Edgar Payne on composition and drawing

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Edgar Alwin Payne (1883-1947) was born in Missouri but was raised in Arkansas. At the age of 26 he went to California, discovering and falling in love with Laguna Beach…later to settle there for a time with his wife, Elsie. He met Elsie in San Francisco during that first California visit and later in Chicago where she was a commercial artist. They were married in 1912. As the story goes, on the day of the wedding, the morning light in Chicago was so beautiful that Edgar wanted the ceremony delayed until later in the day so he would have time to capture that light in paint.


In 1918 the couple moved to Laguna Beach, becoming influential in the community. Edgar was instrumental in forming the Laguna Beach Art Association and became its first president.

His favorite subject, the California Sierra Nevada Mountains, are represented in some of his most famous paintings. The Sierra’s also inspired his very popular book, which was published in 1941…“Composition of Outdoor Painting”. It’s a comprehensive and instructive book on composition and composition forms. The book also explains landscape painting techniques, color, repetition, rhythm, and value.


Here are a few helpful comments from this great painter concerning composition and drawing :



“Cloud shadows, when cast upon the ground, are one of the artist’s greatest aids in selection or composing. They can be placed anywhere to suit the need of any unity. This is especially true if the cloud forms are moving rapidly, as the chances are that all sections of the scene will be shadowed at some time during the sketching period. With careful planning, beautiful patterns or design can be made by placing cloud shadows in various locations on the landscape.”


“The placement of the main point of attraction in composition is important. Regardless of its location on the canvas or whether it is large or small, it needs balance by its surrounding parts. If the main attraction area is small the rest of the picture should not overcome it by presenting similar or equal interest. The principal attraction should not be placed too near the edge of the canvas. This may cause abruptness and lead the glance out of the picture. Points of interest need balance or easement by lesser attractions placed at distances in two or more directions. The main interest is a sort of radial spot around which resolves the other masses and the more temporary resting places of the eye.”


“Unity is the goal and a small bit will often unite the whole arrangement. A small dark note or contrast placed in a strategic position will often times balance the surrounding areas even if these areas are dark also.”


“Every good composition contains three or four main values. One of these masses is the darkest and one is the lightest, while others are near half tone or indicated with the intermediate shades. This does not necessarily mean that these main darks and lights are first painted in the extreme of the selected scale, as deeper accents and lighter highlights within the larger areas will undoubtedly be needed. If the main area values have first been approximated and placed, the more subtle shades, modeling , darker accents and lighter bits are more easily determined.”



“If art demanded only a precise and accurate copy of nature, the camera could take the place of freehand sketching. Work done with the camera may be considered good drawing from a precision standpoint, but not from an artistic viewpoint. The inaccuracy resulting from artistic leeway, aesthetic taste and judgment is what determines quality in drawing in fine art.”


“In placing mass arrangements we should think more in terms of mass and form instead of lines. The “hold together” quality by value, mass and space arrangement is important here. Therefore the idea is to lose or disguise line and edges in order that we can feel form in terms of shape or bulk instead of outline.

“One good idea to apply to any kind of drawing is to make the preliminary marks very light – the surface barely touched, a dot here and a broken line there made between the greater measurements. At the same time it allows subsequent correction and alteration to be made without erasure.

“A sketchy suggestive drawing for the base of painting induces more drawing with the brush. Drawing should not be left off with the compositional plan, but always considered up to the final brush stroke.”


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