Re-composition from a Photo

Photographs are a great help as reference material when you can’t take time to paint a scene on location. But even a good photograph doesn’t necessarily translate directly into a great painting. The composition of his photo, which I shot last year during a brief stop at a winery in the Provence region of France, was improved with a few simple tweeks. I’ll show you here how I handled it.


Some of the manifold problems I recognized in this photograph related to the fence, which formed a blocky, double horizontal line directly through the vertical center of the image. This created a barrier that effectively blocked a viewer from entering the upper half of the composition. Although there was actually an opening in the fence, it was virtually hidden behind the grape vat. I considered removing the fence entirely but decided that it could be used to better advantage.

Besides these problems, I wanted to feature the grape vat, but its dark bulk attracted less attention than the sunlit building in the distance. The vertical utility poles added nothing of value to the scene; nor did the bare branches of the olive tree on the left. And the vat positioned directly on the road edge created an unfortunate tangential point of contact with the grass verge.

120803 The Grape Vat

I began by changing the angle of the fence and then relocated the gate opening to permit visual entry into the field beyond. Lowering the top rail permitted me to extend the vat high enough to create a visual bridge from the grassy verge in the foreground to the field beyond the fence. The unnecessary utility poles were easy to omit.

The row of olive trees on the left formed a visual arrow, leading the eye toward the building, which, despite its isolation and contrasting color, was not my intended focal point. Rather than changing the shape, I incorporated it to help carry the viewer’s eye through the painting: I lowered the value of the field behind the upper left corner of the vat to carry the viewer’s eye from the vat into the olive row, pointing to the building, where the multiple roof lines draw the eye down to the yellowish pathway, which returns us to the gate, the fence and road, and ultimately back to the vat.

I reduced the intensity of the building’s colors to de-emphasize it, and increased both the value contrast and saturation of the vat and its rusted strapping to create a strong focal area in the foreground. Simply repositioning the vat farther down onto the grass verge eliminated the tangent problem.

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