Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

Every artist’s goal should be about creating better compositions in all their paintings. Composition is the arrangement of various elements within a painting. It can either be a good composition or a bad one. When done successfully, a good design will draw the viewer’s gaze into and around the painting’s surface. It will lead their gaze from one element to another, taking everything in, and finally resting on the main subject of the painting.

3 Ways of Creating Better Compositions

There are three techniques for creating better compositions that every painter should use. These are (1) the rule of thirds, (2) the rule of odds, and (3) the rule of space. Let me explain each one.

Rule of Thirds

Creating Better Compositions
Rule of Thirds

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

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

To create a landscape composition, follow these steps:

    1. First, divide your canvas into nine equal segments. This is done by drawing two vertical and two horizontal lines at the 1/3 and 2/3 measurements creating a grid.
    2. Determine where the horizon will be, either on the top horizontal line or the bottom line.
    3. Arrange the essential elements of your subject matter at one or more of the points where the lines intersect.

The rule of thirds states that a painting has a stronger composition when the focal point is not directly in the center of the canvas. If it is placed at one of the four intersecting points, it becomes much more interesting. Balance can be achieved in the composition by placing a secondary object at the opposite intersection.

In the diagram above, notice how the horizon is near the bottom grid line and how the tree is placed at an intersecting location on the left. It has served to give balance and intrigue to the composition by doing so.

When you use the rule of thirds in your work, it guarantees you’ll never have a painting that’s split in half (vertically or horizontally). Nor will you have one with the main focus right in the center creating a bull’s-eye leaving the rest of the painting to be ignored. Instead, the eye is drawn to the focal point and then around the artwork generating a flow from one element to the next.

Rule of Odds

building Better Compositions
Rule of Odds

The rule of odds states that a composition is much more interesting when it contains an odd number of elements rather than even. An even number of elements will create symmetries that can quickly become boring.

When we see an even number of objects, our brain attempts to group them into pairs. This often leaves the center of a scene empty. The human eye is drawn to the center, and an even number of elements in that center create an open space. Having an odd number of elements in a composition means our brain can’t group them so easily. There’s always one thing leftover that keeps our eyes moving across the composition.

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

Rule of Space

making Better Compositions
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 a 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 a 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 beneficial to the artist in creating better compositions. They are, however, most effective when used together rather than separately.

Additional Reading

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Two Composition Techniques to Use in Your Paintings

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