Making and Using a Viewfinder to Compose Better Paintings

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 view finder is a tool used by a painter that performs a similar function. Artists use these devices as an aid to organize 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.


longhorn cow oil painting“Texas Longhorn in The Meadow”
Wildlife Art by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

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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 opening of the viewfinder, move it around slowly on the surface of your snap shot 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 them 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 to frame and crop out unimportant areas of an image. This 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 interest focal point that can be used to begin creating your painting from. 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 that is 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, because this instrument will give the artist an idea of how an arrangement might potentially 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 types of artist viewfinders can be used in either portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) position. This allows the artist to use the 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 width of the composition 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.