Recently I was asked about cropping – why do it, how to do it, when to do it. Indeed, the question was: Is there a ‘formula’ for cropping?
I’ve written a previous post on using a viewfinder to help you crop your reference photo to get the best view to paint. (A reminder – try out a number of thumbnails!!) This post is about cropping your finished pastel painting.
I can’t say enough good things about cropping. Cropping is about trimming away everything from your painting until only the essential remains. Cropping has the potential to transform your work from ‘meh’ to ‘wow!’. Yet we don’t utilize this great tool often enough. Why not? Before I get to that, let’s look at why you might consider cropping.
Reasons For Cropping
Even though you may have worked something out quickly in a thumbnail sketch (you do that don’t you), when you’ve finished the piece, it may look not quite right. Cropping can help put the centre of interest where it belongs. (Using the rule of thirds is a very good way to ensure a successful composition.)
An area of the painting looks boring
Sometimes a part of the painting can look like filler. It may have seemed like a good idea to include it when you started but by the end, not so much. Do you ever think for instance, “Geez that sky looks really boring”? Well, you have the option of working on and improving the sky with pastels (certainly a relevant choice), or, instead, you might just crop a chunk of it out of the painting.
A part of the painting attracts your attention more than you would like
Perhaps it’s time to crop that part out. Or, maybe that’s the section you should keep!
Too much clutter!
Sometimes when you look at a painting, your eye moves wildly everywhere. It’s confused as to the route it should take through the piece. Working with pastel over the painting may help but cropping may be what you need to solve this issue. You may also find that, in a case like this, your painting may be more successful cut into a number of smaller pieces.
There are many good parts but they just don’t hang together.
Just because a painting doesn’t have a cohesive composition doesn’t mean it needs to end up in the didn’t-work-out pile (or the trash)! Perhaps your one big painting would be better cropped into a number of smaller jewels.
To Crop Or Not To Crop
So how do you know if you should crop or not? Ask yourself these questions while looking at your piece:
– Does the painting reveal what it was that first caught my attention?
– Does the painting feel confusing or does it make a clear and powerful statement?
– If my painting is telling a story, does each part add to rather than distract from the tale?
– Does my heart lift when I look at the painting?
What is it you want to say? Can someone tell you without hesitation, what your painting is about?
A painting ideally invites a viewer in and takes them on a journey, pointing out supporting characters along the way to the main event. It should encourage lingering and exploration and evoke some kind of feeling.
So if cropping can make such a powerful difference to your work, why don’t we use it more often?
Reasons You May Not Be Cropping
The painting looks okay the way it is so you don’t want to be bothered to mess with it.
You just don’t think of doing it
Until we’re introduced to the power of cropping, it’s just not something in our toolbox. But now it is!
You want your painting to fit into a standard frame
A question for you: do you want to have a good painting or do you want a painting that fits a certain frame? An extreme vertical or horizontal crop may do wonders for your piece!
You’re too afraid to let go
You’ve spent all this effort, time, and materials creating the piece, and it’s painful to think about losing it all. And so you justify why it’s better not to crop.
You’re in love with the painting (although you know it’s just not working)
This is related to the point above. Sometimes, it’s better to sacrifice what you have now in order to gain something extraordinary and something even more worthy of your wonder.
How To Crop
Luckily for us, these days we have editing software on our computer to experiment with cropping without making an irreversible commitment. On your computer, duplicate the image of your painting a number of times, and then try a different crop with each duplication. Take a break for a while then come back and view them. What’s your gut reaction as you go through them? Which one makes the most impact on you?
You can always try different options quickly on the computer but always look at the real thing before you commit to a chop.
When you decide, I encourage you to use ‘elbows’ to recreate the crop you’ve chosen before you actually make the cut. Sometimes the real thing will look different to the computer version. (I have two sets of 2x L-shapes pieces of mat board about 2 inches wide – one in off-white, and the other in black. I like the arms fairly long – say 30 inches – so I can use them on large and small pieces. Overlap them to create a variety of different shaped and sized openings.)
A Cropping Example
Okay, that’s a lot of writing! Now let’s look at a piece I did en plein air in Mexico.
First the thumbnail!
Apologies, I didn’t take a photo of the subject except with my easel in it. And by then, all the cast shadows that drew me to do the piece had gone.
Here’s the piece after I finished it.
What really motivated me to paint this scene was the orange coloured tap echoed in the subtler version of the colour in my flip flops and all set against a sea of blues. But when I look at the piece, I feel a bit confused as to where I should look. The shadows on the wall no longer tell a clear enough story and they don’t direct me easily to the tap. I could try fixing this with pastel but I’m not that good at making things up. So I think cropping may be called for.
My first thought is to remove what has begun to feel like filler wall space.
But now I feel like all I do is look at the tap and then the flip-flops. And I certainly don’t feel invited to linger.
I then decided to try a square format.
But I haven’t thought carefully about the placement of the square. I feel a lot of emphasis is put on the flip-flops. This has happened by giving them a lot of surrounding space. There’s very little wall seen above the sink. Would it work better seeing some of the cast shadows falling in from the upper left?
I move the square upward on the original.
Now I feel the shadows on the upper left lead me down to the tap and then my eye is caught by the similar colour in the flip-flops. The light pattern on the ground and on the wall, take my eye up and around again. But is this really the best crop?
Let’s look at the original again.
And the three crops lined up. You can see the subtle differences between them.
And just for fun, because I was attracted to the blue wall above the sink, let’s try a slimmer vertical format.
So what are your thoughts about the various crops? Which is your favourite and why?
To sum up about cropping, be clear on what you want to say and remove anything that doesn’t support that statement. Ask “How can I make this the best painting it can possibly be?” Focus on what’s essential. You can do this by fixing with pastel or now, I hope you’ll consider cropping. Be bold. Be brave. It will pay off!
So tell me, do you think cropping can help a painting that’s been bothering you?
I’d love to hear what you think so do please leave a comment 🙂
Until next time,
PS. I did an earlier post on the value of cropping. Have a look here.
PPS. In case you’re interested, here are the Unison pastels I used!