Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

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A composition is the careful placement of the various elements within a painting. It can either be a good composition or a not so good one. When the composition is done successfully, however, it will draw the viewer’s gaze into and around the painting surface leading it from one element to another taking everything in and finally resting on the main subject of the painting.

The purpose of this article is to equip the painter with the tools needed to help him/her build better compositions within all their paintings. Three composition techniques that every painter should use are (1) the rule of thirds, (2) the rule of odds, and (3)  the rule of space. Let me explain each.

Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds example
Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a useful guideline used by many professional photographers to aide them when composing the subject matter of their photographs. It is also a very helpful technique that can be used by painters as well.

The idea behind this rule is to divide your painting surface into 9 equal parts. Then position the most important elements in the scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect.

To create a landscape composition, follow these steps:

    1. Divide your canvas into 9 equal segments by drawing 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines at the 1/3 and 2/3 measurements creating a grid.
    2. Determine where the horizon is going to be, ether on the top horizontal line or the bottom line.
    3. Arrange the most important elements of your subject matter at one or more of the points where the lines intersect (also referred to as ‘hotspots’).

The rule of thirds states that a painting has a stronger composition and is much more interesting to view if the center of interest is not directly in the center of the canvas, but rather at one of the four focal points where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. By placing a secondary object at the opposite intersection, balance in the composition can be achieved.

In the instance of the example above, note how the horizon falls close to the bottom grid line, and how the subject matter (the tree) is placed at an intersecting area on the left. By doing this, it has served to add balance and create interest in the composition.

When you apply the rule of thirds to your work, it guarantees you’ll never have a painting that’s split in half, either vertically or horizontally, nor one with the main focus right in the center like a bull’s-eye. When a subject matter is placed directly in the center of the canvas it tends draw the eye into the center and the rest of the painting is ignored. When the subject matter is located on or near a hotspot, the eye is drawn to the focal point and then around the painting creating a flow or movement from one element to the next.

Rule of Odds

rule of odds example
Rule of Odds

The rule of odds states that a composition is much more interesting to look at when it contains an odd number of elements rather than an even amount. An even number will have the tendency to create symmetries that can quickly become boring and uninteresting to look at.

When we see multiple objects that are even in number our mind tries to group them into pairs, which often leaves the center of a scene empty. The human eye is naturally attracted to the center and an even number of elements creates an empty space in that center. Having an odd number of things in a composition means our eye and brain can’t pair them up or group them easily. There’s somehow always one thing left over, which keeps our eyes moving across the composition.

The rule of odds also applies when there is a single subject surrounded by an even number of supporting subjects. In this way there will always be an element in the center “framed” by an even number of surrounding objects. This framing is more comforting to the eye and thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure.

Rule of Space

rule of space example
Rule of Space

The rule of space as it applies to art is a simple technique that creates a sense of motion, activity or conclusion in a composition. It involves creating negative space that relates to the focal point. Some things to keep in mind are:

    • When painting a portrait (whether a person or animal), if your subject is not looking directly at you, leave some negative space in the direction the eyes are looking even if they are looking at something off-canvas.
    • When picturing a moving object, such as runner or vehicle, placing negative space in front of the runner or object rather than behind creates a sense of direction or implication of eventual destination.
    • If your subject is pointing at something or aiming at an object place some negative space where the subject is pointing or aiming.

These techniques can be very useful to the artist in creating a good composition. They work best when used together and not individually.

Additional Reading

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Two Composition Techniques to Use in Your Paintings

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