Making and Using a Viewfinder to Compose Better Paintings

What exactly is a viewfinder?

what is a viewfinder?
Use a viewfinder to crop out unwanted parts of an image to make a better composition.

A viewfinder is a useful tool that many photographers and painters use.

In photography, it is the apparatus on the camera that the photographer looks through to compose the photograph he/she wants to take.

In the world of oil painting, a viewfinder is a tool used to perform a similar function. Artists use these devices as an aid in organizing the scenery of their paintings. It can be moved around to isolate the most appealing aspects of the scenery. A viewfinder achieves this by cutting out the unnecessary elements, resulting in a significantly better composition.

How to Make an Artist’s Viewfinder

artist viewfinder
Window Viewfinder

Making a viewfinder requires little effort. There are two types: window and L-shape. Both types are simple to make, and which one you choose to use depends on the canvas you plan to paint on. They can be made from cardboard, matboard, or paper.

Making a Window Viewfinder

For standard-size canvases, you may want to choose the window viewfinder. Take a simple piece of paper, scrap matboard, or thin 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″ 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
Window Cutout Size
16″ x 20″ or 24″ x 30″ 2″x 2.5″, 4″x 5″, or 8″x10″
16″ x 24″ or 24″ x 36″ 2″ x 3″ or 4″ x 6″
9″ x 12″, 12″ x 16″ or 18″ x 24″ 3″ x 4″ or 6″ x 8″

After carefully measuring and cutting out the window opening, move it slowly around 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.

Making an L-shaped Viewfinder

artist L shaped viewfinder
L-shaped Viewfinder

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 the aperture of a camera. You move them out and away from each other to enlarge the opening, or you move them closer together to shrink the inside opening.

The L-shaped viewfinder is made from two L-shaped pieces of cardboard, matboard, 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. To make one, you will need a ruler and pencil to draw two identical-sized L-shaped pieces. 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; however, 6″ to 8″ works best if you are going to use it on photographs.

How to Use an Artist’s Viewfinder

using an artist viewfinderUsing the viewfinder is a simple technique that has been around and used by artists for centuries. What a viewfinder does is frame and crop out unimportant areas of an image. The elements that are left make up an attractive focal point that can be used to begin creating your painting.

How this is done is to take your image and slowly move the viewfinder around 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 low-adhesive tape to hold it in place. This will permit you to make several drawings of the scene needed or sketch it directly onto the canvas, getting it ready for painting.

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. Over time, your “mind’s eye” will become adept at ignoring extraneous elements, allowing you to visualize compositions without any assistance.

Lastly, both artist viewfinders can be used in either portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) positions. This allows the artist to use it as a drawing aid to determine which orientation works best for their painting. By holding the viewfinder in a vertical position, the top and bottom of the view will be emphasized. If you hold it horizontally, 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.

Additional Reading

Using a Grid to Enlarge and Transfer an Image to Canvas

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