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,





Composition Ideas to Make Your Art Stronger: Visual Weight

In the last post I mentioned that when we explore Unity vs. Variety, it kind of leads us to looking at something called Visual Hierarchy. As I thought about it, maybe we should talk first about visual weight. The elements of your composition can be said to have different visual weights, that is, the heavier an element, the more the eye is drawn there, the lighter the element the more it is in the background.

Qualities that make elements heavy can be: High contrast, sharp edges, big, vibrant color, darker color, unusual/intricate shape, pattern.

Qualities that make element light are like: low contrast, soft edges, smaller, less distinctive shapes, muted colors, lighter colors, flat color.

One of the most fun parts of composition is balancing visual weight and activating the entire space of the picture. Lets look at one of my pieces since I actually know how it came together.

I began with a black and white design with a weird shape, some bold type, and some skewed black lines in the middle. There is some unity because of the color scheme.   The two pieces of text sort of connect from similarity in size and shape, color. The lower left corner is very heavy, with all the black, and the high contrast type. The lower right is less heavy. The middle bars of black, overlapping, is my favorite part. I like the balance of shapes and slants. The two upper corners feel bare without any reason. Sometimes negative space is balancing positive space and it completely works. But not here.


I did not take a bunch of shots in between, unfortunately, so please try to visualize this progression.

The first thing I wanted to do was get something in the upper half of the frame. Stripes make me happy so I pasted a patch of wobbly, hand painted black stripes. That got the piece moving. Then I decided the text was just too problematic so I covered the RD with a piece of sanded book cover. The KOO was then way too bold, but I liked those shapes, so I obscured it mostly with some cloth.

In the upper right corner I found a piece of black that could wrap around the corner (a nice relief from all the vertical rectangles) and I cut its inside corner to be rounded, and uneven. The curve connects, visually, to the black shape in the lower left creating more unity. The wobbliness of the cut contrasts the perfect straight lines and gives us more variety, thus energy.

So now the black is moving around the whole picture and making connections. But the picture still felt like it could have more life,  so I looked at adding color. The light aqua blue made that corner much more interesting than just the sanded book cover (most of which I covered, sorry I don’t have a picture to show you how dull it was!). There was also some dark red on my table that offset and energized the aqua even more. Paste it down!

My upper left corner was still a little weak so I repeated the red shape, in a different material. And now I was mostly done. I had a nice balance of darks and lights distributed over the picture, but not too evenly. A balance of materials, the odd shape here and there. But I kept noticing that hint of yellow in the sanded book cover and wanted just a bit more of it. The gold and black stripe arrived as a fun afterthought.


Notice that keyword “fun”.  Keeping this work fun is a great goal.  And as we are looking at design principles I want to caution everyone, myself especially, to not get overly uptight about them. They are guidelines and I think really helpful, but if they are all you have, your work feels empty and stuck. Use materials that are fun for you, colors you like, shapes and textures that give you a little buzz. The playful energy that you communicate in your work is really valuable to your audience. As adults, I at least, really want to return to the sense of abandon and naturalness we had as kids. A little adult design principles and a lot of childish playfulness is a good balance to aim for.

Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or thoughts about Visual Weight in your own work. Its great to hear from you.

Happy Creating,