Key

Church Street, Oldwick, NJ - plein air pastel, about 9x12 in.

Composition is a key element to any successful painting. The painting has to work as a whole, no matter how great the rendering or use of media, if it doesn’t hold together with a balanced composition, it won’t work.

When painting plein air, you must work out your composition before you start putting anything down on paper. To start, you have to have something to draw the viewer in–anything with a strong sense of perspective, particularly one point perspective, will do this. Think of streams, roadways, telegraph poles and wires, trees, anything that defines the space with perspective will draw the viewer into the painting. Once there, the eye needs connecting points in order to be motivated to explore the painting. Repeating shapes and colors are great for this. It also presents the artist with an opportunity to be creative and expressive–if you need a bit of yellow in the upper right to balance the yellow elsewhere, put it in whether it is there or not in real life.

Think of the format of your painting as space that needs to be divided geometrically. Look for alpha forms such as “Z”‘s or “L”s to create a strong division of space and movement. Forget about “what” you are painting and look purely at forms made by light, shadow, color and values. Rather than painting trees, block in shapes that are created from a mass of leaves.

The painting above was done in pastel, which is a great medium for plein air. I first block in the comp monochromatically with a hard pastel, then I lay in the values with that same color. Once I have the comp and values blocked in, I go to color working from dark to light.

This piece was done in about an hour. Working plein air trains your eye to see things quickly and accurately. The light WILL change while you are working, that is why blocking in the values and staying loose is so crucial to plein air. You can’t noodle around with your drawing, be very gestural and get in the big shapes, you can put in as much or as little detail as you feel is needed once you have the big picture laid out.


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