As an artist, your job is to immerse your viewers into a world that you have built and guide them safely through it. Artists have much in common with storytellers. Storytellers have several tricks that they use to keep their readers coming back for more. Like storytellers, artists can use similar tricks to help them produce more compelling artwork. In this article, we will explain 5 fundamental skills that every artist should master. Let’s take a look!
The most important aspect of art to me personally is the composition. It sets the stage for everything else. This is your way to guide and lead the viewer to make them feel as if they are actually in your picture. If this part of the process is not created and controlled properly, everything else can and probably will fall apart. That doesn’t mean that you have to follow every little rule. In fact, many have broken them and created very successful works of art. It’s knowing how and when to break them that will allow you to do it successfully. But before attempting anything like that, you first need to learn the rules and see how they work and function.
Rule of Thirds
This is the simplest and most used composition technique, one that I use a lot myself. Because it is simple to learn, it’s something that is recommended for beginners and those who are new to the fundamentals of composition. When used, it will divide the picture into 9 equal parts that are separated by two horizontal and vertical lines.
The main idea behind this is to place your most important element/object on one of the intersections where the lines converge (the +’s), as well as along or near the vertical line of wherever your focal may lie.
It is believed that when this is used and your subject/focal sits on one of these spots, it creates more interest in your picture rather than having it centered.
In contrast to what was stated above, this particular composition sets the focal point directly in the center of the picture. Although it is mostly used for character-based pieces, that does not mean it can’t be used for other means, it also explains why a central focal point is desired.
For character artists, one of their goals is to place the character right in front of you and draw as much attention to it as possible. There is no better way than to put them right in the center of things. Which is why this composition is most appealing for characters (but again, don’t let that sway you from experimenting).
In addition to the central focus, the diamond shaped guide shows us where we should be placing most of our attention and detail. The viewer obviously won’t be seeing your work with these guides on, so you must show them what is most important in your piece through lighting, color, detail and many other things. Anything outside of this diamond is not nearly as important and should not attract as much or more attention than what is inside of it.
You can use these basic guides either as a starting point for more complex compositions or to create an entire piece. The choice is up to you, but my suggestion is to learn about them completely before taking on more complex compositions. Also, there are more composition rules and examples out there that bring up many other points than what I list here. I encourage you to search them out and read them.
Leading the Eye
Now, let’s take a look at some other examples of how to direct the viewer’s eye to the focal point.
In PI-2, you can see how the light immediately locks your eye into the focal point because of the strength and intensity. Other factors of this are color, placement within composition (rule of thirds) and because almost everyone in the scene is looking at the focal point it creates an implied line and causes you to as well. What keeps us locked into the focal point here however is the circular motion of the people floating in the air.
In Crysis 2 (below), the artist used light, color and placement within composition to guide the focal point. The most obvious and beautiful lights are coming from the spotlights and headlights from the vehicle, which all point towards the focal point. Secondly you have gunfire from the weapons converging on it, leading your eye directly towards it. Lastly, the artist used the rule of thirds for placement in this composition. Another point could be made for how much action is being taken place within that area. All of these have lead to a successful piece that clearly defines the focal point and the areas surrounding it.
In the piece below, the artist uses the walkways that form around the pillar to lead the viewer into the focal point. As the dragons fly around it we follow them, which keeps us in this area longer. Because the pillar is in shadow and bright light is directly behind it, the artist has also used values and contrast to make it stand out even further.
In the artwork below, I used a number of elements to direct the viewer’s attention to the focal point (the castle). The arch in the background and the bridge over the waterfall are both going directly into the castle. Since the image has a slight angle, all of the mountains appear to be leading to the castle, which helps point the viewer in that direction as well. One other thing helping the castle stand out is the color used on the tops, which is contrasting against the yellows, greens and reds that surround it.
In the image below, I have shown how you can keep the viewer’s eye from easily escaping the image via framing. You can probably see how this works just by looking at the image. But what I’ve done here was use the “arm” parts that are coming out from the red entity as a way to frame the image. This technique can be used to “lock” the viewer in the piece and keep them in longer. It can be overdone, but if you keep it to a reasonable level, it can come in handy. One downside to this, especially if overused, is that it can become annoying and make the viewer want to leave sooner.
Everything has a perspective. When standing in the street, look around and notice which side of the buildings you can see and why you see them all from different viewpoints. Then while you’re at it, go ahead and look down a road, why does everything appear to get smaller as its distance is further away from you? All of these things have to deal with the perspective of those objects and your viewpoint.
Perspectives are an essential skill to learn, for architectural, environmental and many other reasons. They provide us with a way to create and build elements and objects and correctly place them within the picture plane. Perspectives rely on the horizon line (or sometimes called the eye level line) to find what is called a Vanishing Point. Vanishing points are where your perspective lines will originate (see below examples).
This is the simplest of all perspectives to learn, but one that is not widely used a whole lot because of its limitations. That being said, it can be very beneficial, depending on what scene you are creating. In this perspective, there is a single vanishing point going back to the horizon line, which the object is receding to.
When more than one side of your object is receding back to multiple areas, you will need to use a two-point perspective system. When used, you will create two vanishing points, each on one side of the object/element. These points will again originate from the horizon line, and the perspective lines will run from this point all the way to the object. There is where you can really start to see perspectives shift.
Most times your vanishing point will be way outside of your picture, but don’t worry. If working traditionally, you can always use extra paper to measure the exact distance. If working digitally, extend the canvas out until you find your vanishing point.
The three-point system is used when you really want to convey an extreme situation. It can be useful for scenes that are playful (doing a scene from a bird’s or dog’s eye view), exciting (action), and many more. To achieve this perspective, you will be using the exact same system from the two-point, but adding in a third vanishing point that is either above and below the object/element.
The third point acts exactly the same as the other two, so don’t get tripped up by it, there’s nothing sneaky about it. The only difference here is that the top or bottom (the verticals) of your object will adhere and recede back to this point. Which is what gives us that warped look and feel.
Let’s a look at some examples that show great use of perspective:
Values are the range of brightness and darkness within your image. They are white, black and everything in between. Even with color, how dark or light that color is (tints or shades) is a value. The closer something is to the foreground, the darker it will appear (depending on lighting and other things, of course), anything receding away from it will gradually get lighter as it fades into the horizon (in terms of landscapes). Take a look at the graph below and use it as a reference for when we discuss this more in depth further down.
Even more so than colors, the values of your work are one of the most vital elements of whether or not your piece will be successful. If the values do not read correctly (being able to distinguish FG from MG to BG, and/or the focal point from the surrounding area), then it won’t matter how great your composition, lighting and colors are, the piece as a whole will fail because the values don’t read properly.
So, what do I mean by them being able to read properly? Well, let’s take a look. The image below is a value study by Claire Almon that was done for one of her Marie Antoinette pieces (further WIP with color is posted below this image). Take note of all of the different values within the image and how you can clearly distinguish each element apart from the other. Values help determine the overall lighting in your scene and how one object looks against another (which can help with composition and a whole list of things).
More importantly though, values separate distances within the ground plane, and it’s with this separation, when done correctly, that allows the viewer to read your work the way you intended and lead their eye to the focal point. It’s from here that you can then work on and begin finalizing your color schemes as shown below.
Here are a couple more examples of using values correctly. Take note of the different values used within one single image/design to help tell each element apart.
Much like lighting, the color of your piece depends on many things; the time of day, season, location and so on. Determining the color scheme is important to do early on, even from the start if you can. Remember that things will always change and evolve, so the colors of your piece most likely will as well. As with everything, just because something looks good at one point, doesn’t necessarily mean it always will. So don’t be afraid to mix things up along the way and find something that might be better suited for what you’re working on. Keep in mind that it’s very easy to go overboard with color as well, so know when not to mess with it.
Knowing how to choose your color scheme depends on the time of day, the weather/sky, what season of the year it is, and whether or not you’re on an alien planet or in space. There are countless things that could help shape the colors of your painting, so it’s best to get an idea of what they are sooner than later to minimize headaches before heading into the final stages.
The color you choose should display any emotion or situation you want to convey to the viewer. If you have a fun or action piece, bright and vibrant colors might be your best bet to display that sense of action and intensity. If you’re going for something a little more moody and withdrawn, you could then always opt for a darker and less saturated overall color scheme, but have your focal point be the more vibrant than the other parts. There are many variables that can lend to what type of color you use for your piece. Your job is to figure out which of them will work best.
Here are some examples of how color is used effectively to help storytelling, emotion and to guide the viewer’s eye:
In the GOLEM image, the artist has built strong color around the focal point, which clearly signifies where most of your attention should be payed. The colors that surround the toy figure lend to this piece’s playful nature, as well as add a layer of mystery and fantasy. The outer parts of the composition have earth tones, which are not too saturated. This helps the focal point further stand apart from the rest of the image (while maintaining balance) and allows for the playful side of the subject/theme to be fully explored.
Here we have a contrast of color, which makes the focal point stand out. This is one of the most-used ways of using color to achieve good composition because it is both effective and dramatic in terms of composition and storytelling.
In this piece, I used the holographic screens on the landing pads to set it apart from all of the other elements in the scene. Since it is the most saturated part in the composition, I knew the viewer’s eye would always eventually gravitate back to this area because it was the most interesting. I also wanted the feeling of an older science fiction work, so I stayed away from really vibrant colors.
Like all major elements of art, lighting is crucial. Mainly because the average viewer knows what realistic lighting looks like, even if they don’t know exactly what it is that makes it look real. They can usually tell if something is working or not. Sometimes you can get lucky and fool them, but most times it can break your shot and make all the hard work that was put into your piece wasted time and work. And that’s definitely not what we want.
So, in order to know how light reacts to the environment and different materials, go outside and study it. If you are basing a piece off of something else (e.g., you’re your photographic plate in terms of matte painting or anatomy for painters), study it until you can confidently tell somebody else how it looks, feels and functions. Using photos is fine, but there’s an almost infinite source just outside those walls you are in waiting for you.
Much like color, lighting can convey much emotion and depth. Let’s take a look at how this can be achieved.
Once again, in the image below, there is strong lighting that’s being cast on the focal point. The shadows in the foreground create depth in the image and allow for the viewer to get a clear view of the focal area without the foreground going unnoticed. Because the foreground is in almost complete shadow and the midground is where we see most of our light, this allows for the viewer to have a greater impact on the focal point and what is happening in the scene. Almost immediately they see the destruction of the world around them as if they were there on the street.
Being a master of his craft, this piece by Dylan Cole makes no exception. Both the foreground and background are lit to display all of the work that went into it, while the composition is pushing you into the background towards the focal point.
So now that we’ve covered all of these topics, I’m sure you’re wondering how to use and incorporate them into your work. This, just like anything else, is about becoming familiar with them and practicing until you have a clear understanding of what they are and how to use them properly. Remember that we all learn differently, so if it doesn’t come easy to you don’t be discouraged. Just keep pressing on with small studies of each of these topics. After a while of doing them, you will notice things that you hadn’t before and that is when you will start to learn and really push yourself.
Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I really hope you are able to take from this and apply it to your work and learn from it. Just remember that every great artist that you look up to started from the bottom and had to work their way through all of these skills. Continue to push yourself in the right direction with a strong goal in mind and you can become great at what you do.