What makes Good Composition?

Great painting compositions don’t just happen by accident. They take planning, patience, and a knowledge of all the visual elements at your disposal. The great thing is, no matter how much or how little talent you have, you’ll always be able to improve your art by sketching out a good composition before you begin.

katie small

My 9 steps for better compositions:

  1. Pick a good subject

This might seem simple, but you can’t have a great composition without something good to compose! Obviously your composition depends a lot on what you’re actually painting or drawing, so pick something interesting (visually at least), and always make sure that there’s a good light source from one direction to give the object a strong highlight and shadow. I like painting things with a lot of color and texture and with my pet portraits I like to compose a portrait that will increase a viewer’s interest.

Big Hat Series - #2

Floppy Big Hat Lady with a good light source from behind.

  1. Choose the size you want

How big do you want to portray your subject? The scale of art can change its entire feel, so it’s important to have a purpose for making an object larger or smaller than life.

For instance, a large, 6 ft diameter painting that enlarges an object like an insect or small animal will have much more importance and meaning than a normal-size painting of a small subject. By enlarging objects, you increase importance; reducing the size usually diminishes importance. If you’re not sure what size to make it, just keep it as close to life-size as possible.

Orange Poppies painting 2

Enlarged poppies for a dramatic effect.

  1. Create your own crop

Often the most powerful lines in a work of art  are what most artists don’t even think to control. The edges of your canvas or paper are responsible for containing and shaping your final work of art. Why settle for drawing inside somebody else‘s lines? Make your own! Want it larger or smaller..think about what part of your picture you want to enhance. This can be used to make your art pop!  Make sure to think about where you want your composition to start and end before choosing to use a standard canvas or paper.

peeking out

Cropped 5 x 7 picture of a puppy with great eyes and a great look that I wanted to capture and enhance up close.

  1. Think about placement

Bring balance to your piece by centering your subject vertically, horizontally, or both will always give a greater sense of stability to your work, but might end up feeling a little boring or typical as well.

Letting part of your subject get cropped off by the sides, top, or bottom will usually add more visual interest, as will making a single object fill the entire space. Watch out for objects that barely touch edges, or for objects that just barely brush the borders of your artwork. This type of placement is awkward and should be avoided.

Joy Ride painting

Cropping sides, top and bottom of this bike adds interest as to what is the rest of this story. Creates interest!

  1. Control your lines

Any subject you choose will have at least an outline as well as other lines to give it depth, texture and detail. Our eyes naturally follow lines, so use that to your advantage in capturing the viewer’s gaze. Let your lines flow to the center of your work, or to the spots that you want the viewer to focus. Angled or curved lines generally add more visual interest and movement, but too much can be chaotic. Horizontals and verticals lend strength, solidity, and impressiveness but can be boring.

Avoid letting lines divide your art exactly in half; like with a horizon line running through the middle, or vertically. This pulls the viewer out of the space you’ve created and will distract from the image.

Red Shed painting

A good example of not letting your lines divide your painting in half. Avoid horizontal and vertical lines dividing your composition in half.

  1. Balance positive and negative space

Positive space is any object or shape that stands out from the background and registers to the eye as “something.” Negative space is the background, or space around objects. Usually it’s suggested that you keep approximately equal amounts of positive and negative space to make a work feel more balanced. If you don’t have enough negative space, your art may feel busy and crowded, but too much negative space can cause the work to feel empty and subdued.

On the other hand, a busy, crowded painting may be your intent, and using a lot of negative space often works well at focusing attention on the positive space that is there. You get to choose how you want your art to feel, so pick a balance that’s right for your subject matter and style.

Pears painting

Using more negative space draws the viewers attention to the pears, which is the main focus of the painting.

  1. Add contrast

Visual art should have a full range of values from dark to light. Without bright highlights and dark shadows, an image will often feel gray or washed out, and will be less interesting. Darker areas in a predominantly light section will stand out and draw the eye, and the same is true for the reverse. Try this to focus attention to your intended subject. Make sure you’re not adding emphasis to a corner or edge of a painting if your focus is meant to be in the center.

  1. Simplify distracting elements

Too many shapes, lines, or colors can distract or confuse viewers. If you want the viewer to notice or return consistently to one part of the painting, simplify the rest of it. I usually decide on what the focus should be and if MY eye gets distracted, I change it! Another way to simplify your art is to get closer to a single object. Take a picture at different angles or leave out the peripherals and zoom in until the whole frame is filled with only one thing you are trying to capture.

A Toucan I painted from our guide took on a white water rafting trip in Costa Rica

A Toucan I painted from a photo our guide took on a white water rafting trip in Costa Rica where I cropped the picture to just capture the beautiful face of this Toucan.

  1. Choose your colors deliberately

I love bold colors and often use bright complimenary colors to catch attention by the viewer so use them purposefully where you want people to look. Any color that’s all alone surrounded by another color will also stand out. Just like with contrast, this can happen unintentionally, so check for it in your composition.

Also be aware that warm colors (yellow, orange, and red) will make objects appear closer to the viewer, so use them to create depth and space. Cool colors (blue, purple, and some green) will cause objects to recede into the distance. When an object in the “back” of your painting is too warm, it’ll distract from your overall composition and pull attention where you don’t want it.

Gerbers in a Blue Vase painting

Bright complimentary colors enhance your painting and make it stand out. A combination of warm and cool colors!

Finally, I am not a fan of sketching at the beginning of my creative process as I am typically an Alla Prima painter and I just paint from my head and/or looking at a reference photo.  Although, unlike me, making a sketch at the beginning of each creative process is always recommended. Sketching out different compositions until you feel you have a good idea of what your composition will be.  Again, if sketching is not your thing, you could take a lot of photos and then alter them digitally to find the best composition for your subject.

Hopefully, if you use and work through the steps above and follow some of these basic guidelines, you’ll be amazed at the difference between your final composition and what your original idea actually was, which will automatically bring creative ideas you weren’t expecting. Have fun and Paint On!

As always, I would love to hear your comments and you can comment here on my blog by using the Disqus comment section at the end of this article. Thank you for your thoughts and let me know if this was helpful.  I teach a weekly art class called “Painting with a Purpose” and my students enjoy such articles when beginning to learn to paint.