God is in the details: Found Composition vs Intentional Composition

Art techniques & tutorials

God is in the details: Found Composition versus Intentional Composition.


There is a beautiful expression: ‘God is in the details.’ I love that one.

Every day after I make a new painting, I first photograph it. Next, I make a photograph of one or more details of it. Doing so is one of the most fun moments of the day. I love to go over the painting, see what part catches my eye the most, and make a photograph of it. I use this photo as a ‘featured image’ in WordPress, i.e., the photo that shows up on top of the blog page. Also, the photo above this blog post is such a detail. As you probably have noticed; photos of details are spread all over my website.




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A painting within a painting

My friend Dotty Seiter once coined a beautiful expression for that. She calls it a ‘found’ composition (versus the composition that you intentionally or deliberately make while painting). Another painter that I admire (Claire Desjardins), calls it ‘a painting within a painting.’ I love to think about the details that way.


You always can find a nice detail

Sometimes the composition of a painting is not that great, but it is almost always possible to find a beautiful detail with good composition. Sometimes I like the photo of the detail even more than the painting itself. For instance, this study below did not turn out that well, but I loved the detail, which is satisfying.

You learn

Photographing your photos is fun, but besides that, I believe you can learn a lot from it. Because you are searching through the lens of your camera for beautiful details, you start seeing when a composition comes together. You become aware when you have this aha-moment: ‘Now it feels good.’

Sometimes this is very tricky. One millimeter to the right can draw the whole composition out of balance. You can’t always reason that but, if you listen closely, your body tells you when a piece comes together or falls apart.


Photography makes it easy

Because you can make multiple photographs of different details of the painting, there are plenty of possibilities to practice the art of composition. Using photography makes this very easy. When you are painting, it can be difficult to change the direction of the composition. By contrast, when you are making photographs, this is so much easier. You can try out as much as you want, and quickly delete the photos that don’t turn out well.




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What do you like in your composition?

As I said, you can feel in your body when a composition falls into place, and after that, you can start to analyze why that is so. What makes you like this composition that much? It is very personal.

For instance, this is what I like in my details:

  • Both black and white are visible in the painting. Technically speaking, the most extreme values are present.
  • The colors contrast. For instance, when I use orange on a blue surface, those colors pop, which make the detail exciting.
  • There are lots of tiny textured details present. For instance, small scratches or thin pencil-lines. Because you make a close-up, those small details get extra attention.
  • There is ‘quiet space.’. What I mean is that not all of the painting is filled with visual elements like different lines, shapes, colors, etcetera, but there is some emptiness or simplicity, too.


Transport your findings

When you analyze your detailed photographs, you start to see what you like and what you miss in the composition of your paintings. Then you can transport your findings to your painting practice and implement them there.

For instance, I realized that I often implement nr. 1, 2 and 3 in my paintings, but I tend to neglect nr. 4. This realization gives me an interesting challenge. I can play with adding more empty space in my paintings, and see how things turn out.




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Give yourself an assignment

You can do this very deliberately and give yourself a specific assignment. For example, ‘create at least one-third of empty space in this painting.’ This way you force yourself out of your usual routines, which can be very instructional.


Or let things develop organically

But if you don’t like that, or if you are a more intuitive painter, you can let things develop organically instead. Implementing your findings does not have to be a very cognitive process. When you start to see what you like and do not like in your details, you develop a certain awareness. When you paint, you can forget about everything, and paint without thinking or analyzing. Your don’t need to force yourself. Your new awareness has become part of you, so it will automatically show up in your paintings.


Start photographing

I hope you are inspired to start photographing details of your artwork too! If you haven’t painted yet, you can start anyway. Just take some magazines or newspapers, and look for interesting details. And you can of course also photograph small details in the world around you. If you watch closely, beauty is everywhere.


How do you treat your details? Let me know in the comments!





Because I like photographing details so much, I decided to create free downloadable art-cards of them. You can find them here. Enjoy!



Simone Nijboer, Dutch abstract artist, online art teacher, daily painter, creativity accelerator


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  1. William Hall

    I find that studying details of my work makes me vary aware of scale. My art is very textural and many times that texture is determined by the size of the implement or tool that I am using. When I create a new piece based on a detail of a previous work, I find that I must increase the scale of my marks as well as the tools I use to make those marks.

    • Simone

      Thanks, William, for your reaction.

      Yes, I absolutely can relate to that! I still have a lot to learn about that. Scaling up marks is not always easy, and indeed: you need bigger tools too.

      By the way: SO nice to see your website. Everybody should take a look: http://williamhallart.com/. Fantastic work!

    • Simone Nijboer

      Thanks so much, Sheila! I’m looking forward to your thoughts, maybe here or maybe in the community.

      (You can find this community at http://www.artnowcommunity.mn.co, for if you are an (aspiring) abstract artist and interested in joining our newly founded community ).


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