Arts & Activities  
      October Student Page      

      Concept, Composition, Confidence, Contrast, Color Harmony, Character, Courage      
      By Dan Bartges      
      Assignment 2 In A Series Of 10: COMPOSITION      

Most good paintings involve certain key elements. What are they? How can you apply them to your own artwork? Throughout the school year, we're exploring seven key ingredients in a good painting, and how to use them. So welcome aboard! As our voyage progresses, you'll begin to see big improvements in your paintings.

HOW IT WORKS Each month, simply read about the two featured paintings on this Web page. Next, download and print the "Quiz Me!" sheet, write in your answers to three questions and hand it in to your art teacher. The correct answers will be shared with you on next month's Student Page.


It's been said that "The end depends on the beginning." That certainly holds true when creating artwork because a painting that starts out well—with good planning and structure—will most likely turn out well.

This month and next, we're exploring various aspects of a painting's composition, which simply means the way a painting's major components are arranged on the canvas. Good composition is the basic design of most any painting that functions effectively. To function effectively, a painting should attract a viewer's attention, guide the viewer's eyes the way the painter intended, and satisfy the viewer's need for balance and perspective.

In other words, composition is the overall, functional design of your painting. If you were constructing a building, it would be the same as the architectural design. As with any successful architecture, good composition should be both visually appealing and functional.

When figuring out your next painting's composition, the best place to start is with the format. Would your picture look best in a tall, vertical format (often used for portraits), or in a wide, horizontal format (often used for landscape paintings)? Usually, the best way to figure these things out is by doing a very informal pencil sketch.

      Dan Bartges. Deep in the Forest. Oil on canvas; 60" x 35".      
      As an example, the format for the landscape painting Deep in the Forest is vertical, measuring 60" x 35". Here's why: When I began my preliminary pencil sketch of this scene in a vast forest in West Virginia, my sketch was in a wide, horizontal format that featured the rocks and stream.

But then, I happened to look up and was astonished to see such dazzling sunlight spilling down through the treetops. It seemed almost magical. I decided that had to be the main subject of my painting! So I started a new sketch, this time in a very vertical format to fit my revised concept. As a result, I think the vertical painting turned out much stronger than my original horizontal concept.
      William H. Johnson (American; 1901–1970). Sowing, ca. 1940. Oil on burlap; 38.5" x 45.75". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the Harmon Foundation.      

For an example of good compositional balance, let's take a look at the lively painting Sowing, created in about 1940 by the African-American artist William H. Johnson. Notice both sides of the painting offer something interesting to look at and, in various ways, relate to one another. The left side includes an oval tree, and a farmer wearing an orange hat and white shirt while pushing a plow. The right side includes a round-ish moon, and the farmer's wife who is wearing an orange hat and white blouse while grasping a seed pouch, which resembles the plow in both shape and size.

The painting's two halves are creatively joined by three devices: first, the striped band in the background and the plowed earth that run from one side of the scene to the other; secondly, the woman's hand that seems to be reaching back toward her husband; and third, the donkey (or mule), whose labor links their tasks of plowing and seeding. Notice there are no boring areas in this painting. Everything works together in Sowing because Johnson carefully crafted a unified, wonderfully balanced composition.

How can you create a painting that functions? How can a painting actually guide the viewer's eyes and attention exactly the way the artist intended? Well, there are no hard and fast rules for achieving this, but there are some very helpful guidelines and tips the best artists use often. Let's explore them here next month as our voyage continues!

      QUIZ ME!
Click here to download October Quiz Me! document
      Author: A full-time artist since 1996, Dan Bartges is the author of the book, "Color Is Everything," and two books on sports, "Winter Olympics Made Simple" and "Spectator Sports Made Simple." Visit his website at      


The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C., holds the largest and most complete collection of work by the African-American modernist, William H. Johnson. To learn more about his work, visit our online educational resource at: Featured information includes descriptions, biographical information and an accompanying LOOK! THINK! IMAGINE! activity for many artworks.
–Carol Wilson, SAAM


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