Using Photoshop to Debug Compositions

I just had a wonderful collage workshop last weekend and I am still thinking about the process of editing your design once you are well into the process. This is, after all, where most of the time is spent. Its usually easy to get started, just start pasting. But then, soon enough, your design gets off track.  How do you pull it back into balance? Its very tricky and, of course, unique to each artist but I thought an illustration of how I might go about “debugging” a composition might be instructive.

I was working in a Three Column structure on the piece below. The last element I put in was in the upper left, the circles over some  “Mrs. Homemaker…” text. I was liking everything but felt like I needed something at the top of the composition. I chose a pretty different and busy piece.

fixer upper
original scan

After looking at it for awhile, I decided two things were bothering me:


  • The circles piece seemed to be leading us over into an empty corner.
  • the middle column lacked strength. Two very similar rectangles of similar value… The line between them was weak and disturbing.

So I scanned this piece and brought it into photoshop to play around with possible solutions.



fixer upper1
version 1 – photoshop

I was sort of in love with the “Mrs Homemaker, The Car, and Travel”, but It turned out this was the biggest problem. Covering it over (in photoshop) suddenly got me back to my original intentions.

Now the color in the three columns modulates in a pattern that I like: The middle column is the tallest, then the left column, then the right. I like this mountain or skyline shape. I also like the variety in the sizes and shapes of the rectangles, the bits of type that act as texture from this distance, and of course the drama of the stripes!

It feels balanced, but I still want to add some emphasis to the yellow rectangle.



fixer upper2
version 2 – photoshop

A simple outline around the yellow gives the middle column much more strength.  Now it is on even par with its neighbors.









fixer upper3
version 3 – photoshop

In the final version I have added more blacks to ground the piece at the bottom, and pull all the light rectangles into a frame.

I think of this as a loose guide to where I want this piece to go. Its easiest in photoshop to make straight lines but I may choose more organic, uneven, shapes when I get this back to the collage table. I will also play with the thickness of these lines but the basic weight of the blacks, and their distribution, is working. For now.

It could easily be that I look at it for a few days and find something else I want to change. But my advice is don’t belabor it too long. Better to make more work than just a few perfect pieces.



I am curious if any of you readers use photoshop in this way, or what your methods of editing your compositions are. Please share with us in the comments below!

Thank You and Happy creating,






9 thoughts on “Using Photoshop to Debug Compositions

  1. What a brilliant idea to use Photo Shop to play around with composition ideas! Just discovered your wonderful art pieces on Pinterest, which then led me here. I love your work and really appreciate your sharing some of your process with us. Best wishes to you.


  2. I make large photos into quilts, they are designed in Photoshop, printed on fabric and sent to to me and then I do lots of stitching. A lot of the work happens before the stitching but I take photos as I progress, the record of what happens is fascinating. Just found your blog and love it.


    1. Thank you, Mary Ann. So you begin with a photograph, alter it in photoshop, print it, then alter it some more with stitching. That is a great use of photoshop, I must say. Thanks for commenting.


  3. I use my cell phone and make photos of the piece as I change or refine my composition. Of course I don’t paste the changes down, but I find just looking they the photo with a cup of tea, helps me to gauge what is needed. Thanks for sharing your process and reminding me of the strength of introducing black into the composition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I think the cell phone pictures are invaluable. Seeing it small on the screen helps you “step back” and see it as a whole more. The use of black is a very unexpected discovery for me. I think it was Dennis Parlante’s work that really showed me its power. Now I just can’t seem to get enough of it 🙂


  4. Very helpful to see your process. Often switching to another medium helps us ‘see’ what we need to change. I change to geyscale and do print-outs and draw over those to see how to improve composition. I’m doing a course at the moment and they advocate using Photoshop in a similar way. You are right that it’s easy to be led by the confines of the program but it’s a super helpful way to make adjustments and see what changes. Just lighteneing up that lower square was a big change. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the greyscale idea. I put a “desaturate” layer in my photoshop file to check how my values are working too. I learned how valuable it is to have a good balance of values from Nick Wilton. Thanks for your comments Alice!


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