5 Ways to Strengthen Your Mixed-media Art Compositions

20 Jan 2012

When I look at a mixed-media composition that's well put together, I think, "Of course. Of course you would put the focal point there and the bit of contrast there and the handwritten text there. That only makes sense."

mixed media shrine
Build up layers for a more interesting
design. Architectural Shrine by Jane Wynn.
But when faced with a blank substrate and a bunch of art materials, I find it's not so easy. What seemed obvious in someone else's beautifully composed creation is daunting when I have to make it up myself.

Knowing basic design principles helps. The trial and error approach helps, too. In fact, I thinking taking basic design principles and experimenting with them in your "laboratory" is one of the best ways of internalizing the rules and learning how to break them in your own way.

I think I've gotten to the point where I'm confident about creating a basic pleasing composition. (More complex ones are still a challenge.) Over the years, I've found certain rules and discoveries to be the most helpful to me. Not coincidentally, they are ones that experienced artists repeat time after time.

5 Tips for Creating Stronger Compositions

1. Limit your color palette. Unless you really know what you're doing, limit your selection to three colors of your choice on any one particular piece. By limited your palette, you'll develop a stronger color composition.

2. When faced with a flat surface, create layers to make a more interesting and dramatic design. That could be layers of paint; or it could be paint on paper with fabric stitched on top; it could be a wooden substrate with wooden or metal trim added.

3. Writing always adds a layer of information and mystery to a collage. This could be handwriting, a text stamp, cut-out letters, or scribbling. It doesn't have to be readable.

mixed media design
The three repeating elements on the left and the
total of five elements in this design by Jane
LaFazio show there is strength in odd numbers.
4. Use odd numbers. Drawing a flower? Use an odd number of petals. Applying flowers to the design? Choose one, three, or five. Even if you're adding actual numerals to a design, make it an odd number. No offense to even numbers, but odd numbers are just more interesting.

5. Walk away. A little distance is a powerful thing. Whether your composition looks off but you don't know why or you think you've really got something good going on, leave it alone and walk away. Stay away for an hour or a day. When you come back, the positives and negatives of the piece will jump out at you, and usually a solution will present itself as well. Even just pinning the piece on the wall and stepping back from it can bring an epiphany. Many times I've done this, only to discover that the composition improves greatly if I just rotate the piece 90 degrees.

These are five of the design principles I find most helpful when creating a mixed-media painting, collage, or assemblage. Many of these composition builders, and more, are demonstrated in the eBook Mixed-Media Sampler: 10 Techniques to Inspire and Strengthen Your Art.

What about you? What are your guiding principles of composition? What are your biggest struggles? Share in the comments section below.

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on 20 Jan 2012 9:29 PM

I take photos of the steps along the way. To check color value, I look at the photo in black and white. If parts blend into each other, it is time to create contrast to highlight the important area.

Brier rose wrote
on 21 Jan 2012 4:39 AM

When I want to check the balance of compositionin paintings, collage, etc., I look at it through the mirror or turn my back and look at the image in the mirror over my shoulder. This is like seeing it for the first time, and you see the plus and the minus points immediately. If doing portraits, turn the picture upside down and look though a mirror and you will see whether you have achieved a likeness and if not why!

Joan B

Yorkshire, England