I was drawn to this stand of sunflowers at a local nursery and set up my easel directly across from them. When working on location there is a kind of exuberance that happens as you start painting. That day I had a square panel, noted that my eye level was in the upper third of the panel. Long after I started to chase the light, it was time to go home. I was disappointed with the painting. It lacked the joy and energy that was there when I began. I wasn’t ready to give up on this painting. My go-to for compositional problems has been a quick diagnostic trick called, “The Rule of Thirds, [a simple form of the Golden Ratio traced back to Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1797]. The idea is to divide the surface into thirds horizontally and vertically creating 9 squares. Where the lines intersect can become focal points or areas of interest thought to be more pleasing to the eye. Immediately I saw that the band of sunflowers went right across the midline of the painting, putting the viewer on snooze. I worked on the flowers to give some variety to their height, made the pink lupine in the lower left more prominent and gave the tree on the right more emphasis.
The diagram above is from Edgar Payne’s book, “Composition of Outdoor Painting”. Payne, an early California Impressionist illustrated here how the grid can help you clarify points of interest, generally 1/3 of the distance from the edge.
The image on the left is the first version of a small painting done on location plein air. In all fairness to the painting an Angus bull that occupied the same pasture interrupted me, forcing me to leave twice so It’s not surprising that all my attention was on the subjects with little regard for compositional concerns. Time is of the essence when you have a bull hanging around. The horses needed to be done quickly before they moved. I knew I created this empty space in the foreground but didn’t have time to resolve it. In the sketch at the right I used the rule of thirds to open up the possibilities for improving the composition. Right away I saw that the horses, barn and gate cut the painting in half. First, I tried to change the shadows in the grass at the bottom to create more interest and move the eye around the painting. The dogs emerged out of the shapes in the grass. This an example of the painting telling the artist what it needs. As it so happens the owner of the two horses also had two dogs. It seemed natural to include them since I was familiar with their gestures and coloring. The final version is below.
I’m not big on “rules” but I sometime use this trick to move the painting along when I get stuck. It’s my way of loosening the grip and allowing the spirit to intervene!