Making and Using a Viewfinder to Compose Better Paintings

What is a Viewfinder?

viewfinder graphic
Use a viewfinder to crop out unwanted parts of an image to make a better composition.

A viewfinder is a handy tool often used by photographers and artists. In photography, this optical device is the apparatus on the camera that the photographer looks through to compose, and in many cases, to sharpen the focus of the photograph he/she wants to take.

In oil painting, a viewfinder is a tool used by a painter that performs a similar function. Artists use these devices as an aid to organizing the scenery of their paintings. It can be moved up, down, left, or right to isolate the most appealing aspects of the scenery present in the photograph. It does this by cropping out the unimportant parts resulting in a much stronger composition.

Making an Artist’s Viewfinder

artist viewfinderMaking a viewfinder requires little effort. There are two types: window and L-shape. Both types are simple to make and which one you choose depends on the canvas you plan to paint on. For standard size canvases, you may want to choose the window viewfinder. Take a simple piece of paper, scrap mat board, or cardboard and cut a rectangular window in the center to look through. The window opening should be proportionate to the prepared canvas in height and width. For example, a 16″ x 20″ or 24″ x 30″ canvas would require the viewfinder window to be 2″ x 2.5″ or 4″ x 5″.

Other proportions that might be useful are:

    • canvas size = 16″ x 24″ or 24″ x 36″, window cutout = 2″ x 3″ or 4″ x 6″
    • canvas size = 9″ x 12″, 12″ x 16″ or 18″ x 24″, window cutout = 3″ x 4″ or 6″ x 8″

After carefully measuring and cutting out the viewfinder opening, move it around slowly on the surface of your snapshot until the image that interests you appears in the opening. Once you have decided on the composition, tape the viewfinder in position on your photograph to hold it in place.

artist L shaped viewfinderThe L-shaped viewfinder is made from two L-shaped pieces of cardboard, mat board, or paper that, when placed together, create a frame around your area of focus. You then look through this frame to determine the scene you wish to paint.

The L-shaped viewfinder is beneficial in helping to determine what size canvas is required for a particular scene if you do not plan on using a standard size canvas. The two L’s work together much like an aperture of a camera. You move them out and away from each other to enlarge the opening or move closer together to shrink the inside opening. To make one of this type, you will need a ruler and pencil to draw two identical sized L shapes on a piece of paper, scrap mat board, or cardboard. A good width is about two inches, so they can easily crop out the unwanted areas of the scenery. The length of the arms of each L can be any size; 6″ to 8″ works best if you are going to use it on photographs.

Using an Artist’s Viewfinder

using an artist viewfinderUsing the viewfinder is a simple technique that has been around and used by artists for hundreds of years. What a viewfinder does is frame and crop out unimportant areas of an image. These would be the background details that could muddle up a landscape and take away from the overall unity of the artwork, making it a weak composition.

The elements that are left make up an attractive focal point that can be used to begin creating your painting. This is achieved by filtering out the distractions from outside the field of view, allowing you to focus only on the important elements you want to keep. How this is done is to take your image and slowly move the viewfinder around on it until you pinpoint a precise spot that makes an eye-catching center of interest. Once you have your composition picked out, attach the viewfinder to the picture using artist’s low-adhesive tape to hold it in place. This will permit you to make several drawings of the scene needed or even sketch it directly onto the canvas to get it ready for painting. Artist’s tape is easy to remove once your painting is finished.

A viewfinder is also beneficial for training your eye to distinguish a good composition. This instrument will give the artist an idea of how an arrangement might work as a viable composition. In time your “mind’s eye” will be able to ignore undesired extraneous elements present in the photo and will be able to visualize what a composition will be like without any help from one.

Lastly, both artist viewfinders can be used in either portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) position. This allows the artist to use it as a drawing aid to determine which orientation works best for your painting. By holding the viewfinder in portrait mode, the top and bottom of the view will be emphasized; by holding it landscape, the composition’s width will be emphasized. This helps you focus on particular parts of the scene, enabling you to decide what will make the best composition, both in terms of emphasis and orientation.

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Two Composition Techniques to Use In Your Paintings

There are two composition techniques you can use that will help you to create great paintings. They are rebatment of the rectangle and the golden ratio.

Composition is how you arrange various elements in your painting to create a pleasing and eye-catching arrangement. It is paramount to whether or not your painting will be a strong and interesting work or a weak and disordered one. When the composition is done well, you do not notice it so much. There is something interesting about the painting that you find appealing. However, when it is done poorly, the painting doesn’t look quite right and feels awkward.

Creating a good composition will be challenging initially, and you will have to work at producing a strong one; however, it will become second nature with practice. Here are two easy composition techniques that you can use to improve your oil paintings dramatically.

Rabatment of The Rectangle

Composition Techniques
Rabatment of The Rectangle

One method for creating better compositions is called rabatment of the rectangle. Rabatment is a way to divide up the space within a rectangular shape to create a square with four equal sides equal to the short side of the rectangle. In other words, it is the perfect square that is found inside any rectangle.

For each landscape (horizontal) rectangle, there is either a right or left rabatment. And for each portrait (vertical) rectangle, there is an upper or lower. See diagram.

It is within these squares that you would place the most important aspects of your composition, thereby creating a center of interest. Compositions are much more interesting to view if the focal point is not located directly in the center of your canvas.

rabatment exampleWhen you use this simple technique to compose your oil paintings, you are more likely to create a unified, harmonious, and balanced composition.

In your next painting try enclosing the main center of interest inside the rabatment square. You can use either upper or lower square on a vertically oriented canvas or left or right square on a horizontally oriented canvas. The elements outside of the rabatment should compliment the center of interest that is located within the square.

The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio is the next composition technique we’ll discuss, and it’s a little more complicated than the first. It is a mathematical ratio found in nature that can be used in a painting to create pleasing, harmonious proportions. It has many names, with the most common ones being the Golden Section, Golden Ratio, or Golden Mean. Some lesser-known names for this rule are called the Golden Number, Divine Proportion, Golden Proportion, Divine Section, Golden Cut, Fibonacci Number, and Phi (pronounced “fie”).

Composition Techniques
The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio isn’t merely a definition; it’s an actual ratio of 1:1.618. A simple way to demonstrate this ratio is by using a rectangle with a width of 1 and a length of 1.618. Within this rectangle is a square with a ratio of 1:1 and another rectangle with a ratio of 1:1.618. If you were to draw another square within the smaller rectangle, once again, you have a 1:1 ratio square and another rectangle whose proportions are 1:1.618, just like the larger original rectangle. You can continue to divide the resulting smaller rectangle as before on into infinity. Give it a try.

golden ratio exampleThe golden ratio can create beauty and balance in the layout and design of all your paintings. Note the point where the diagonal lines intersect. That particular point is key when using this ratio to compose your paintings. You want to place your key elements or focal point at this intersection. As already stated, the golden ratio is infinitely divisible. This means multiple intersections can be identified where sub-elements of a scene can be placed.

Great compositions aren’t created by chance. They necessitate a great deal of thought, planning, patience, and visual familiarity. It should, however, become easier for you if you use these composition techniques.

Additional Reading

Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

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Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

Every artist’s goal should be about creating better compositions in all their paintings. Composition is the arrangement of various elements within a painting. It can either be a good composition or a bad one. When done successfully, a good design will draw the viewer’s gaze into and around the painting’s surface. It will lead their gaze from one element to another, taking everything in, and finally resting on the main subject of the painting.

3 Ways of Creating Better Compositions

There are three techniques for creating better compositions that every painter should use. These are (1) the rule of thirds, (2) the rule of odds, and (3) the rule of space. Let me explain each one.

Rule of Thirds

Creating Better Compositions
Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a helpful guideline used by many professional photographers to aid them when composing the subject matter of their photographs. It is also a useful technique that can be used by painters as well.

The idea behind this rule is to divide your painting surface into nine equal parts. Then position the essential elements in the scene along these lines or at the points where they intersect.

To create a landscape composition, follow these steps:

    1. First, divide your canvas into nine equal segments. This is done by drawing two vertical and two horizontal lines at the 1/3 and 2/3 measurements creating a grid.
    2. Determine where the horizon will be, either on the top horizontal line or the bottom line.
    3. Arrange the essential elements of your subject matter at one or more of the points where the lines intersect.

The rule of thirds states that a painting has a stronger composition when the focal point is not directly in the center of the canvas. If it is placed at one of the four intersecting points, it becomes much more interesting. Balance can be achieved in the composition by placing a secondary object at the opposite intersection.

In the diagram above, notice how the horizon is near the bottom grid line and how the tree is placed at an intersecting location on the left. It has served to give balance and intrigue to the composition by doing so.

When you use the rule of thirds in your work, it guarantees you’ll never have a painting that’s split in half (vertically or horizontally). Nor will you have one with the main focus right in the center creating a bull’s-eye leaving the rest of the painting to be ignored. Instead, the eye is drawn to the focal point and then around the artwork generating a flow from one element to the next.

Rule of Odds

building Better Compositions
Rule of Odds

The rule of odds states that a composition is much more interesting when it contains an odd number of elements rather than even. An even number of elements will create symmetries that can quickly become boring.

When we see an even number of objects, our brain attempts to group them into pairs. This often leaves the center of a scene empty. The human eye is drawn to the center, and an even number of elements in that center create an open space. Having an odd number of elements in a composition means our brain can’t group them so easily. There’s always one thing leftover that keeps our eyes moving across the composition.

The rule of odds also applies when an even number of supporting objects surrounds a single subject. In this way, there will always be an element in the center “framed” by an even number of surrounding objects. Again, this framing is more comforting to the eye and thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure.

Rule of Space

making Better Compositions
Rule of Space

The rule of space as it applies to art is a simple technique that creates a sense of motion, activity, or conclusion in a composition. It involves creating a negative space that relates to the focal point. Some things to keep in mind are:

    • When painting a portrait (whether a person or animal), if your subject is not looking directly at you, leave some negative space in the direction the eyes are looking, even if they are looking at something off-canvas.
    • When picturing a moving object, such as a runner or vehicle, placing negative space in front of the runner or object rather than behind creates a sense of direction or implication of eventual destination.
    • If your subject is pointing at something or aiming at an object, place some negative space where the subject is pointing or aiming.

These techniques can be beneficial to the artist in creating better compositions. They are, however, most effective when used together rather than separately.

Additional Reading

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Two Composition Techniques to Use in Your Paintings

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