VIDEO: 5 Simple Design Elements That Will Improve Any Painting

By Dan in Art Tutorials > Video Tutorials

If design and composition isn’t generally something that you think about while painting, it probably should be. A good design ensures that your viewers will stay interested in your artwork, even over a long period of time—and the truth is, good design doesn’t have to be all that complex, either.

In today’s video, Mark Mehaffey shows us several simple design elements that can easily be incorporated into any work of art. He covers shapes, size contrast, value contrast, focal area, and eye movement. Take a look:

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You can also find Mark Mehaffey’s full-length video tutorial at Creative Catalyst.

Transcription of “5 Simple Design Elements That Will Improve Any Painting”

[Mark speaking]

If your painting is not well designed it makes no difference how good you are at handling brush, paint, paper, technique-wise it’s still going to be not as strong a painting it as it could be

the very first thing you have to do is design your picture space, your rectangle. let’s take a basic rectangle. . . if I put two rectangles side-by-side (and this really is quite basic) and I design these rectangles in a landscape for example, if I divide this rectangle exactly in half that gives me two very similar shapes and visually it’s not very exciting

If I take the other rectangle and I move my horizon up to the upper third, I now have two shapes which are dissimilar in size and visually this is a lot more exciting than dividing the space up evenly like this rectangle does.

Again if I have a focal area or something that I wish to depict, and I put that dead center—I’m dividing my rectangle again up very symmetrically, very evenly and it’s just not that exciting visually

If I however add my focal area, again (and I’m dividing this up by thirds there’s the rule of thirds but it’s it’s a pretty general and usually correct rule) but if I move this over to the left third I now have four completely different size shapes, and with even this very basic composition, you can see that this is much more visually interesting than this configuration

I like to find a focal area in my work, somewhere for the viewer to get involved. The placement of that focal area I believe is critical. There is one place we don’t usually place it and that’s dead center—again for some of the same reasons.

If I put an active focal point center of interest dead center that has a tendency to divide my picture space up evenly, and maybe that’s not quite as visually interesting as dividing that picture space up asymmetrically.

So what I have a tendency to do is put my focal area in one of these four quadrants—here, here, here, or here. Here, here, here, or here.

I avoid this dead center—right there.

One thing we don’t want to do as artists is take a viewers eye and take them off the paper. If I add a very important shape on the edge (and your eye does have a tendency to go there because it’s just an isolated shape) I suggest to people that they not have anything of huge great importance on the edge of their composition. You run the risk of taking the viewers eye off if you do that.

I also realized that, depending on the artists intent—and different artists have different conceptual intent in their work—that some artists will on purpose consciously add something very important to the edge, but it has to do with the concept behind their art and these are just kind of general design rules to set up your composition so that it’s much stronger to begin with.

the next thing we have to consider is shape, and I have a tendency to also always I almost hit the viewer over the head with how I direct their eye to the visual story that I want to tell. I can do the same thing very simply by how I arrange shapes.

If I place smaller shapes and I surround smaller shapes with larger shapes the viewers eye automatically will go to that contrast in size. Because I have smaller shapes in this area, surrounded by larger shapes, your eye should automatically go to this area.

And that’s one of the most basic things you can do to direct the viewer to exactly where you want it to be in your painting—it allows them to get in, find out what your visual story is, and then there are other ways to move their eye throughout the painting to get them to look throughout.

Everything that you you should either be secondary to your focal area, or support your focal area—and if it does not, then I have a tendency to just leave it out of the composition entirely. . . I simplify.

Once those decisions have been made and you have your shapes arranged, then the next important thing that you need to consider is value. Value is simply the difference between light and darks it is all lights and darks. We see things in relation to how light or dark they are by what surrounds them, what’s behind them, what’s in front of them.

There are no edges or lines in the natural world that we see. The reason we see the difference between things is because there’s a value difference. When most of us paint, if you were to evaluate all the lights and darks in a painting, most of us would use somewhere between 7 and 13 different values.

That’s really confusing for the student, and I like to simplify the value scale into five values.

One, the first value of course, will be white, the lightest value. Then light. A middle value. A medium dark. And then a very dark.

These five values—and let me just take a minute and actually shade those in: light, medium, medium dark, and very dark or black—I try to describe the whole all of the shapes in my composition using these five values. It’s sometimes necessary in very complicated compositions, or with beginning students, to only use these three.

Another thing that I do to direct the viewers eye to exactly where I’d like it in a composition is I use value contrast. And that’s using the two opposite ends of our value scale side-by-side. I can illustrate that also.

Since I love to eat I’m going to use two donuts. These donuts (or targets) I’m going to add to the first one a middle value. The center of this donut. Into the outside ring of the same donut I’m going to add a very similar value—maybe a little lighter.

To the center of the second donut I’m going to add a very dark value, and I’m going to leave that dark surrounded by white.

As soon as you look down at these two donuts your eye should go immediately to this one and that’s because the eye is attracted to this great amount of value contrast. We can use this “white next to black” or “very dark next to very light” to direct a person’s eye into the composition.

If I were to make this rock shape very dark and leave it surrounded by these lighter shapes, your eye goes even more to this area of this rather simple composition because of this great degree of value contrast between dark and light.

It’s just another tool for the artist to use to get the viewer to become involved with their composition.

I do have a tendency to use value contrasts, a high degree of light and dark side by side, especially in my focal area, to get the viewer involved, tell them my visual story, and then I use other varying degrees, lesser degrees of value contrast, where the values are maybe a little closer together to move their eye throughout a composition.

In review this is basically how I simplify designs so that my paintings—once I begin the painting—I have a plan: all of my shapes have been arranged, all of my values have been assigned within my shapes, my composition has been decided in terms of the kind of shape and the configuration of shape, the placement of my focal areas usually occurs in one of these four quadrants, I have to consciously avoid the dense dead center of my paper, I use value contrast in and around my focal area, and in other parts of the painting to get the viewer to move their eye throughout the painting, and to come and find a restful area in my focal area

[end of video]

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