Arts & Activities  
      November Student Page      

      Concept, Composition, Confidence, Contrast, Color Harmony, Character, Courage      
      By Dan Bartges      
      Assignment 3 In A Series Of 10: COMPOSITION Part II      

Why do some paintings grab and hold your attention while others just sort of hang there passively on the wall? It's because most good paintings involve certain key elements that boost their performance. What are those high-octane qualities, and how can you inject them into your own artwork?
Throughout the school year, we're exploring seven key elements of successful paintings, and showing you how to use them. This month, we're taking a closer look at composition, a topic we began last month. So welcome aboard! As our voyage progresses, you'll begin to see big improvements in your own paintings.

HOW IT WORKS Each month, read about the paintings featured on this Web page. Next, print out the "Quiz Me!" sheet, write in your answers to three short questions, and hand in the sheet to your art teacher. (The correct answers will be shared with you online on the next month's Student Page.)


How can you engage a viewer with your artwork? How do you hold her/his interest? How can you guide the viewer's eye to what's most important in your painting? A big part of the answer is through the painting's composition - its overall design that can make a painting function just the way you want it to.

Last month, we began examining the importance of composition by considering a painting's format (should the picture be horizontal or vertical?) and its balance (do all parts of the painting work together?). This month, let's explore how to grab, hold and steer the viewer's interest in your painting.

Here are five ways in which accomplished artists strengthen their paintings' compositions, and influence the way viewers experience their artwork. Experiment with them in your next painting!

1. First, do a pencil or charcoal sketch. Yes, it's an extra step when you'd rather just start painting, but it's an extremely helpful step the best painters take. Why is it so helpful? For two reasons: A preliminary sketch helps you to figure out your painting's overall design (its composition). Secondly, it provides a painless way for you to foresee and resolve compositional problems before they have a chance to plague your painting. Doing a preliminary sketch will help you eliminate most compositional problems before you start your painting.

      Dan Bartges. Deep in the Forest. Oil on canvas; 60" x 35".      
      2. Create an entranceway for the viewer. Successful paintings provide viewers with an important entry point that our eyes often follow unconsciously. In Deep in the Forest, for example, the viewer's eye tends to enter the painting with the stream at the very bottom, and then to follow the stream up and into the painting. The stream, then, acts as the entranceway into the picture. Note the waterway at the bottom is bright and colorful to gain attention and is mostly free of rocks, which would have blocked the viewer's visual passage.      
      Leon Trousset (French, 1838–1917). Old Mesilla Plaza, ca. 1885–86. Oil on canvas; 29.56" x 48.5". Smithsonian American Art Museum Transfer from the Bureau of American Ethnology.      

3. Use lines of perspective to guide the viewer's interest. In Old Masilla Plaza, Leon Trousset makes strong use of perspective to steer the viewer's attention into the painting's interior, especially with the long building starting at the lower right and moving forcefully toward the horizon. Similarly influential are the precise row of six trees and the mule-team wagon strategically angled up the street.
Note, also, there are two possible entryways into this painting: one via the street at lower right, the other via the street coming in from the lower left. Notice how the artist has biased your choice toward coming in from the left: In the road at lower right, he placed a bulky ox cart moving out of the scene in order to frustrate and partially block entry there, and he placed a starkly dark, attention-grabbing donkey entering the scene from the left. Naturally, your eye enters with the donkey, then moves across the plaza and swoops up the road with the mule team and covered wagon. With these compositional elements, the artist establishes a strong visual flow that sweeps the viewer through the scene on an irresistible curve of motion, starting at the lower left and continuing up and into the scene.

      Irving R. Wiles (American; 1861–1948). Her Leisure Hour, ca. 1925. Oil on canvas;
27.25" x 22.5". Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of John Gellatly.
      4. Hold the viewer's attention with a distinct foreground, middle ground and background. A good painting gradually draws a viewer's attention deeper into its interior, and that's often achieved in stages-the foreground, middle ground and background-so the viewer fully experiences the picture. Usually, each of these three basic areas provides the viewer with some sort of visual satisfaction, something to occupy his/her mind-either consciously or unconsciously.

For example, in Deep in the Forest, the foreground provides visual appeal with rich oranges and greens, the large boulder and the bright reflections off the water. The middle ground offers the subtle surprise of a deer at the edge of the stream. And the background features the painting's main attraction: the bright light sifting down through the treetops.

With Irving R. Wiles' striking portrait Her Leisure Hour, the viewer's eye moves from the model's feet diagonally upwards to her face. Notice the painting's three distinct planes: (a) The foreground that includes rich colors reflecting off the floor, the table and her feet extended out toward the viewer; (b) The middle ground the model herself lavishly occupies; and (c) The background with the bookcase, rendered skillfully with subdued colors. Our eyes are rewarded with each successive phase of the painting.
      William H. Johnson (American; 1901–1970). Sowing, ca. 1940. Oil on burlap; 38.5" x 45.75". Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Harmon Foundation.      
      5. Remember the viewer's left-to-right preference. For whatever reason, we all naturally prefer to view things from left to right. For example, books are read from left to right; movie and theatre scenes are usually staged from left to right; and most successful paintings are composed to be viewed from left to right.

Sowing, a painting we first looked at last month, is a good example of our eyes' left-to-right bias. To demonstrate, here's what that same painting looks like flipped around, now showing the two people and mule moving from right to left. See how awkward and unnatural the scene becomes?
      QUIZ ME!
Click here to download November Quiz Me! document
      Author: A full-time artist since 1996, Dan Bartges is the author of the book, "Color Is Everything," and two books on sports, "Winter Olympics Made Simple" and "Spectator Sports Made Simple." Visit his website at      

Museum Connection
To learn more about how artists compose paintings, try this online tool—available on the Smithsonian American Art Museum's website—to learn about linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, pattern and repetition, and figure and ground relationships."Panoramas: The North American Landscape in Art":


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