Composing a Painting | From Idea to Masterpiece in 4 Steps!

Composing a Painting

Composing a Painting | From Idea to Masterpiece in 4 Steps!

I often get asked about the process of composing a painting. Where do I start? Do I draw on the canvas? Today I reveal my process for taking an Idea and successfully turning it into a well composed masterpiece!

The Idea (step 1)

Everything starts with an idea doesn’t it? Artwork is no different. I get an idea for a painting and before I implement it I think my idea through a bit. Ideas don’t just come from nowhere; they are usually an extension of other paintings I have been working on. This notion is sometimes referred to as the adjacent possible and is referenced in this clever book, Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson.

If there is one thing I have learned about generating ideas for artwork it is this: Start producing artwork now, start creating something, anything and your future ideas will be more plentiful and better over time.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. –Chuck Close

What message do you want to send to your viewers? What feeling should your artwork convey? Is your painting going to stick to a certain color scheme? What compositions have you been successful with in the past?

Perhaps the painting in your near future is a commissioned piece for a client and will need to adhere to certain criteria.

Either way, once your creative juices start flowing It’s important for you to put your ideas into some form of action sooner rather than later. I don’t let painting ideas linger too long and you shouldn’t either. Let’s put some pencil to paper shall we?

Thumbnail Sketches (step 2)

Thumbnail sketches are small sketches that enable artists to preview their artwork. Thumbnail sketches give an artist a quick visual idea as to whether or not their artistic vision is worth pursuing or not. For most of my paintings I complete a very quick, small thumbnail sketch. I usually spend less than one hour working out a pencil drawing that is less than 6 inches along any dimension.

When getting artistic ideas out on paper in the form of a thumbnail sketch don’t forget to indicate where your composition ends. If you don’t draw a line or indicate where your composition will end you really don’t have a composition at all; you have some subject matter randomly floating around in space.

How will your subject matter interact with the edges of your painting? How much space will exist between your areas of focus and the edges of your composition?

Lastly, don’t forget to include some values in your thumbnail sketches. Outlines tell us the size and location of your painting’s elements but how will light and dark play a role in your artwork?

Composing a Painting With Thumbnail Sketches | From Idea to Masterpiece in 4 Steps!

Drawing (step 3)

Before I jump into a painting I prefer to complete a detailed drawing on paper using a graphite pencil. This drawing is 100% to scale and is vital to my creation of a frustration-free painting process. Unlike the thumbnail sketch, the large drawing I create does not include any shading (no values). It is simply a very accurate representation of the subject matter before me.

I often use this drawing as an opportunity to represent some of the large color changes that will occur in my painting. I also use lines that may not be part of the final composition but help me set up an accurate drawing.

This includes vertical lines drawn with a ruler that help me keep an accurate symmetry with symmetrical objects. This phase of composing a painting is a little bit like creating my own paint by numbers, but I don’t include numbers and I’m not painting a bearded ship captain whose wearing a yellow rain jacket!

Transfer Paper (step 4)

I have become a huge fan of transfer paper.   Prior to using transfer paper I used to draw out my compositions right on the painting surface which was usually a stretched canvas. As a result, steps 3 and 4 have become more of a recent development when considering my 20 year history of composing paintings.

Some things to consider when using transfer paper:

  • Line up your drawing paper properly and keep it lined up
  • Press hard enough to transfer the lines
  • Use a different colored drawing tool

I generally tape my drawing onto my canvas so that it does not move when I’m transferring the drawing over. I also use a red or blue ball-point pen so that I can tell where I have traced. Technique trumps memory loss; old age you pesky S.O.B.!

The ball point also makes a nice indentation in the drawing paper which promotes a better transfer onto the painting surface.

Composing a Painting With Transfer Paper | From Idea to Masterpiece in 4 Steps!


Once I get to the point of starting my painting all the major compositional choices should be already worked out. Composing the painting is actually done before I even start painting! Now if my floors could just be cleaned before I decide to clean them.

Of course real life can get messy and there are occasionally some changes that need to be made and some things I may not have accounted for in my preparation leading up to the painting itself. But, if there is one thing that I learned over the process of creating several hundred paintings it’s that an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of fixing!

The whole point of steps 1-4 is so I can relax and focus on the paint, its brush strokes and all the wonderful effects I can create with color.

The drawings and the preparation leading up to the actual painting do appear to add time to the final product but in my experience they shorten the actual time it takes to create a masterpiece. Fixing paintings is a frustrating process that often adds hours upon hours of work to get a painting back into good graces.

The methods of composing a painting I laid out here have undoubtedly played a vital role in the creation of my most successful paintings.


  1. What IF you want to compose paintings out of settings, people, objects….maybe from pictures that were all taken at different times with different lights…how do you merge that into one surreal thing so it looks believable?

    1. John Morfis says:

      If your references contain different lighting it won’t look believable. Most surrealism isn’t really believable at all, that’s what makes it surreal. You can fake some of the shading by making it up, but it is difficult to make things look believable unless you have much experience with the subject matter.

  2. Russell Foote says:

    How do you know if you have painted a masterpiece? Do masterpieces have certain characteristics?

    1. John Morfis says:

      This is like asking “what is art?”. You’ll get a ton of answers depending on who you ask.

  3. thanks for sharing….

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