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How to Create Good Compositions

How do we create good compositions?

“Composition is the foundation of a successful painting.” That’s what they say. But what does that mean? As painters, we don’t inherently think of the work. We think being creative is spontaneous and fun. Well, that may be for some cases, however, to be better painters, we have to look at the practical side of things.

What is Painting Composition?

It is essentially the arrangements of visual elements with the consideration of the principles and techniques of art.

In other words, it’s structure and planning. To know how to create successful compositions takes time, but if we master it, we’ll be more efficient and relatable.

Composition is, first and foremost, planning. As painters, we sometimes find ourselves in an inspiring situation where we let our creative powers flow. However, most of the time, when we’re not inspired, we digress to a more pragmatic approach. We plan.

Planning is the most important step in composition—when we plan efficiently and thoroughly, we can create stronger compositions and ultimately have better results.

So how do we start planning?

A lot of times we think our first idea is the best. But if we have an open mind, we can make our initial plans even better. With that in mind, as painters, we should consider using thumbnails. What are they? Thumbnails are sketches or drafts painters make to get the general idea of their paining. They’re not meant to be complete pieces of art; but rather their purpose is to allow you to figure out the compositional questions before actually diving into the painting process.

One advantage in making thumbnails is that you will have time to decide on what Visual Elements to use.

What are the Visual Elements?

The Visual Elements are essentially the building blocks of any composition in art. Each one has a distinct purpose but at the same time, they can have a harmonious relationship that greatly affects the painting.

Here are The Seven (7) Visual Elements:

1. Lines

Lines are visual paths that can be found all over paintings. They can be used to encourage the eye to move a certain direction in the painting.

Once you’ve used it a number of times, you’ll know how versatile lines can be. It can be used to suggest shapes, patterns, forms, structures, distances, and many more.

2. Shapes

Shapes are areas defined by edges within the piece. In other words, they are the angles and curves that are either geometric or organic.

These shapes have the power to control one’s feelings—believe it or not. For example: squares and rectangles can portray strength while circles can signify continuous flowing movement.

Shapes are very versatile and to a master painter, they serve as an opportunity to contain and release emotion. However, we must always keep in mind the variety of shapes we use. Too much can give your paintings a jarring effect.

3. Color

We know this and we love this. Color is an element consisting of hues. Just like shapes, color suggests emotions, and just like shapes, we must keep in mind the variety of colors we use. One tip is to always have a dominant color as a basis for your supporting colors.

There’s no other way to master color other than to start experimenting yourself.

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4. Texture

Texture is the surface quality in a painting. I’m not talking about how it feels when you touch the painting physically, no. What texture refers to is the association our minds have with how surfaces look.

For example, when we see a painting of an apple, we automatically think that the apple is smooth.

5. Tone

In painting, the tone refers to the variety of color.

Color has an almost infinite number of nuanced tones. With that in mind we must be careful in what variation of color we use in our paintings since choosing the wrong combinations can result in unwanted attention.

6. Space

The element of space refers to the area within, around, above or below your subject. Positive and negative space work to frame the composition—to establish where everything in the painting should be.

The key to finding the perfect balance of space lies on your planning. With that in mind, we should always try to include the general space when we make thumbnails since it is one of the most rigid elements of art.

There are two kinds of space namely: positive and negative.

Positive space refers to the areas that have subjects or elements of importance. Negative spaces are places that surround these areas of importance.

Contrary to their names, positive doesn’t necessarily mean good and negative doesn’t mean bad. Experimenting with spaces is recommended. You can use a mostly positive space, a mostly negative space, or an evenly distributed amount of both. The results will depend on your execution and distribution.

7. Depth

Depth is the apparent distance from the back to the front or near too far. In other words, it is the perceived distance from the observer, segmented into the foreground, background and optionally middle ground

Painting is two-dimensional and because of that, we have to be careful in observing and choosing the right degree of our depth—so that we can portray what we envision accurately.

These Visual Elements are useless if we don’t know how to use them. With that being said, the number-one purpose of these elements is to enhance one thing: the focal point.

What are focal Points?

These are areas in the compositions that command the viewer’s attention. In other words, it’s where our eyes first look at.

There are a lot of ways to create vocal points. Here are some techniques you can use:

1. Contrast

Contrast can be considered as a type of difference in imagery. It can be various things like, texture, color, or value. By combining these elements, you’ll eventually create a drastic change that’s instantly noticeable to the eye.

2. Isolation

Isolation is the process of separating a subject from most of the group. The effect isolation has on paintings is the same with contrast. However, in isolation, our eyes focus on the object not because it’s different, but because it’s segregated apart from the others.

3. Placement

Naturally, our eyes are drawn to the center of the shapes. However, placing the subjects on the center creates a static form of composition and can have an unnatural effect.

Hence, we recommend using the rule of thirds. This is because placing the subject a little off-center can make the viewer’s eyes gravitate to it’s position naturally.

4. Convergence

Remember lines and how they lead the eye to certain places? Well, in convergence, specific lines and shapes that direct the viewer’s eye to a certain point of the painting.

These lines and shapes pull the viewer’s attention from one spot to the converging spot.

5. The unusual

The peculiarity of the subject itself creates an attention-demanding effect. The “unusual” technique creates a focal point by taking advantage of the contrast of the usual subjects. Our eyes are naturally attracted to unique or strange things and these things stand out most in paintings.

Going back to composition. We now know that the visual elements are the building blocks of composition. Now, we must learn how to use those building blocks to our advantage.

Hence, the Principles of Art

These principles are the specific arrangements of the visual elements of art. In other words, the elements are the parts or substance of the composition while the “Principles” are the order it follows.

These principles help create harmony and unity in our paintings. Doing so will create a more coherent piece that is correlated with the artist’s statement.

Here are the seven (7) principles of art:

1. Rhythm

It is the visual tempo or the reiterating elements in the painting. A repeated element in art and music is called a motif. Repetition in art can include, but not be limited to, shapes, color, and value.

A Starry Night – Vincent Van Gogh

Repetition legitimizes and helps us understand the composition. Not only that, it helps to unify a piece of artwork and creates a certain consistency

2. Balance

Balance is the overall distribution of visual weight within a composition. As we know, each element in our painting creates a visual weight. Consequently, we find ourselves countering the weights with another element that carries its own visual weight.

Not considering the balance may lead to unnecessary attention and an unbalanced piece may feel heavy and unsettling.

3. Emphasis

Emphasis is vague in painting but the most important characteristic it has is that it creates focal points. The arrangement of elements that suggests the focal point on specific areas on the painting. In other words, the use of contrast, convergence, or any other focal point creation methods to create focal points consequently create emphasis.

4. Gradation

The gradual change of a certain element to help connect the composition is called gradation. This principle helps with consistency and ultimately creates a harmonious relationship between the Visual Elements.

5. Harmony and Unity

Contrary to first impressions, unity and harmony are different. However, they do work together in most cases.

Unity entails with the feeling of oneness—a sense of generality. To use unity, we must use a medium in a consistent manner and bring it to a level of completeness. In other words, we must follow through with the artistic style we choose from the beginning.

Harmony deals with the individual parts of the artwork and how they relate to each other. You can say that harmony is more recognized with the two because as artists, we’d want to use as many elements as we can without having incongruous pieces.

You can create harmony by simplifying or gradually changing shapes, subjects, color schemes etc.

6. Variety

Variety deals with implementation of difference to create focal points. Adding various visual elements next to one another will enhance contrast and ultimately create emphasis.

Since having no variety can make the viewer tired of the painting, we find ourselves adding new things to what we already painted. However, we must keep in mind that too much variety can be jarring and inharmonious—but to less can be boring.

7. Movement

The principle of Movement can refer to the actual movement of the art or how the viewer’s eye moves. This principle allows viewers to see the painting in its entirety without being tired of it.

In most cases, main elements guide our eye to one focal point and supporting elements guide our eyes throughout the piece of artwork. Thus we can conclude that the placement of the elements can create an illusion of movement.

So with that in mind, we should compose our painting so as to guide the viewer’s eye.

Usually, this is the order of how viewers see the work: The viewer is drawn into the work. Then, he/she is guided to the focal point. Afterwards, he will be lead to the supporting elements then, ultimately, he will go out of the work or go back to the focal point.

8. Proportion

The principle of proportion involves the relativity of size. The relative size of one element in comparison to another can make the artist’s work strong, weak, funny, or hyperbolic.

Manipulating the principle of proportion can be tricky, however, if we start experimenting, we’ll find that proportion can be used to emphasize the meaning or encapsulate the message of the artist.

Now that we’re familiar with the Principles and Visual Elements, here are some techniques you can use to make your compositions better:

1. Simplification

Simplification is a kind of minimalist approach to composition. It reduces clutter, enhances focal points and is most effective when combined with targeted complexity. Less is more is the idea of simplification and if carefully executed, you’ll have a piece that’s right in the middle of jarring and boring — which is what we’re going for.

Storm at the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt

If we take a closer look at this painting by Rembrandt, we can see how he simplified value by using the darkest values of colors, dominantly. Consequently, the lighter values are emphasized and are now focal points.

Here are some examples of simplification:

  1. Using a limited palette;

  2. Reduce detail of unemphasized areas;

  3. Used a limited value range;

  4. Use large brushes to simplify detail in your painting; and

  5. Remove unnecessary subjects in your painting.

Sometimes, to create more emphasis, you have to take away the interest in the less-interesting areas of your painting.

2. Rule of Odds

This rule suggests that an odd number of subjects in an image should be used since odd numbers are said to be more interesting than even numbers—psychologically.

In other words, using odd-numbered subjects can have a more pleasing composition because even numbers produce symmetries—which can appear formal and unnatural.

3. Rule of Thirds

This rule ensures the subject to not be in the center of the painting since being in the center, like being an even-number, can create an unnatural or fabricated feeling.

What this rule entails is that you should divide your paintings by thirds—horizontally and vertically. Consequently, you should get 9 even areas.

The rule of thirds encourages you to place your subject at one of the intersections and forces you to make each of your section unique

4. Geometry and Symmetry

This method is related to the rule of odds in terms of psychological effects. This rule suggests that triangles are an aesthetically pleasing shape within an image. Why? Maybe because triangles have lines that lead to the tip of the shape.

This method, however, is not limited to triangles as shapes—but as arrangements of your values too. For example, the human face—eyes and mouth forms a triangle.

Conceptualizing your ideas before actually executing them is the more efficient thing to do. As artists, we tend to gravitate more to spontaneity, but with thought and proper planning we can create works of brilliance.


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