I'm still working on the sketch for the samurai vs. dragon painting from last week. The picture has a lot going on in it, but is basically broken into a dark, cool foreground and a sunlit middleground. I've seen tons of Dean Cornwell paintings masterfully pull of this arrangement, so I did some comp studies from him to try to figure out how to pull it off.
This painting has a lot going on in it. Several figures, bright primary colors, and (at first glance) a seemingly chaotic value pattern. The value study quickly shows how simply all the masses are arranged, though.
Howard Pyle and Harvey Dunn taught their students to compose using, at most, 3 values. Dark, Middletone (for the lights in the shadow, and the shadows in the light), and Light. You can see that at work here. The foreground figures are all in shadow, and clustered into one dark shape. The second cluster is in middletone, and the background is mostly light, with the other values used to create pattern.
The study in color shows how carefully Cornwell controlled the use of his 3 values. The light areas of the foreground figures are all done in middletone, never the light tone. To use that would break the shape and value pattern of the whole image. The lights on the middleground figures are done in the light tone. There is no dark tone used on that shape.
One thing that surprised me while doing these is how well the picture works in grayscale. I'd assumed that the color was much more important to helping it read.
Just drew on top of the image to see where things line up. The major shapes pointing to the main figure, who is dark and silhouetted against the light yellow drapery, are obvious. The diagonals fanning out in the second image was less expected, although I suspect that I'm just finding patterns there. I couldn't say whether it's critical to the image or not.
It's also important, while looking for patterns like this, to keep in mind that they're design aids. "Composition" includes many things, and design- the arrangement of shapes- is only one of them. That they are often mistakenly assumed to be the same thing, I feel, leads a lot of people to think that the design of a piece is all that's needed to make it work, thus you have so many magic bullet composition schemes being peddled. I'll rant about that another time.
This second painting is much simpler, and uses the same device of dropping the foreground in shadow. The foreground uses the dark and middletones. The two main characters are in full value range, however. They're the main actors in this, so it makes sense- the main figure in the previous painting is the focal point, but the story doesn't revolve around him. In this picture, we have full light against dark contrast on the main figures, and they're framed and silhouetted by the dark background and white pillars, focusing all attention on them.
I went back to my own sketch after doing these, and focused only on value this time. This is one of those things that I've been taught for years, but for some reason keep trying to skip- compose in value. If it works in value, it will work in color. I tried to arrange the values more carefully, and used a full range on the main rider. Hopefully it reads better now.