Thumbnails. Learn to draw them. Learn to use them. Learn to love them. What you design small will always blow up proportionately. Starting out large will not always work. Use the small size of thumbnails to structure your painting quickly, expediently. You can cover greater ground in a small size. Thumbs will teach you how to draw better, and how to design better.
Don’t think they will? You’ll discover the contrary all too quickly, while others speed beyond you.
Think inside the box.
I always start with a perimeter, a box, to contain my design. There really aren’t any spaces that don’t demand balance, even a vignette. It must always balance. So I design within a rectangle, like a book cover, to get my composition. Design the entire space from side to side, top to bottom, front to back. Everything on the page must be there for a purpose, even if enigmatic and weird, it still must balance.
This is the time when ‘thinking outside the box’ is not appropriate.
Look for a better pov.
I strive to look for a better angle, a better point of view to express my narrative picture. I can’t stand how often artists choose the same design: one figure, smack in the middle of the painting, at noon. I want to get pulled in to a piece, to learn more or to spur my sense of wonder. That’s what makes the viewer linger and think. Search for the interesting points. There’s always too many, so pick a good interesting one.
If I'm going to paint metal, then I think about how metal looks. Try to feel it. Then I go get some metal to study, or reference of metal to look at. Or flesh. Or water. Or mountains...
What’s so hard about this? No one wants to get the right reference to help themselves. Probably still suffering from thinking we paint from our heads. We don’t. Research your materials.
Right off, I decide what time of day or night the picture lives in. Decide if it’s stage lighting or natural light. Overcast day or sunny? Moonlit night, or man-made night light? This is the very first thing I must do to get ahold of my value structure. I can always change, but I start right here with light.
Along with lighting, I think about contrasts. How will my figure contrast against the background, or the sky, or the landscape, or interior? Is it dark and moody, or a bright daylight piece? Decide. Early. Then blend and adjust shadows and lighting so that it works as a whole, using light, silhouette, shape, and mood to control your values. I study great black and white art and photography. I watch noir films. Study comics. I live in a b/w world for a while.
When we create characters we want to know all about them so we tend to draw them completely. The same for the next character, and so on. We keep them all separate, so we can see them. But this makes the most boring design ever. Things don’t look like that in life, so avoid it. Elements overlap, always. Things get hidden.
I DESIGN my paintings so that figures overlap. It mimics life and creates tension and depth. Just like we see things.
Did I mention I overlap figures? Mountains? Trees? Animals? Buildings? Colors? Objects? Yeah, well....when I overlap elements, I design them so that they tell a story in clumps, patterns, groupings. Ya don’t paint every cow leg in a field. Most of them overlap the cow next to them. Same for trees. Same for people. Same for.....
Put them in groups, or clumps, so that it breaks the monotony.
Lead with line.
Don’t go crazy with this. The lines I’m talking about are simple and direct. They lead the eye to the primary viewing spots of a painting, AND THAT’S ALL. They don’t spin the eye, rotate the eye, they don’t mimic repeating shapes, and they never cause the eye to “leave the canvas” or even “reenter the picture.” This is all bunk.
The line I’m talking about is something where a figure or an arm leads your eye to the center of attraction. Other lines help to lead to the same spot. AND THAT’S ALL. (see points on balance above if you have questions about this.)
Foreground, middle ground, background.
That’s what I meant by front to back above. I think of my painting as a stage. Build the stage. Put figures on the stage. Costume the characters. Light the stage. Now pick where the camera (eye) is going to look at that stage.
At this point it has depth. I have to move stage characters around (called blocking) so that I can see them, keep them overlapped, and still tell the story of the picture, which is now a slice of time.
Keep it simple. Am I being obtuse? What’s so hard about this? So many want to reject it. It’s been this way for a couple hundred years. Classic stuff. Gotta learn it before you can modify it.
I know, I know. You can modify things as you learn them, but you’ll always end up returning to these basic principles. Promise.