Demonstration: Exploring Composition Through a Limited Focus

The first compositional move any painter makes is to apply a limited focus. Whether it be a still life, an interior, a figure, or a landscape (which is the most all-inclusive of subjects), some portion of what we see must be excluded if we are to create a focused, effective composition. As Hans Hoffman put it, we must “eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

A limited focus is explored through the “picture window” — the imaginary window we impose around a subject. That window or “cropping” will ultimately define the boundaries of the composition and correspond to what will become the edges of the painting or drawing. When artists peer through a viewfinder or cropping device, or look through the camera, they are, in effect, testing various picture windows and possible compositions.

Applying a limited focus is actually a very flexible way of exploring composition. When we take control of the picture window — deciding where the top, bottom, left and right edges of the picture fall — we  discover that there is not just one composition that can be extracted from a scene, but many. In the following demonstration, I will extract three compositions from the larger scene.

The original scene offered a lot of interesting passages, but I was most intrigued by what was happening on the far right. The chain and post fence is a good perspective cue and offers a lot of possibilities. I intentionally photographed more than I would ever include in one painting, knowing that this would give me more options with the picture window.

Color may be the raison d’être for many a landscape painting, but it can sometimes distract us from seeing simplified shapes and values, which are what we assess when evaluating a composition. So, the first thing I did was to convert the image to black and white. (I also applied the Cutout filter in Photoshop which limits the number of values and creates simpler shapes.)

Next, by trying different picture windows, I generated three different compositions from the same area of the scene. Slight changes in the position of the picture window created noticeable shifts in how the energy of the scene was interpreted. Note that the proportions of each composition are not the same. Remember, the picture window is flexible, so I am not bound by standard proportions such as 8 x 10, 9 x 12, 16 x 20, etc.  I can give the composition what it needs by contracting and expanding the picture window at the top, bottom, left or right edges.

GOOD: Options 1 and 2: Both options employ the same implied diagonal scheme: we enter in the lower right along the diagonal perspective created by the fence posts. We follow it to the left, and then zig back, rightward, up along the implied diagonal formed by the tops of the trees. The two compositions are otherwise identical, except that option 1 features more real estate to the left — which changes everything. It creates a wide “landscape” format which naturally suggests expansion from left to right. We still track the diagonal movement from the lower right to the left and back again, but our eye seems to travel a greater distance. In Option 2, we experience these same diagonal movements, but in a more compressed way. The vertical format reinforces this. The vertical or portrait format is less common in landscape painting, but with certain scenes, can be very effective in drawing the viewer inward and upward to create a sense of deep space.

BETTER: Option 3: This composition is the most successful of the three. It explores the same portion of the scene and uses the same implied diagonals, but it adds more sky, a foreground, and a dark tree on the right. Together, they offer greater movement and variation of shapes.

1. By expanding the picture window at the bottom, a dark cast shadow is introduced. This reinforces the entry into the picture and joins with the fence post, which then joins with the tall dark tree on the right to form a kind of semicircle of dark (see arcing arrow). This brackets the right side of the composition and creates an opening to the left where the background trees are.  In his book Composition of Outdoor Painting, Edgar Payne refers to this type of composition as the “O” or circle. “It generally offers a pretty sure method of achieving unity,” say Payne, “provided the main opening or space is kept dominant.”

2. The tall dark tree on the right, the cast shadow in the foreground, and the dark trees on the left make for three strong, varying shapes of dark value. More variation of shapes means more a interesting composition.

3. A light opening between the trees (see oval) now becomes a shape unto itself. It offers another interesting element, surrounded by the many darker values, and provides another way to move through the space.

4. A clear fore-, middle-, and background is a tried and true way of staging the landscape space. It is not an absolute requirement that every composition use all three stages, but in this case the changes introduced in option 3 do establish all three layers, which helps create the suggestion of deeper space.

Additional Resources
from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Composition Through the Picture Window, page 85
Limited Focus Through Selection, pages 86–87
The Viewfinder, page 89
The Flexible Picture Window, page 89

About Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). Now in its fifth printing, it has sold almost 30,000 copies and is regarded as the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, he currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art, Pacific Northwest Art School, artEast, and in 2015 Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. He is represented by Lisa Harris Gallery. See his paintings at mitchalbala.com.