Composition: How I Edit As An Artist

9x12" Oil On Canvas, "One In The Spirit Ranch"

Art, Artist, Original Oil painting, Artisan Jeff Love composition

This composition, One In The Spirit Ranch, is an original 9×12″ plein air oil on canvas. The ranch is just South of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I’m not sure what the ranch name refers to, although I did get to talk with the rancher. He stopped to see me because he thought I was with the phone company. Our conversation was brief, I made sure I was not on his land and he made sure I didn’t go on his land. He may have been having a bad day while waiting on the phone company. I have to say, that most farmers and ranchers that I meet are great about letting me paint on their property, usually I get an invite to a better location for painting. Regardless, I hope this guy gets his phone problems straightened out. And, to all my artist friends, be careful not to trespass until invited, you never know when another artist will be painting the same location. In a way we pave a way for one another.

Composition Editing

I left this piece on my plein air easel so you could see what I was looking at while I painted. This is a good picture for you to be able to see how I editorialize as I paint outdoors. As an artist you usually never get the perfect view with the perfect composition. Don’t get stuck in the mind set of thinking you have to paint exactly what you see. You are an artist. So here are a few things that I did to make this composition work for me:


You can see that I worked with the major shapes, especially the mountains, to make sure that I am drawing the viewers eye to my center of attention. Make the shapes work for you. The only time you cannot work with mountain shapes is when you are painting a famous mountain peak. In that case I am very careful about the exact shape because it’s like painting a portrait. For instance I have done several paintings of Mount Moran from the Grand Tetons. It is such a recognized mountain that if I changed the shape at all, those familiar with it would know. In this case I was able to work with the shapes freely.

Move Things:

The second thing you can see from this painting is that I am willing to move things around for the sake of a strong composition. I actually moved several trees. The golden cottonwood on the left of the painting were not even close enough to being in the painting. I needed it to be, so I moved it to the right about 150 yards. I also moved my middle ground trees much closer to myself, the bushes you see on the right foreground were in reality way to my right but I needed them to move you into the composition. And you can see the fence in the painting is clearly moved to support the move of the eyes. If you look close you can see many things that I left out of the painting including one layer of mountains. God has made nature with perfect composition, but as artist we don’t have His perfect view. So editorialize! If you want it to be exactly what you see, take a picture. But then that would make you a photographer rather than an oil painter.

Why Paint En Plein Air?

The big question then is “if I’m so willing to change the composition, why paint in plein air?” After all, I can take all my reference photos back to my studio, put them on my big screen monitor and take more time to develop the composition. The reason? Color. As great as the digital cameras are today, they cannot capture the color of nature in the same way our eyes can. Get the foreground color right on your photo and you will loose the color of the sky or vise versa. In fact, it’s pretty easy to tell when an artist is painting from photos only. If you are an artist who doesn’t paint outside, I encourage you to give it a try. Not to create a masterpiece in the few hours you are out there, but to learn and grow as an artist. You will be much better and stronger as a painter when you go back into your studio.

 I Love The Outdoors

I have to admit, I love the outdoors, especially being in the wilderness. So, for me it doesn’t take any twisting of the arm to get me outside painting. I prefer it to the studio (although I have a nice studio and love being in it as well) but I do recognize the limitations. For instance I love to paint large pieces. I have not found that I am very effective painting outside any larger than a 12×18″. And really I prefer 9×12″ as about as large as I want to paint en plein air. Today was the last day of this painting trip, so it’s back to the studio. However, we are headed toward perfect painting weather in the Sonoran desert, so I try to get outside at least once a week to paint.