Rocky Falls: A Lesson in Composition

Remember my recent “shopping trip” to the Artists’ Network site? I sat down before I went online and thought about what particular improvements I needed to make to become a better artist. I was then able to search out specific articles and tutorials that would be of benefit to me.

One of those articles — which is available to anyone — was Painting Composition Tips — How to Create Bolder, Brighter Paintings. The article is aimed for beginners in oil painting. Even though I’ve had several years experience now with landscape painting, I felt this would be an excellent “fit” for me.

Whenever we read about an art “tip” or new “technique”, it’s easy to nod and say, “Yes, yes, I understand.” There is, however, a big difference between knowing and doing, so as I read through this article I resolved to put the tips given into practice. I was going to take the advice and use it.

The first tip involves composition, and this is an area where I really want to improve. Even though I think I have an awareness of what “good composition” involves, as often as not, I step back from a painting I’ve done and realize that the composition isn’t as strong as I’d thought. So, where have I been going wrong?

There are many guidelines for creating strong compositions in art. You’re probably well aware of the “rule of thirds” and the “golden ratio”.

The “rule of thirds” — quite simply — involves drawing four gridlines. Points where lines intersect are considered “strong” points of interest. Despite the term “rule of thirds”, this is only a suggestion, not a rule that must be followed in planning a drawing or painting.

The “golden ratio” is a bit more complicated, and I won’t attempt to explain it here. It’s related to the “Fibonacci sequence” and leads to a lot of complexities that are far over my head. You can visit “Using the Golden Ratio to Improve Your Artworks” if you want more information.

For who I am and where I am, I’m content to keep things simple, to start with the basics when it comes to composition and to gradually go from there.

The simplest way to consider composition is to think of it as a pleasing arrangement of shapes, colors, and values. That’s all it is, really. But… what makes our arrangements pleasing, or not-so-pleasing? What role do colors and values play in good composition? These are questions I’m exploring.

One important aspect of good composition in art involves depth. We need to think about background, middle ground, and foreground. Having different values predominate in each of these planes can add strength and power to our composition, making it more interesting to the viewer.

And then, of course, there’s the idea of focal point — the point that captures the viewer’s interest. We can create a focal point through contrasting values, contrasting colors, and contrasting shapes.

Now, all of this is easy enough to say, and fairly easy to understand, right? But how about putting it all into practice? Taking art from theory to canvas isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

In reading how to create better, brighter — and compositionally stronger — paintings, the first step I came across was to start with values, or, more specifically, to start with a value sketch. It’s actually better to make several value sketches before starting to work.

But wait! Am I even ready for this step? Not really. For me, there’s another compositional step involved. I need to look at the subject I’m painting and trust my own judgment as to how I’ll approach it. Or maybe this is still part of the “value sketch” idea, because in looking at a landscape scene in different ways, I really am looking primarily at the values — the large shapes, the dark masses, the lights and shadows.

The reference photo I’m working with is “Rocky Falls”, a scenic waterfall in the Ozarks area of Missouri. I chose this in keeping with my interest in painting my “midwestern roots“. I found this reference at Pixabay:

I’ve painted waterfalls before, so I have some familiarity with various techniques and ways to approach a landscape such as this. All the same, I’m more than willing to admit that this will definitely be a challenging scene for me to paint.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rarely can an artist take a reference photo and work directly from it. We want to look closely at it, think about composition, focal point, values, and put it all together in a way that will result in the most dynamic painting we can create.

Before making any value sketches, I looked at different ways to crop this scene. Here I was just “eyeing” the landscape, not paying particular attention to the rule of thirds or any golden ratios. I simply tried to crop this image in ways that I thought made it more interesting.

Here was my first crop. For this, I used an upright or portrait orientation, since that style of painting always appeals to me.

It’s the same scene, but I find this one much more interesting. How about you?

And then, for a third option, I cropped the scene like this:

Again, it’s the same scene, but I’ve narrowed the focus down a bit, as though we’ve stepped closer to the waterfall. There’s a bit more background, and the water in the foreground is no longer visible. What do you think of this one?

Now came the real challenge for me. Which composition was “best”? I had to ask again, just what is it that makes a strong composition?

A little additional reading provided a few suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Strong compositions are based on imbalance. Even though we have an overall need for balance in art, we want to avoid too much symmetry. What we’re really looking for might be described as a “balance of imbalance”.
  • Angles give strength. Angles can also serve as directional elements to point to various elements in our art.
  • Never forget the importance of strong values. Look for masses — large shapes — for interesting contrasts of light and shadow.

Artists should also use artistic license when necessary to create a better compositions. It’s permissible to change shapes, to change values, to change point of view. We should do whatever it takes to make our composition as strong as we possibly can.

Taking all of this information and then looking closely and carefully at the various “possible scenes” I’ve come up with, I made a decision about which of these views of “Rocky Falls” I’ll be painting. I did make small “thumbnail” value sketches of these different views. I also thought about a focal point, about how I could best use various angles, and how I could “balance the imbalances” to make what I hope will be a good landscape composition.

NOTE: It was while doing these value sketches that I had a chance to put what I’d learned in my tonal bar exercise into practice.

For a bit of added inspiration, I viewed other photographs of Rocky Falls. The falls are located in Eminence, Missouri. You can learn more here: Rocky Falls – Eminence. 

So, which of these three possible scenes do YOU think is the best composition for a landscape painting? Are there other changes you might make?

I’m set now with an idea in mind and with a few value sketches to guide me, so wish me luck as I go about painting this scene, and be watching for more from Rocky Falls.


  1. First, thanks for the link. I’ve painted in watercolour for years but am playing with oils this winter. I’ll be reading this article, too. Composition has always seemed a bit mysterious to me.
    Second, I loved reading about your process. Personally, I like your first crop. I’m very curious to see which one you choose because when all is said and done, it’s about what appeals to you and that always reveals something to the viewer.
    Looking forward to your next post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rocky Falls will be an interesting project, I think, and I’m hoping one day my husband and I can make a short trip to visit the falls (Eminence is about 270 miles from here). I’ve made small value sketches, and then done a larger sketch of the view I chose. I’m spending a little time looking at it and “getting a feel” for it — if that makes any sense. Probably next week I’ll start sketching it out on canvas, doing an underpainting, and then hopefully finishing it all up. I’ll be posting my progress as I go. And good luck with your oil painting! It’s a lot different from watercolor, and I hope you enjoy it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A final decision about composition is, of course, always up to the individual artist! What appeals to you…
    But in terms of composition, I think the original version is best, by far.
    You’re right that values are extremely important in composition. In this post you start out thinking about light and dark values, then veer off and focus instead on what’s ‘interesting’ without resolving your values.
    With values an artist creates the center of interest, which then is helped along with the support of color and hard/soft edges.
    So, in the original version, I see the center of interest as the spot where the water from the falls enters the pool. That’s where my eye is drawn – where it’s bright and the colors change! Interesting.
    There is nothing for my eye to focus on in the waterfall itself – no particular spot in the water or rocks stands out. So, I wouldn’t choose to paint either of the crops. Don’t crop if it doesn’t improve the image, or just to say that you cropped.
    The waterfall and rocks add to and frame the light in the pool, so they need to be in the painting, but I see them as supporting actors.
    All in all, I’d go for the original image!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for these comments! This touches upon all the things I’m working on… reading about… trying to learn. I want to be able to focus more on creating that “center of interest” right from the start and building a drawing or painting around that point. As I start work on the painting I will keep your thoughts in mind. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! There are always so many possibilities when we look at a landscape. I guess it’s another example of how easily I can become overwhelmed. Learning to simplify things is a very helpful tool in art!


  3. I would go with the vertical version. You preserve the sharp value changes and avoid losing the power of the flowing water. The others seem to leave things scattered about with no particular emphasis anywhere. mho

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting to read the comments about this “compositional study”. There are so many different ways to approach a scene, and there are pros and cons for each. All of this discussion is really helpful. It’s reinforcing the truth that there is no single “right way” to go in art, and that’s very empowering. I might make a choice that’s different from what someone else would do, yet my choice can be just as valid and “correct” as anyone else’s. It’s not only following “guidelines” and “art principles”, but respecting our unique preferences, too, seeing the world how WE see it even as we try to imagine how someone else might see it. Am I making any sense? I feel like I’m just rambling on here… but that means I’m thinking and that means (hopefully) I’m learning!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the members of our Fine Art League swears by it. He’s a mathematician in addition to being an artist, and when he talks about it all… whoosh! It goes way over my head. There is a lot of information online.

      Liked by 1 person

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