Formal qualities refers to the individual design elements… composition (a pleasing arrangement of parts), color, line, texture, scale, proportion, balance, contrast, rhythm and principles. Composition is listed first because it is the first consideration at the beginning of a painting but I would give equal weight to all the formal qualities in terms of importance.
Composition has to do with balance and design. By that I mean, not simply accepting ‘Nature as she comes’, but balancing and designing the large masses and subordinate elements. The focus, or center of interest, is made prominent by linear means and the employment of attractions… that which attracts the eye. The eye is attracted by contrasts… hue, value, chroma and sharp edges. For these to be effective they must be held in reserve for when the artist chooses to focus the attention of the viewer but not in an obvious or heavy-handed way.
The greatest attraction in a landscape is the introduction of figures, birds and/or animals. Our eyes are drawn to living things and relatively small instances will overpower larger areas in terms of attraction power.
A sense of motion will draw the eye in a relatively stationary scene.
Composition of the large masses means arranging and designing the simplified value areas. For example on an average sunlit day… sky lightest in value, ground plane medium, angled planes darker, upright planes darker still and accents darkest. Discerning the masses, patterns and edges in nature are best seen by squinting and then designed to fit the idea of the painting. Prominence and subordination is what is meant by the idea of the painting. Composition is construction and without it the painting becomes merely a collection of parts.
Before painting, I answer the questions, what is the focus and will I have a high or low horizon? Then I visualize the painting. These macro decisions are adhered to during the painting although with many micro adjustments.
A clear understanding of the principles of realism is fundamental. Principles are not rules but a guide to action especially when difficulties arise. The following is a list of the principles that I have found instructive… clarity of concept, variety, rhythm (reoccurrence with variation), repetition, unity, balance, variety in the treatment of edges, drawing accuracy, placement, perspective, accurate mass proportion, accuracy of relative sizes, proper value sequences including graduation and modeling,consideration of textures, recession (ariel perspective), unequal measures, expressive brushwork, holding locals and harmony in composition and color.
Color is a formal quality and our understanding has evolved a great deal since Newton discovered that white light contains all the colors of the spectrum.
The visual experience of landscape is largely translated to the language of painting by the use of color. Color application varies according to stylistic requirements… impressionism, realism, tonalism, expressionism (Van Gogh) etc. Contemporary realism is a combination of styles and benefits from a variety of color theories.
Impressionist color theory has to do with broken color which results in visual mixing (Additive as opposed to subtractive which is the mixing of color on the palette) and simultaneous and successive contrast (Eugene Chevreul) which has to do with how we see and the effects of colors on each other.
According to Chevreul, color is heightened by the use of contrasts (complements). A red robe will have a greenish shadow, the yellow of sunlight on a white object will cause the shadows to tend toward violet and any color will be heightened and affected by the nearby use of it’s complement. The Impressionists understood Chevreul’s theories but painted intuitively based on their perceptions of direct observation. These and other color studies are best left to the later stages of the artist’s development.