Composition | Perspective | Anatomy | Shadow & Light | Color | Style 


Artistic Composition

The planned placement and construction of essential objects within a painting whether it be aesthetically pleasing or just intriguing provokes and contributes to an observer’s reaction of  the work. To draw the viewer into a work of art and to maintain interest the composition is usually balanced  throughout the painting, although it doesn’t have to be. Planning an expressional piece that upsets the balance of the painting could be exactly what is needed to “wake up” your audience. There are several variables available to utilize in the planning stage that produce dramatic differences in the viewer’s eye. Precisely how you use these techniques is the key to creating an interest.

Unless it is your intention to put focus on the subject you should avoid leaving any portion of your canvas totally blank. As the visual path explores your painting,  envision consistent repetition of shapes that form patterns in progression. Sometimes a simple stoke that imitates the texture from an element of the painting on the surface is all that is needed. The actual stroke texture created in  impasto pieces is an example of this. Cross hatching is effective to create uniformity in a sketch. Continuing you build harmony and interest as you define the lines of  the shape, dimension and proportions with in the painting.   
Dance Hall Scene

Dance Hall Scene circa 1913-14
Gouache and colored pencil on paper
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson

Framing the area within the field of view for the picture known as “cropping” in photography is an important aspect. Allow the images within to dictate the dimensions and/or shape of the painting. Avoid the tendency to paint only square, landscape or portrait rectangle canvases. Take advantage of the perspective revealed in an image that possess strong elements with in the overall composition and adapt your frame to that vision. Something as simple as a wildflower in the foreground can become a strong component  to the total picture.

Placement of the subject determines the directional path the observer takes when they view an image. A busy painting maintains interest longer. However, avoid cluttering the canvas with distractions to make certain the viewer is aware of what your subject is. To create depth and dimension in a painting, an old composition trick known as the rule-of-thirds promotes the use of  “perspective projection” to obtain a more pleasing sense of balance in a painting. In the painting below this method was utilized twice to exhibit depth in the painting. Examining the different views below reveals the reasons for Mr. Wyeth’s composition. By placing the subject in the foreground one third from the left,

the viewer is forced to examine the entire image as the subject looks on. Where placing her in the center of the painting, you start to loose perception of the distance between her and the farm house. And finally by centering the farm house in the distance, the painting looses sense of  balance as if you feel the right third of the painting could be cut off almost to improve it.

Focal point, the area of an image that is the sharpest and clearest, is an interesting way to select focus on and isolate your subject. A method used frequently by photographers, it is used to draw the viewer’s eye to the main subject first. This concept works exceptionally well with portraits as it has a tendency to push the subject in the foreground out of the painting in what appears to be a 3D effect. When focus is placed on the subject in the background it produces a tunnel effect. By leaving the balance of the painting out of focus or less detailed, the eye travels around the painting but is always re-directed back to the subject.     

Contrast adds variety and definition to a canvas. The key to understanding contrast is to envision your painting in grayscale. A painting void of contrast will appear gray. In theory the tones could be painted in shades of any color if the tonal properties are similar to an image composed in varying of shades of gray, from black to white. How you place the light,  mid-tone and dark colors throughout the piece will determine and define the lines and shapes of your painting. This “clash” or sharpness between light and all tones darker forms the contrast in your painting and is a key element to establishing clarity. Because the eye is generally drawn to the lightest part of an image, developing a strategy as to how you paint shadows and light will help you improve your awareness as to where the best areas are to place light  using contrast to your advantage.

Colors in an assortment of tones and intensities can dramatically effect the appeal of a painting. It has been known for centuries that psychological response to different colors varies and that color is associated with symbolism in many cultures.

The Red Vineyard at Arles
Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Color scheme and intensity can set the mood or reaction of a painting. Testing by Psychologist’s reveal that  different hues create varied response  in mood and emotions which in turn verifies the effect an artist’s subject and the colors used can have on the viewer.

Documentation suggests that warm color hues (red to yellow) are exciting, stimulate the nervous system and cause increased levels of stress. Where as the cool color hues (blue to green) are soothing and relaxing.

Whether your goal is to create and emotional response or to create an authentic representation,  color symbolism is also an important aspect of your composition and research on the topic is advised. Color association or symbolism will vary between distinctive cultures inviting different response. Some examples:

  • Black in western & Christian societies represents void, emptiness, death, evil, loss, loss and depression. In eastern civilization it is a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
  • Purple in some eastern countries represents death or morning. Almost all western civilizations distinguish purple as a symbol of royalty.
  • And just for fun, why would most men (including myself) have a problem wearing a pink suit?.

Utilizing Perspective -by establishing correct placement of  background, middle and foreground objects is essential to establish depth and distance in a composition. A few artists have been successful by breaking the rules where it was their objective to create opposition or restlessness but often a painting with exceptional detail will appear “flat” because the rules of perspective have been neglected.

Placement of objects managed in proportion to an invisible grid showing objects as they  naturally diminish into the horizon line will elevate the illusion of actually entering the scene and moving with the subject. Make use of the lines in the image you are creating. Demanding proportional  elements with in your rendering such as a road, river, rolling hills, or architecture support, determine the dimensions that enable a slightly embellished foreground appear  to be leaping out at the viewer.

Take advantage of  various viewpoints close up, looking down from an aerial view, or looking up from a lower angle, to exhibit an exaggerated foreshortened view of the subject.  Realizing that a man’s hand is not larger that his head, a perfect example of  exaggerated foreshortening is the drawing of 
“Samson and Delilah”
  illustrated by Floro Dery a technique utilized by many modern cartoonist as a means to tip the balance of a composition with illusion. However, this application need not be limited to cartooning.

Rendering Motion – from wind, water or figures that evokes a feel of movement incorporates activity and interest in your painting. Frequently a concept and/or story line supports these type of renderings.

Planning – try to utilize perspective, shadow and light, color and other all segments of the composition to place emphasis on or to dramatize your concept. Envision and stage each paint  layer starting from the background working towards the foreground/subject to avoid over painting. Above all, evaluate the goal of your concept to know when to stop once your painting is completed.

Related links

The Simple Secret to Better Painting: How to Immediately Improve Your Work with the One Rule of Composition

Mastering Composition:Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting 


Design & Composition Secrets of Professional Artists: 16 Successful Painters Show How They Create Prize- Winning Work


CŽzanne’s Composition:
Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs

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