Good compositions make your subject matter sing! You have to arrange subject matter properly to produce a successful painting. Don’t just copy what’s out there in front of you!

What’s a good composition? It’s the proper relationship of subject matter… relationships that are pleasant… or perhaps even disturbing.  Relationships that are original, colorful, and engaging.  Understanding what shapes and objects, colors, shadows, values and textures complement each other is critical for accomplishing this.

I’ve included a 7 1/2″ x l0 3/4″ study (Exhibit 23) from one of my sketchbooks that subsequently became a painting (Exhibit 24), so you might better understand the process that takes place when developing a composition.  Both the sketch and painting were done while traveling about the Baja peninsula in Mexico. Sometimes I will execute a trial sketch like this, but generally I do not. Most of the time I’ll go right into the painting.

In the study or sketch (See Exhibit 23) I experimented with colors, values, and textures, making notes with my pen about the composition and other things.  You’ll notice from the shadows cast on the major building structure that the sun was coming from the left-hand side of the painting… the West, so this was an afternoon painting. I intentionally indicated the telephone pole tilting to the right to contrast with the various rectangular shapes of windows and doors, and the street which slopes down from the right to left-hand side of the composition. The cars and figures break up the composition.  The distribution of the warm shadows of tile roofs, figures and flowers help to unify the composition. All the notes done with ink also help to accomplish the same thing.

painting composition Example, painting composition origin, starting composition

Exhibit 23 – Sketchbook Study

The composition for the actual painting itself (Exhibit 24) was laid out with a pencil rather than ink, so the line work that dominates the sketch is missing in the painting. Otherwise it’s pretty much the same, though some changes were made when I completed the painting onsite, the following day. I lightened up the shadows, moved the principal auto over a bit to the right, and added a pair of figures that were barely suggested in the sketch. There’s also more street paving shown in the foreground, and the sky is not as intense. Compare the final painting with sketch. Which is better? Hard to say! Such is life. 

Exhibit 24 – Final Painting: “Street Scene, Puerto Nuevo, MX”

I believe every composition needs something to anchor it down: a tree rising up one side of the painting… a branch that sweeps across the top… but generally not something smack in the middle. I may significantly alter what I see in the final analysis to accomplish a good composition.

I did a painting up in the Morro Bay area with a tree to one side that ended up dominating the composition. I did not like the final result, so I cut the painting in half, framed both halves and hung them next to each other. The final pair framed in this manner look much better! I’ve exhibited these paintings a number of times together and individually. This tells us you don’t have to accept your initial painting as the final composition. Consider whether a portion would be better by itself than the whole thing (Exhibit 25). Though I’ve only done this twice, consider cutting out a portion and getting rid of the rest!

Exhibit 25 – “View of Morro Bay from End of Pecho St, Los Osos”

I prefer to paint in the afternoon. This means I must do most of my “composing” during the morning. Morning skies are unique, quite different than the evening when the sun is lower on the horizon. Shadows are deeper, and colors more intense. Very early in the morning is a good time to paint, ’cause not many people are around to bother you. You’re generally there on your own and it’s very quiet and peaceful. This may also be the best time of day to get sun shining on a subject you want to paint. Though morning colors are less intense, nonetheless, long shadows are cast across the landscape, as in the evening. When painting in the morning, these long, deep shadows gradually shrink and disappear, whereas in the evening they grow. In either case, you must anticipate what’s going to take place in front of you. So, in the final analysis, it’s often up to you to decide what’s the best time of day to paint a particular subject in a certain locale.

I had some success with one early morning painting up in Lone Pine, CA, in May of 2004.  I got up just before sunrise and went out into Alabama Hills to an area I’d seen the day before that I wanted to paint. But when I did the painting, I was only able to complete half the work. So I had to return the next morning to finish it.  Some things were different, others the same. Yet I’m very happy with how the painting turned out. I took a chance, and it paid off.  Most every other painting I’ve done, however, was accomplished over the course of one day.

Circumstances change, not only the place where you’re painting, but your own personal situation… YOU! I find it very difficult to get back into the mood I’ve experienced, once I leave a site. Most often, if I don’t finish a painting in one sitting, it may never get completed!

When I see something I’d like to paint, I may do a quick sketch or painting in my sketchbook (like the one we’ve just discussed), noting the date, time, location, and possibly even a title for my future painting. This is something I learned from Henry Fukuhara. Doing this helps you compose your painting, allows you to think further about the image you saw, helps you to set up values and contrasts, and also identify details. Such sketching takes one away from the actual subject itself for a brief moment and into the future painting.  It’s important not to copy everything you see out there in front of you, but to pick and choose.


Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the link below.

Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors