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Decomposing and Composing

Nature rarely supplies us with ready-made compositions. When I’m out painting on-location, I find some scene that inspires me, and then I decide how best to express that inspiration. Most often it requires rearranging the elements in front of me by shifting the positions of the existing objects in the landscape, or dragging in objects from the surrounding area, enhancing a color or pushing a value etc. The objective, of course, is to create an effective and pleasing composition.

The same is true when I’m working from photos in the studio.

I treat photos as basically compilations of data. Although I’ve taken thousands of them, I rarely fine one of them can stand as a finished composition for a painting. So I look for strong designs within the photos; something that I can build on to create an effective work of art.

I have a box full of small mats that I can drop over areas of a photo while I look for a strong design, and a pleasing arrangement of objects. The mats are proportioned to the size of my canvases. For example, I have a set of seven 3x4” rectangles, ranging large to small, that correspond to my 9x12 inch, 18x24 inch, 30x40 inch and 36x48 inch canvases. So if I’m dropping these 3x4” mats on my photos, and I find a good composition on one of my photos, I can use it for one of the above-mentioned canvas sizes.

As you can see in the photo, I also have some mat rectangles that can be sized when I’m looking for crops in finished paintings.

Sometimes I’ll go through my sketchbooks looking for painting ideas and new compositions. This is when I take my mat rectangles out and move them about over my watercolor paintings.

Here’s an example:

I’ve found this watercolor of a lagoon with a sailboat.

By shifting around the rectangular mats, I find a composition that might be a springboard for another painting.

It seems that I always have a pile of paintings, lying around the studio, that I call my “eighty percenters”. They are paintings that are close, but there’s something about them that bugs me, so I don’t exhibit them.

Occasionally I’ll take out my rectangular mats and see if I can find some part of one of these “eighty percenters” that is salvageable.

I had this 30x40” oil of sunflowers in Tuscany. It was OK, but the busy sunflowers in the foreground and the villa in the background seemed to compete for the same amount of attention. Anyway, there was always something about it that just doesn’t quite work for me. The busy sunflowers in the foreground competed with the villa, and the underlying abstract design was a bit weak.

“Sunflowers – Tuscany 30x40 oil

So I took my mats and start moving them around the painting until I came up with a composition that I thought might have some possibilities.


 I cut this area out, did some repainting, and came up with a 14x18” piece that holds together better.

“Sunflowers – Tuscany 14x18 oil)

Here’s another example:

I had this 18x24” painting from the French Riviera.

“Cote d’Azur Harbor” 18x24 oil

 I liked it well enough, but, by moving my rectangular mats around the painting, I found two, more interesting, compositions hidden within the piece.

“Along the Cote d’Azur” 14x11 oil “Dockside – Mediterranean Sea” 9x12oil


Here’s an example of how I find a photo, then a design within it, and take it to a finished product:

I found a photo from Mexico that had some potential.


It was digital, so instead of using the mats to crop it I used Photoshop (same principle).

I painted a small 11x8 watercolor in one of my sketchbooks.

“Las Flores – Manzanillo 11x8 wc

Later I came across the watercolor and decided that it might work pretty well in oil.

Step One:

I forego any drawing, and begin to scumble in some general color.

Step Two:

I paint in the sky, negatively cutting out some structures. Then I put in the shadows on the structures, giving them some solidity.

Step Three:

I paint the upper foliage as a mass, keeping it simple with outside edges that might resemble tropical foliage.

Step Four:

This is a bit of a jump. I render the foreground flowers, using some of the initial scrub-in and some impasto work. I strengthen the dark areas in the upper half.

Step Five:

I finish off the buildings with some red domes, some minor calligraphy, and a few impasto strokes.


I don’t like the separation of the top and the bottom, so I run some tree trunks up the left side to connect the upper and lower areas, and to keep the viewer’s eye from running off the left side of the canvas.

“Las Flores – Manzanillo 14x11 oil

I don’t know. I might like the watercolor better. I’ll think I’ll take the oil, get out my mats and see if I can find a crop.

Just kidding.


Happy Painting!