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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Forest Troll Part V: Bungling It

Sometimes, in spite of all the precautions and idiot-proofing, I still manage to bungle things.

 In this case, I got halfway through the initial washes of the watercolor before realizing that I had screwed up the composition and it was really hurting the image. Since I wasn't under any particular deadline for the piece and I hadn't gone that far yet, I decided to start over. Under other circumstances I would have tried to fix it by painting in the corrections or reworking it digitally. Since I had the time though, I decided to repaint it.

Here is why it was bad:


A triangle of death is an area of the image where the composition allows the viewer to get trapped and leaves part of the image as dead space. In this case, the foreground branches at the top left lead down to the troll's face, which then points down to the boars and the helmet. This would be ok except that the sharp verticals in the background trees pull us back up into those branches, creating a self-contained compositional form that splits the image, leaving the dwarves, who are a main narrative element, as a separate dead space.

The strong red arrow in the middle shows the line where the image gets split. This can still work if you have text that goes in your image, or if this image were to be intended for a wrap-around book cover. Since my goal was a stand alone poster image, this compositional dead space was a failure.

How to solve this?
I didn't want to monkey with the characters, because I really like their arrangement and relation to one another. So I decided to employ a classical solution that has been used by artists for centuries: When in doubt, add more trees. 

Reworked Composition

 By placing this organic tree shape over the boars I am able to break the Triangle of Death and keep the composition moving, while at the same time adding more interest to the image itself.

Next: Tight Pencil Drawing


  1. It must be hard to make a change after coming so far. I really learned something about composition from this post... It works a lot better with the added trees! Thanks for sharing, it's a lot of fun to watch your progress.

  2. Cool--not only is the new one dramatically better compositionally, I really like the new trees. Btw, thanks for the analysis of it.

  3. I have to say, I didn't catch the triangle until you pointed it out. However, the added trees really do add a lot more dynamism to the piece.

    Thanks for the insight.

  4. This is an amazingly helpful piece of advice. I find a lot of my composition work suffers from this "effect" but I have difficulty identifying the problem until very late in the process. Great post!

  5. Great explanation and great images!

  6. That's a great observation and lesson! Love the image.

  7. Great fix and something I will share with my students, as well. Thanks for posting this.

  8. Good to know that I'm not the only one who does this!
    And yes those trees make all the difference!

  9. Facinating as always to read your insights into the composition process. One question: the troll's left upper arm looks skinny relative to the forearm. Is that intentional?

  10. I had this post open for 2 days or so in a google chrome tab waiting for a nice moment to read it. This whole time i didn't even notice that there were dwarves in the foreground until i actually read the post. Your theories are right.

  11. This is super helpful! I actually go back in forth with your fix. I agree that you do get trapped in that top left area, but depending on how you approach your lighting...you did have one of your crows looking down at the dwarves which lead my eye to them?

    Would it have worked if you had some dappled lighting on the crows so your eye would lead to the birds which lead to the crow looking down at the dwarves..which then led back up to the helmet on the ground? Or is that just jumbling up the composition even more.

    Either way your fix overall cleared up that trapped feeling. I guess if at this phase the composition isn't flowing nicely painting fixes with light and other tricks might make the end product not as clear.

    Thanks for this!!!!!!

  12. Thanks for the feedback everybody!

    Yes, the arm relations are intentional. I always want them to be a bit like a gorillas arm.

    Yes, I think dappled light could have pulled the composition through (i think it worked because of that in my color comp anyway) But I always like to make sure that the lines and shapes themselves can do it without the benefit of the color or the subtleties if possible. I really want the image to work at a basic shape level.

    Tight drawing coming soon!

  13. I think you're being a bit hard on yourself. Both compositions are lovely, I think.
    True, the dwarves are even more hidden in the original one, but storywise that is justified. They are trying to hide :o)

    Love your work, always.