Painting Format vs. Subject: Which Comes First?

Painting Format vs. Subject: Which Comes First?

Form(at) Meets Function

As artists, it’s our desire to use brush and paint to create, and then share, our interpretations of what we see and feel, and to translate and present these interpretations effectively on a two-dimensional surface. The placement of shapes, forms and colors onto a painting surface requires careful planning. And when it comes to watercolor, before you can even begin to design a successful painting composition, you need to consider the surface’s parameters, or the painting format.

So which comes first — your painting subject or your painting format? Below, Jean Grastorf breaks down everything you need to know. Enjoy!

How to Start

It’s easy to fall into the rut of working with 12 by 16-, 20 by 24- and 22 by 30-inch paper. I’ve taught students who have a stock of mats and frames, and they often feel that they have to paint to fit inside them.

But if we break free from these restrictions, we avoid boring ourselves — and the viewer. Just because a sheet of watercolor paper comes in a particular size doesn’t mean it’s the best format for a painting’s composition.

The most important thing to understand is that size isn’t as important as the proportion of height to width in relation to the subject matter. Only after decisions regarding composition and format are made can the painting process move forward.

Choosing a Painting Format

A square, horizontal or vertical format can be developed from almost any image. Try out all three formats for the same subject. *Excerpted with permission from “The Watercolor Bible” by Joe Garcia.

So, how do we decide which format makes the most sense for the subject and the desired effect? The three most common formats are horizontal, vertical and square.

A horizontal format lets the viewer’s eye move across the painting and is used most often for landscapes. A half-sheet horizontal format may be ideal for a panoramic landscape or a reclining figure.

A vertical format encourages the eye to move up and down the painting. Although it’s commonly used for portrait or figure paintings, a half-sheet vertical format may be perfect to depict a landscape — perhaps a narrow European alley.

A square format isn’t as common as the other two, but it’s ideal when the subject matter is the center of interest. This format conveys a sense of balance and proportion. Geometric forms often sit well within the square, so it’s well-suited for abstract and intuitive work.

Whatever format you choose should complement and further the objectives of your painting. Don’t be afraid to try an unconventional choice, as I did in Sunny on Sixth (below); it may prove challenging, but it also may result in more interesting divisions of space.

If your first attempt to use a different format than usual doesn’t please you, take what you learned and move on to another proportion and/or size. Building from a foundation of earlier imagery allows for bolder strokes.

Three Street Scenes, Three Formats

I’ve been enamored with street scenes for several years. Instead of using a traditional horizontal format
 for all of my cityscapes, I determine my painting format based on what I want to convey.

For example, below I’ve painted a vertical treatment of a Greek alley, an elongated horizontal view of a New York City street and a rectangular format for a Roman piazza. The possibilities are all part of the creative endeavor.

Plaka by Jean Grastorf, watercolor on paper, 28 x 20

In Athens, Greece, the “plaka,” or marketplace, is a crowded, busy and colorful location. This watercolor painting, Plaka , called for a vertical format, with the buildings framing the people and shops.

Piazza Di Espagne by Jean Grastorf, watercolor on paper, 20 x 28

Piazza di Espagne follows a more traditional painting format — the full sheet. It’s a familiar and therefore easier-to-design space.

The complex subject fits well into the size and proportion, with room for all of the details of buildings, carriages and people. 
It benefits from breathing room; a smaller size would have crowded the elements.

Sunny on Sixth by Jean Grastorf, watercolor on paper, 6 x 28

When we think of New York City, tall skyscrapers immediately come to mind. However, I went against the expected in Sunny on Sixth , choosing an elongated horizontal.

I halved a full sheet of paper lengthwise to highlight the inhabitants’ lower eye level. Bonus? 
I was left with the other half of the paper to use — perhaps as an elongated vertical.

About Jean Gastorf

A master status member of the Transparent Watercolor Society of America and a dolphin fellowship member of the American Watercolor Society, Jean Grastorf is renowned for her signature poured painting technique. She teaches her watercolor techniques in workshops throughout the U.S. and abroad. Gastorf is also a published author and video instructor.