Composing a painting is all about editing, whether you are working from life, a photo or your imagination; we are making decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out, what to enhance and what to make up. We have to figure out where things go and what size they are. We have to figure out where things sit in the imaginary space we are creating. All this seems simple enough on the surface, but with the multitude of choices available to us, it’s usually pretty hard to pick and choose. I try to keep my eye on what is it that attracted me to a certain scene in the first place and keep working towards that. I try to put everything into service of my overarching idea for my piece. So, I have to have that first! If I don’t have it, usually my piece will fall apart at some point. Here are a few examples of paintings and their original photo reference to help illustrate what I mean.

I try to keep in mind that I’m making a painting that is independent of the reference when it is completed. I may make a nod to that initial reference point or it might be more faithful, but it is not necessary to refer to it at all once the painting is done. I’m not trying to improve on nature, but I am trying to make good paintings!


In this example, I’ve used many of the elements in the photo to guide me in placing the major shapes in my piece, but I’ve obviously exaggerated and even invented the color, making the larger tree on the right the bright orange rather than green as in the photo. I eliminated the rocks in the river ( they make me nervous), and I simplified the shapes going back towards the horizon. I also eliminated the triangular bit of road on the lower right, knowing that this shape is an eye catcher that I didn’t want. I made sure that the area of greatest contrast was right where the water and the orange tree meet; my focal point.


The most obvious edit in this one is the cropping. Homing in on what is important and eliminating the rest. I played with the colors on this one too. I made the tree on the right more orange and echoed that color by using a peachy pink in the sky. I was interested in what was happening on the edges of the river bank, so I played this up with lots of contrast and intense color.


I was excited about the idea of fields of different color within this piece and I also wanted to make the sky dramatic. This is one of those drive by photographs that captured a fleeting moment or a sensation. I exaggerated the color I saw.

In this one, I was interested in the patterns of light and shadow. I definitely made some things up in this one; the cloud shapes were suggested, but I had to make some of it up. I added the water in the foreground and exaggerated the colors. I eliminated the road completely and decided to center the tree, something that has to be done with authority or it will look dumb!

I hope these examples were helpful and give you more permission to take artistic license with your work!

With Warmest Regards,

Painting Minilessons
with Marla Baggetta

My free online minilessons in art are a fantastic way to learn more about your craft, regardless of your skill level. There are lessons available on everything from basic drawing techniques to complex painting methods, and no matter what your interests are, you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Whether you’re a beginner who’s just starting out, or a seasoned artist who wants to brush up on your skills, these minilessons are a great resource. These lessons are available anytime, anywhere. So whether you’re looking for a quick refresher or want to explore something new, be sure to check out some of my minilessons at Painting Lessons with Marla.

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