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The Art of Composition (or how to avoid going off at a tangent)

Art of Composition

I have found that my energy is slowly but steadily returning after my operation on my broken leg in March (although painting light is shrinking with the shortening days).  I spent much of the spring and early summer sitting in my chair wishing I could go outside into the fresh air or climb the stairs to my attic studio. I painted watercolours instead, and thought a lot about colour and composition. I learnt to simplify my images and edit them with more ruthlessness than I had done before.

Gola Island
Gola Houses (watercolor)

I have attempted to carry these lessons into the compositions of my oil paintings. I suspect that I need to go further. I am always torn between a desire to accurately convey what is probably a well-known location to local people, and the need to create an effective composition. In otherwords I want to create an engaging painting, regardless of whether a viewer has visited Donegal or not.

Painting of house on Gola, Donegal, Ireland
Blue Door, Gola (oil on canvas) SOLD

Here’s an example of editing my composition. I used several reference photos for this painting of Bád Eddie (Eddie’s Boat) but you will see that I decide to leave out the all the lamp posts. I felt they made the picture look cluttered. I also left out the the skylights on a couple of the houses for the same reason. I did, however, decide to include a couple of series of fence posts on the right side of the painting as they lead the eye down the hill.

Bad Eddie at Bunbeg
One of the reference photos for Bád Eddie at Bunbeg
Painting of Bad Eddie, Bunbeg,Ireland
Bád Eddie, Ireland. (Oil on canvas) SOLD

I have gone further with my editing of the reference image in my most recent painting of Arranmore. This is a painting of a (probably abandoned) white house that I had painted a watercolour of earlier in the year .

Watercolour of Irish cottage, Donegal
The White house, Arranmore, Ireland (watercolour) 

A lot of the compositional work is done when composing the reference photograph, but there is often a bit more tinkering to be done to clarify the image further.

Landscape painting of Arranmore by Emma Cownie
The White Bridge, Arranmore, Ireland (100cm x 65cm) (Oil on canvas)

Here you can see that I have again removed most of the telegraph poles, just leaving one further down the road. The fence posts as usual, get to stay. The ones on the right led the eye down the road. The central part of the painting on the right side is too cluttered for my liking too. It’s very confusing for the viewer. I have since discovered that this is because there are too many “tangents“. The word “tangent” usually just indicates that two things are touching, but in art the term describes shapes that touch in a way that is visually annoying or troublesome. This also describes those telegraph poles I removed. It all makes for an image that is easier to “read”.

Tangent Chart – From

I also removed a several of the buildings so that there is a clear view over to the tiny island of Inishkeeragh with its solidary summer home. Finally, I also simplied the pair of yellow buildings to the far right. I found the semi-abstract result pleasing and I felt that the lack of detail balanced the detail in mud, rocks and grasses on the near side to the left of the painting. I like to balance detail with areas of flat colour, such as the roof of the house or the sea, as I think that too much detail all over makes the head sore. The human brain doesn’t process images in this way any way. Our eyes/brains will focus on one or two areas and “generalise” other larger areas of colour.

Thus, I hope I have created a succesful painting rather than slavishly copying a photograph.

White Bridge Arranmore, (in situ)
White Bridge Arranmore, (in situ)

Read more about avoiding confusing tangents in compositions here  

and also in this article Compose: A Touchy Subject 

or watch this youtube clip

26 thoughts on “The Art of Composition (or how to avoid going off at a tangent)

    1. Thank you so much, Athira

      1. Most welcome🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

  1. Thanx Emma for this blog

    1. You are welcome, Cécile

  2. Your paintings are beautiful

    1. Thank you so much, Bindy. I am glad ypu like them.

  3. White Bridge Arranmore fits in perfectly with that corner of the room! I learned a few things from this post and the videos that goes with it. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Hein. I am learning all the time too!

  4. Beautiful paintings! They do give me such a peaceful feeling – Neek

    1. That’s lovely. Thank you so much! Maybe its the absence of people in them!?lol??

      1. So true! Hee hee! Take care Emma

  5. To my knowledge you have never “slavishly copied a photograph” 😊 And OMG those street lamps! They looked like a bunch of random toothpicks in the photo. Good riddance to them!

    1. Yep, too many toothpicks!

  6. I imagine that one of the great joys of being an artist is that you can create your reality as you wish to see it. Telegraph poles and lamp standards are not needed . So unlike photography where you would have to take the poles and perhaps later photoshop them out as an artist you can simply not include them. I always enjoy your painting as they are full of life and color and no poles!

    1. Thank you, Lueeen. I do sometimes include a telegraph pole if it helps the composition. The wonderful thing about Gola Island, off the Donegal coast, is that there are no telegraph poles at all!

  7. Your views, and paintings, of these places turn out much better than reality. I like the way you highlight what is already there and remove the ugliness.

    1. Thank you, Pam. I dont removed all “ugliness” as such, as the rocks and heather in the left hand corner could be considered “ugly” but I do remove things that make the painting difficult to understand/or read. This view from Arranmore really is this good.

  8. Real life often needs improving on, doesn’t it? And as an artist you’re totally at liberty to do that 🙂 🙂 One of my bugbears is overhead wires and pylons. I wish I could just paint them out. 🙂 It’s a lovely painting, Emma.

    1. I visited Istanbul way back in the late 1980s and was struck by the crazy mass of wires that were slung above the street. I wonder if they had tidied them up in the intervening decades?

  9. you still have Telegraph operating? or is that the word the English use for Telephone poles still?

    1. Lol! They are called telegraph poles but they carry phone lines, I guess. I am wondering if they carry electricity too but I really dont have a clue!

      1. Yes they do Emma. Power lines will be on top,usually three cables with phone/fiber optics hung below.

  10. Another lovely painting, Emma. I learnt so much from your post, and the links, especially the second video. i have never had formal training in composition and it is something I have never really thought much about. Maybe now I use some of the things I learnt here! Thanks for helping me take another step along the art road.

    1. Me too, Anne. I look things up and think about them.

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