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Understanding Composition

Updated on June 23, 2015

Understanding Composition

What sets apart a mediocre painting from a great one? It is usually composition. Composition is how you arrange pictorial elements in your paintings. A good composition will keep the viewer's attention fixed on your painting. A bad composition leaves the viewer feeling bored and they will move on to something else. If you are trying to earn a living as an artist, you need to catch the viewer's attention and hold it. The longer the viewer looks at your painting, the more inclined he or she will be to buy it. In this article, I will cover some simple ways to make your paintings more interesting.

Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds | Source

Rule of Thirds

Every painting has a point where the viewer's eye focuses. This is called the focal point or center of interest of a painting. It can be a particular subject or a patch of color. So where do you put the focal point? One rule you can use is called the rule of thirds. Basically it means you divide your canvas into thirds and put your focal point on the points where the lines cross. I have illustrated this in the diagram above with red X's. When subjects are placed on these points, it is more pleasing to the eye. Can you put your focal point directly in the center? Yes, this is called a symmetrical composition. These types of compositions are mainly used for book covers, video games, and movie posters when you want to emphasize a character in a story line. Most compositions in the art world are asymmetrical to create more interest in the paintings.

Negative Space

Faces | Source

Negative Spaces

Perhaps you have seen the optical illusion of two silhouetted faces that creates a vase between them. This illustrates the principle of negative space. I have created my own version of this in the picture above to show it. To put it plainly, negative space is the empty space around a subject. In the picture above you can see that the empty space between the two face silhouettes has its own shape. When composing a picture, you want interesting negative space. That is, you want interesting shapes for the viewer's eye to follow. Boring negative space may cause your viewer to lose interest in your painting.

Boring Negative Space

Boring Negative Space
Boring Negative Space | Source

Boring Negative Space

Here is an example of a twiggy bush with negative space that is not very interesting. There is no variation of the space between the branches. The uniformity of the bush can bore the viewer and he or she will move on to a more interesting subject.

Interesting Negative Space

Interesting Negative Space
Interesting Negative Space | Source

Interesting Negative Space

This twiggy bush is an example of interesting negative space. The spaces between the branches are varied and promote an interesting eye flow. This holds the viewer's attention and keeps he or she looking at your painting.

L-Shaped Composition

L-Shaped Composition
L-Shaped Composition | Source

L-Shaped Composition

Composition can be broken down into three types: L-Shaped, Single Subject, and Triangular compositions. L-Shaped compositions are paintings that have their subjects arranged in an L shape on the canvas. I have drawn a diagram of two L-Shaped compositions: one on the left side of the painting and one on the right side of the painting.

Example: L- Shaped Composition

'Watering at the Cement Pond'
'Watering at the Cement Pond' | Source

Example: L- Shaped Composition

The painting above shows an example of an L-Shaped composition. The windmill, the cows, and the watering tub form an L shape in the painting. Because the cow overlaps the windmill, the eye is led in a L shape towards the watering tub and the calf.

Single Subject Composition

'When Evening Comes'
'When Evening Comes' | Source

Single Subject Composition

Single Subject Compositions are paintings with one main subject. Portraits are also an example of this type of composition. In the painting above the silhouette of the cowboy is the main subject and the bushes are eyestoppers. Eyestoppers are objects on the edges of the canvas that keep the viewer's eye from wandering off of the canvas.

Triangular Composition: Type 1

Type 1
Type 1 | Source

Triangular Composition

Triangular Composition can be split into three types. The first type consists of triangular shapes pointing towards the main subject of your painting. The diagram above illustrates this type of composition.

An Example of Type 1 Triangular Composition

'Rusty Tin Roof'
'Rusty Tin Roof' | Source

Type 1

Here is an example of a painting with triangular shapes pointing towards the focal point. The road, mountains, and fence all form triangle shapes pointing towards the house which is the focal point of the painting. The tree acts as an eyestopper to keep the viewer's attention on the canvas.

Triangular Composition: Type 2

Type 2
Type 2 | Source

Type 2

The second type of Triangular Composition is when a focal point is framed by objects making up a triangle shape. The diagram above shows how this composition is arranged.

An Example of Type 2 Triangular Composition

'Roping a Stray'
'Roping a Stray' | Source

Example Type 2

In this painting the main subject is in a triangular composition. The cowboy roping the calf is the focal point and the tree, the stream, and the bushes all work together to frame him in a triangular shape.

Triangular Composition: Type 3

Type 3
Type 3 | Source

Type 3

The third type of Triangular Composition is arranging the main subject to be part of the triangle. The diagram above illustrates this idea.

An Example of Type 3 Triangular Composition

'Autumn Drink'
'Autumn Drink' | Source

Example Type 3

In this painting the elk is the main subject and forms a triangle shape with the two trees. The stream leads the viewer's eye into the painting. Sometimes you can just darken the corners of your paintings to make an eyestopper instead of putting in an object.

Ultimate Goal of Composition

There are other more complex compositional systems such as the golden mean and the fibonacci sequence for the more mathematically inclined. The ultimate goal of composition is to keep the viewer's eye engaged with your painting. You want to promote good eye flow from subject to subject in your paintings. Think of it like a pinball machine, the ball bounces from side to side and off different things while you try to keep the ball from falling in a hole. In the case of your painting, you want the viewer's eye to bounce from object to object in your painting and hold his or her attention.

Classical Drawing

Lessons in Classical Drawing: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier
Lessons in Classical Drawing: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier
This book discusses complex ideas of composition. An excellent book to have in your collection.

Final Word

I hope this article has broken down the ideas of composition into simple to understand components and will help you make more dynamic paintings. Composition can be simple or complex depending on what you want to do with your painting. Try out some of these methods and see how they improve your paintings.


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