The Art of Cropping: Three crops together

The Art of Cropping…And What It Can Do For Your Painting

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

Compositional woes

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!


The Art of Cropping: The small quick pen and ink thumbnail
The small quick pen and ink thumbnail. Actually, four values which I rarely do!


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.

The Art of Cropping: Easel set up with pastel almost finished.
Easel set up with pastel almost finished.


Here’s the piece after I finished it.

The Art of Cropping: Pastel piece finished en plein air - The Orange Tap
Pastel piece finished en plein air – The Orange Tap


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.


The Art of Cropping: Crop 1. I sort of randomly cropped the image, chopping out most of the wall above the sink.
Crop 1. I sort of randomly cropped the image, chopping out most of the wall above the sink.


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.


The Art of Cropping: Crop 2. This time I tried a square format
Crop 2. This time I tried 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.


The Art of Cropping: Crop 3. Now there's wall, flip-flops, and tap with sink.
Crop 3. Now there’s wall, flip-flops, and tap with sink.


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.


The Art of Cropping: Pastel piece finished en plein air - The Orange Tap
Pastel piece finished en plein air – The Orange Tap

And the three crops lined up. You can see the subtle differences between them.

The Art of Cropping: Three crops together
The three crops together

And just for fun, because I was attracted to the blue wall above the sink, let’s try a slimmer vertical format.

The Art of Cropping: Crop 4. This time I've cropped vertically.
Crop 4. This time I’ve cropped vertically.


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,

~ Gail


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!

The Art of Cropping: Unison pastels used
Unison pastels used



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46 thoughts on “The Art of Cropping…And What It Can Do For Your Painting”

  1. Hi Gail,
    I am supposed to be doing my taxes and this provided the perfect procrastination!
    I think I like the vertical crop best because my eye moves down the painting and to what is most essential, the play of light under the sink and the flip flops. I think the horizontal one is too horizontal (not enough vertical to break up all the horizontal lines) and the squares are a little squished- my eye doesn’t know where to focus.
    I love cropping down paintings and have found it is super easy to take a picture on my phone and try various crops. Our best laid plans do not always work and standard sized frames do not always fit the results! Thanks for the welcome distraction, and now back to taxes…
    Lovely painting as usual!

    1. Glad I could provide you with some distraction Erika! Thanks so much for givingus your pick and why. Love that you also give your thoughts on the other options and why you didn’t pick them. Funny how I just decided to try that skinny crop at the last minute.
      Yes, I think our phones have been any an amazingly helpful addition to our artistic toolkit and glad you are putting yours to good use.
      Good for you getting to taxes. I haven’t begun to think about them yet…..

  2. I like your last one, the vertical with wall above the tap showing. I like it because you’ve cropped the space on both sides of the sink but left breathing room above, and it’s that lovely blue. The focus is clearly on the sink now, but you get a sense of the sink is in its milieu. That’s why I would keep the wall above.

    I also wonder about pointing the flip flops toward the tap, or throw them and see where they land! I might put them on a mat, striped or solid, square or rectangular to repeat the shapes, or oval for a change. I think it would help them to be grounded.

    An interesting blog. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Joyce for offering your preference and why. I think I included that one because I loved the wall with all its unevenness and blue colour. I hated giving it up completely! I may go in yet and work on the cast shadows.

      The flip-flops just happened to be sitting there so I decided to include them. I didn’t change their position. They were there ready for me to slip on on my way to the beach 🙂 I liked all the crazy shadows over them. They almost act like a mat. Good point about grounding them. I’ll have another look.

      Thanks Joyce!!

  3. Gail, you are a Super Master at working with limited pastels!! I don’t know quite how you do it, but your results are fabulous! Iv’ve been missing your blog posts and am happy to have you back…wish I were able to join you in Spain; undoubtedly I’d love it!
    I agree with Erika, the vertical cropping gets my vote! Congratulations on winning the blogger post vote; you rock!

    1. Aren’t you lovely Shahar for saying so! (The secret is in the values!)
      Why were you not getting my blog posts I wonder? Glad we’ve reconnected though.
      Sorry you can’t make Spain. We’ll make one of the workshops work for you one of these days 🙂
      And another vertical vote – wow!
      And thanks – I won because of such an awesome community!!

  4. Vertical crop for me too. Creates a powerful composition. However, I have a leaning also for the original. Some lovely stuff is being cropped out!

    1. Thanks for your vote Shirley! Just so you know, I may work on the original and see what happens before I do any cropping. This painting gave me an excuse to explore the idea of cropping with you!

  5. Great lesson, thank you Gail. Sometimes we are so entrantced with our “baby” that we just can’t sacrifice any part of it! My method is to use 2 pieces of matting board, cut at right angles, and form a square, rectangle, whatever and move it around the piece I’m working on, in order to isolate what is good or not so good (filler). Often what is good can serve as a base for a whole new other and larger piece, and yes, the rest goes into the trash. We have to be humble enough to let go of personal involvement, after all it’s only paper and pastel, and admit that each piece can’t always be a masterpiece! And start over again.

    1. Fantastic addition to the cropping conversation Nancy – thanks! Yes, using those ‘elbows’ of mat board can do wonders. Love your idea of cropping a portion and then work another painting from that. Yes, into the trash it must go sometimes but we must remember that those failures mean we are painting and that’s where growth in our work comes – from the doing!

  6. Cropping has certainly salvaged some of my pieces in the past and even discovered extra smaller paintings within large ones. I also like the vertical one of your sink. Maybe it is because you have tried the “standard” shapes and found them a little lacking in excitement, then the unusual shape seems to spark interest. That sink is very “blocky” and the vertical framing helps to distract from that.
    You are so right about people trying to force their pictures to fit standard frames; I see it all the time in art groups, folk armed with the usual 14×11 inches, 12×9 or whatever, off the art-shop shelves. Art doesn’t work that way; I believe professionals regularly use odd-sizes because they take that different viewpoint of their creations.

    1. Thanks Chris for adding your thoughts. Love that you’ve found smaller gems in amongst the large not-working-so-well piece.
      Yes, the standard frame thing can actually be such a detriment. I often see marvellous work….if only that wee bit had been cropped out. I can understand it – it’s cheaper and easier. But is that the best thing fro your work?
      Thanks for your cropping vote and why. My, the vertical is getting all the votes!

  7. I like the vertical one because there seems to be a line in the shadows leading up from the flip-flops to the tree shadows. So, the upper left shadows lead to the sink the the tap, the pipe leads to the floor, the shadow markings on the floor to the flip-flops, and the unintended line back up to the tree shadow.

    Before I start a painting, I always look at the picture, and crop it on the computer to see how it looks best. I have a sketched painting of a night scene in Madrid, looking down from the entrance to the Prado by the statue of Goya, across the Paseo de la Castellana, up the street Carrera de San Jerómino, where the Congreso is. It’s a photo I took one winter night after a shower, and the streets and pavements reflect orange light and white streetlights up San Jerónimo, with a few red brake lights. I’ve been reluctant to start putting color to paper because it seems too complex for me, especially with the bare branched trees on the Paseo. I’d already cropped the photo, but now I think I’ll crop it again and concentrate on the black shadow people walking away from the museum along the orange-lit pavement. It might give me the courage to begin it once and for all!

    1. Thanks Maria for the vote and your excellent explanation why (and yes, that’s what I think happens too!).
      And thanks too for sharing your method of working and for giving us an example of where you think even more cropping may be required. I’d suggest doing a few thumbnails to focus where the light/dark patterns are and then make a decision as to what to paint. Cropping on the computer helps for sure but your own eye and decision-making about what to include or not will lead to an even stronger painting! Remember, you are the artist and can choose what is in the painting. Maybe you need to leave out or simplify those bare branches for instance. Can’t wait to see the outcome!!

  8. Great conversation! I actually prefer the original, uncropped version followed by the vertical crop. I prefer the original for its sense of space, and relaxation. It feels unhurried, as if, had I walked in to this space I would feel comfortable with the space around me! I love your choice of topic and am still amazed by what you can do with so few pastels! I’m going to be at ICAN again and have signed up for ‘instagrams’! I would like to take the abstraction workshop but am not sure I have Friday free. The plein aire workshop sounds great and if it was later I’d definitely take it but I’ll finally be home after an extended time away so must stay put. Perhaps next year? I’m interested to learn more of your online course.

    1. Thanks for your vote for the original Helen and why. I will work on this piece some more before I make any decisions around cropping. It was such a relaxing scene, just as you describe, and I’d love to keep that feeling!
      Look forward to seeing you at ICAN. I had also hoped to teach a full-day workshop on colour but I guess so many others were offering a similar workshop, so I can see why they went with my other proposals which I am super happy about. Thanks for signing up for Instagram. Hope you can make the Moving to Abstraction one too!
      Sorry you can’t make Spain but totally understand. Next year I’m already slotted to teach a 5-day workshop in Gibsons, BC (still ironing out details so can’t officially announce it yet) and maybe Scotland??
      Online course is here soooooooon!!!

  9. Call me crazy, but I like the uncropped version the best. I like all the space around the subject. Seems more natural to me…..unmanipulated. I like the small splash of orange at the top of the tree which also causes me to catch the flip flops and the tap. I am guilty of many of the reasons you listed for not cropping. After reading your blog today, I will have another tool to keep in mind. I’ll try to be more brave!! 🙂

    1. And it’s another vote for the uncropped version! Thanks Ruth for the vote and explaining why you feel this way. The open space is what I wanted to go for. Glad you noticed that splash of orange top left which I brought in to move the eye around just as yours did.
      Cropping can really do wonders. But always see if there is work that can be done on the piece first. And take your time. Sometimes a crop is soooo obvious, other times not. But it’s always a good thing to consider! Be brave 🙂

  10. Hi Gail, this is my first time commenting on your blog. It’s a definite favorite of mine.

    I am a big fan of cropping. I wish that I got every composition right the first time but I don’t. I even coined my own phrase, “crop the crap”. The truth is it’s often the best bits that must go (so difficult) in the interest of creating a stronger painting. I do usually try to crop for standard size finding the cost of custom framing prohibitive. However, after seeing your vertical crop, which I feel is much stronger and more interesting than the other options, I think it may be worth the extra cost of custom framing or throwing in the cost of a custom mat to fit a standard frame.

    I appreciate all of your wonderful insights! Thanks Gail!

    1. Sabrina thank you for your first comment here on HowToPastel! It really makes a difference to me and to others who will benefit by what you have to say.
      Hah hah, love your phrase but as you point out (thank you!) some of the best stuff needs to be sacrificed for the greater good of the painting. And that’s what can make it so difficult at times. Sometimes though, those best parts can create their own painting and that’s a bonus!
      Yes, I totally get the standard frame thing and most of the time that works. But as you yourself point out, here, the vertical crop may lead to a stronger piece.
      Thanks for joining the discussion Sabrina!

  11. Hi Gail, Your suggestion to use L-shaped pieces of mat board for cropping is brilliant. Thank you! Your example #4 (the vertical) appeals to me most because it’s unexpected. I love your blog and learning about various aspects of pastel painting.
    I do have a complaint unrelated to your post: On the left side of the screen, the banners for the various social media sites interfere with your text and images. Does WordPress have an option for you to place them in a location less intrusive?


    1. Thanks Tena. Glad you find the l-shaped pieces a good idea. It’s amazing what you can see! It’s also a good idea just to surround your piece as is with the ‘elbow’s because it will show you any lurking errors or deficiencies that are often easily corrected before the piece goes into a frame!
      As to your other question, it’s not actually WordPress but a sharing app. Usually they don’t get in the way. Are you on a tablet? I will work on it for sure!!

  12. Hi Gail
    Another vote for Crop four, the vertical one. Now there is enough room for a person to stand at the basin, helping the viewer make sense of the scene (even though the orange tap is the intended focus). The left hand area that was cropped off, was superfluous to the story.
    The other choices made the scene a little crammed -even though I didn’t realise it till the taller one was presented.
    The basin, box and sandals make a square shape already so making it fit into a square made it all too even.
    Like a woman with a square shaped face, having a square haircut that does not frame her face properly to show off its attributes.
    Love your blog and thank you for your immense generosity sharing your knowhow.

    1. Thanks for your choice and great explanation Christine! What you said about not realizing the difference between the tighter crops and the vertical is exactly what happened to me when I did it! I didn’t want to say anything (until now!) because I wanted everyone to see the possibilities without my judgment. And it’s been sooooo interesting that the majority prefer the vertical crop and the rest like the original. So far, not one vote for the first three crops. Amazing!
      Love your haircutting analogy!!!
      And thank you 😀

  13. The vertical crop because it puts the tap at the focal point, puts the join between vertical and horizontal about 1/3 of the way up and is also in opposition to the very horizontal shape of the sink which all the others emphasize too much. The vertical crop now emphasizes the lovely flow of the dark areas and the shape at top left is necessary for this. I love the way you can make such a super picture from something so ordinary that most of us might not even notice its existence.

    1. Thanks so much Bernice for your detailed analysis of the vertical image. Fantastic!
      And looking with the artist’s eye is really seeing beyond just subject – seeing colour, shapes, pattern of light and dark.

  14. Hi Gail. To be honest, while there are times where cropping might be helpful, I am not a fan. Perhaps it is because I come from a graphic design background. When creating commercial artwork, you are told the size you have to work in ahead of time. It is up to you to communicate your message within those confines. It takes a lot of planning. When I approach a painting, it is the same procedure. Create the message within the size parameters. If upon evaluation it doesn’t hold, I determine why and if it can be saved, repaint what needs to be repainted (or toss if beyond hope). I like to work on board, so cropping is really not an option.

    1. Fantastic comment Carol! Yes, if you are working on board then cropping isn’t much of an option especially if you frame without matting. So interesting that your graphic design background comes into play with your general non-use of cropping. I always say if you can fix a piece then that’s the first thing I’d do. But sometimes rather than discard a painting, cropping can give you a gem (if you’re working on paper!).

  15. Vertical crop does it for me too Gail! I love that I can see myself standing there in that lovely warm place washing the sand out of my beach gear before heading into the hotel/apartment! This crop focuses on everything that needs to be focussed on! I used cropping a lot in my work as an ex Graphic Designer – it was a tool I was most familiar with and a skill that transfers easily to painting! Wonderful blog as always – thank you for sharing your insights with us, as a working artist it’s invaluable to your many grateful followers!

    1. Thanks so much Lynn for your lovely description of what you see happening in the painting (vertical crop). And yes, that is what happens there!
      I had to laugh when I came to your comment about using cropping in your graphic design profession. You’ll see what I mean if you check out Carol’s comment above 😀
      Glad you enjoyed the blog – thanks so much for your kind words.

  16. I like the vertical crop. The horizontals feel too cramped above the sink so my eyes are uncomfortable there. I viewed this on my phone and it was easy to try some additional crops. Try cropping about 1/5 of the top of the vertical one. I like it best this way because the sink and flips (the most important objects) divide the painting roughly into the rule of thirds, the spaces and objects feel comfortably balanced. Nice piece and color choices.

    1. Thanks Steve for your great input! I agree and would probably trim a bit off the top of the vertical. I left as is to stress the point of format (rather than the perfect crop). What you have said points out that there are so many possibilities when it comes to cropping. Try out as many as possible! I think though that it’s super important to take your time before choosing the actual chop. And as I said in my post, when you do come to a decision about how you want to crop, make sure you try it with ‘elbows’ on the piece first as you may see it differently.
      Certyainly our smartphones and tablets give us an amazing tool to tryout cropping options!

    1. Wendy, I’m so glad finally someone sees what I see!! Whoo hoo! It is soooo interesting though to get so many votes for the vertical crop. I really did do that crop as a last minute add-on! I think in the end, that I’ll work a bit more on the piece and then if I can’t make it work, it will be crop time. But I sure will be torn as to which way to go!!!

  17. I like the vertical one just feels the right balance somehow. The narrower space feels more personal, a secret, cosy little private corner where you can kick off your flip flops, wash the heat and the dust off your hands and face and relax in your own sunny little part of the world. Isn’t it strange how the positioning of the picture can make the whole feeling change? I love the colours, so summery and Mediterranean.

    1. Thanks Mary-Anne!! LOVE your description and delighted that the feelings and image you describe come from this painting. And yes, excellent point – the crop can indeed change what the picture evokes in a viewer! So something to think about as you try out cropping options. Sit with the possibilities before you commit to the chop!

  18. Gail, I like the vertical crop because it’s even more effective at moving your eye…the shadow on the wall leads you right into the pattern by the sink, to the orange tap and shoes, and the patterns on the floor take you back up into the shadow on the wall. The last square one did that, but I think this one’s more effective.
    Congratulations on winning best blogger!! I could have told them that!!! 🙂

    1. Thanks Becky! You are so right about the circular motion in this vertical crop, well more oval-shaped I guess. The thing I missed about the square crop (#3) is the beautiful wall which is one of the reasons I wanted to paint this scene! I really think I’ll have a go with pastel on the original and see what happens. Then potentially crop!
      And thanks about the best blog. It’s all thanks to the support of everyone here, lovely people like YOU!

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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