Two Composition Techniques to Use In Your Paintings

In art, composition is how you arrange the various elements to create a pleasing and eye-catching arrangement or design in your oil painting. Good composition is paramount to whether or not your painting will be a strong and interesting work of art or a weak and disordered one. When the composition is done well, you do not notice it so much. You just know there is something interesting about the painting that you find appealing. However when it is done poorly, the painting doesn’t look quite right and just feels awkward.


painting with covered wagon“Covered Wagon on The Prairie”
Western landscape by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Creating a good composition will be challenging in the beginning and you will have to work at producing a strong one, however eventually with practice, it will become second nature. Here are three easy methods of good composition that you can use to dramatically improve your oil paintings.

Rabatment of The Rectangle

Rabatment diagram
Rabatment of The Rectangle

A technique for creating better compositions is called “rabatment of the rectangle.” Rabatment is a way to divide up the space within a rectangular shape to create a square with four equal sides that are equal to the short side of the rectangle. In other words, it is the perfect square that can be found inside any rectangle.

For each landscape (horizontal) rectangle, there is either a right or left rabatment and for each portrait (vertical) rectangle there is an upper or lower. It is within these squares that you would place the most important aspects of your composition, thereby creating a center of interest. Compositions are much more interesting to view if they are not located directly in the center of your canvas. See diagram above.

rabatment exampleWhen you use this simple technique to compose your oil paintings, you are more likely to create a composition that is unified, harmonious and balanced. Next time try enclosing the main center of interest within the rabatment square on the canvas. You can use either upper or lower square on a vertically oriented canvas, or left or right square on a horizontally oriented canvas. The elements outside of the rabatment should compliment the center of interest that is located within the square.

The Golden Ratio

golden ratio diagram
The Golden Ratio

The next technique used for compositions in art is called “the golden ratio” and is a little more complicated than the first one talked about. The golden ratio is a mathematical ratio commonly found in nature that can be used to yield pleasing, harmonious proportions within a painting. It has many names, with the most common ones being the Golden Section, Golden Ratio or Golden Mean. Some lesser known names for this rule is called the Golden Number, Divine Proportion, Golden Proportion, Divine Section, Golden Cut, Fibonacci Number and Phi (pronounced “fie”).

golden ratio exampleThe gold ratio isn’t merely a definition, it’s an actual ratio of 1:1.618. There is a simple way to demonstrate this ratio and that is by using a rectangle with a width of 1 and a length of 1.618. Within this rectangle is a square with a ratio of 1:1 and another rectangle with a ratio of 1:1.618. If you were to draw another square within the smaller rectangle, once again you have a 1:1 ratio square and another rectangle whose proportions are 1:1.618 just like the larger original rectangle. You can continue to divide the resulting smaller rectangle as before on into infinity. Give it a try.

The golden ratio can be used to create beauty and balance in the layout and design of all your paintings. Note the point where the diagonal lines intersect. That particular point is key when using this ratio to compose your paintings. You want to place your key elements or focal point at this intersection. As already stated, the golden ratio is infinitely divisible. This means multiple intersections can be identified where sub elements of a scene can be placed.

Great compositions don’t just happen by accident. They require a lot of thought, planning and patience, as well as a familiarity with the visual elements.

Additional Reading

Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

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