How do you see the world? Is it bright and cheerful; stunning; mysterious; dark; gloomy; energized; chaotic; peaceful; magical?
If you tried to describe, with some paint and brushes, exactly what you’re feeling right now could you do it? When I look at your painting will I feel as deeply as you, what compelled you to paint it – the emotions, the wonder, the awe?
Will I get chills or sit entranced for minutes, hours or days gazing at your work? Will I feel some magic spell captivating me and gently or forcibly convincing me to stay?
That’s how I felt in 1989 when I sat in the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole surrounded by Carl Rungius’ paintings.
That’s the goal! So, how do we get there?
Why Composition Matters
Gaining a useful grasp of principles of design can certainly help your paintings. However, keep in mind that using principles and techniques as if they are rigid rules will squish the imagination and power right out of your paintings.
Composition or design is simply the intelligent and creative combining of the many tools we use as painters to tell our story.
Composition or design is simply the intelligent and creative combining of the many tools we use as painters to tell our story. Tools such as line, shape, color, value, edges, S-Curve, Dynamic Symmetry, mass, pattern, unity, etc.
The more complete our understanding of the myriad ideas and techniques of design, the more powerfully we can share our vision of the world with our viewers. It’s a good idea to remember what Richard Schmid says, “what we are seeing when we are attracted to striking designs is simply artists’ ingenious solutions to their particular problems of arrangement.”
If we fall into the trap of thinking these ideas are somehow mystical or absolute, then our paintings will look like everyone else’s who think the same way.
Our goal is to understand the how and why of these techniques. Then we can creatively use, manipulate or discard them to make our paintings flow exactly the way we want them to.
Photographer Ian Plant wrote “Composition brings together everything…it unifies beat, rhythm and rhyme in a poem; timbre, melody, harmony, tempo and dynamics in a symphony, and subject, mood, light and moment in a photograph (or painting) – and somehow makes them greater in whole than the sum of their parts. Composition creates a synergy which elevates art above mere expression, it can transform even the vulgar into the sublime.”
What Affects Composition?
There are too many large and small decisions and elements that affect the success of our compositions to list them all.
Some crucial things we need to consider as we approach or begin to plan our paintings are: light and shadow (which change rapidly when painting on location); position (left, right, angle and distance) and perspective (high or low); and the focus of the painting – what you want to convey.
If we can keep in our minds that composition is only a means to a spectacular end, then maybe we can avoid the pitfalls of worrying whether our composition is valid or not.
Design is what we use to create the illusion of movement and life on a 2-dimensional surface. If we can keep in our minds that composition is only a means to a spectacular end, then maybe we can avoid the pitfalls of worrying whether our composition is valid or not.
There are Design Elements (the visual tools that help us create compelling compositions):
And there are Design Principles (how we use the elements of design to convey the intent of our paintings):
- Pattern (physical and abstract)
- Local Tone
- Equalization Effect
Those will lead us to the top Composition Types:
- Figure-Ground Relationship
- Rule of Thirds
- Dynamic Symmetry
- Golden Mean and Fibonacci Numbers
Each will be discussed with examples in this blog.
There are a ton of different design principles definitions and terms floating around. Many artists interchange words or offer a list of principles and elements different from another artist.
It’s impossible to explore every theory or thought existing. Besides, that would just get confusing.
Creative intelligence or imagination is the most important tool you possess for successful compositions or designs.
It’s further complicated because many principles and concepts overlap. Never think that you have to use one or another principle or idea in a single painting. Most artists’ paintings benefit from a combination of principles. Creative intelligence or imagination is the most important tool you possess for successful compositions or designs.
I will cover the tried-and-true/popular concepts used. You’ll also notice that certain concepts are focused on more than others -that’s because they tend to be more helpful for the way the Master Oil Painting community approaches painting.
Let’s see if we can make sense of them and discover what they can do for us, shall we?
We begin with the elements of design because they are what many artists are most used to.
Lines are much more than the outline of objects in our paintings. They should contribute to incredible expression, rhythm, movement, and harmony in our paintings.
They should contribute to incredible expression, rhythm, movement, and harmony in our paintings.
They can also lead the viewer where we want them to travel, with both actual and implied lines.
In Colors of the Wind, I use many small branches to move the audience from one tree to another as if watching dancers take their turn performing and having their moment in the spotlight.
Each tree becomes a line, every tiny branch, the lavender color behind the trees, the path, the blades of grass – they each work as lines that contribute to the energy and rhythm in the painting.
Lines don’t need to be solid either. Not only are the edges of the tree both solid and implied, but the green and yellow shapes (bushes) behind the tree also create a line. Just in this one small section, you can see multiple lines created by shapes and strokes of color.
Each area of our paintings can be broken into larger and smaller shapes. The more effectively we group colors, values and lines into abstract shapes the better our compositions and paintings will flow.
Grouping everything into shapes allows us to separate our thoughts from unnecessary detail in the early stages of painting. It helps us create pattern, unity and movement without the initial distraction of the millions of small nuances and variations that exist in our scene.
When we squint, color dissipates and values group themselves into handy shapes.
This is where squinting comes in handy. When we squint, color dissipates and values group themselves into handy shapes. We can then use those shapes to craft fun paths through our painting.
Painting on location in Virginia the temperature hovered in the low to mid 30’s. I painted fast, capturing the values and colors as accurately as I could.
My intent was to chunk smaller details like trees into larger shapes and use those shapes to create movement and direction, guiding the viewer through the piece.
You can read about my journey leading to this painting here: masteroilpainting.com/my-3-day-plein-air-adventure-part-2
This represents less than 2 hours of painting. I managed to capture some important color temperature shifts and a few small dots of dark value and bright color, but overall it’s mainly just shapes.
Each has their own character and effect on the viewer. Most people can sense their energy intuitively.
Some common shapes we encounter in nature are spirals, zigzags, circles, triangles, curves, and diagonals. Use them strategically to enhance your designs. Each has their own character and effect on the viewer. Most people can sense their energy intuitively.
Here are a couple examples:
Zigzags create energy and drama, which is why I used it in Song of the Lonely Mountain where I was striving for a vigorous rushing feeling.
Curves lead us gracefully around and through the composition, which is why I used curves on the lake in Breakfast is Ready. I wanted a peaceful elegant feeling.
Diagonals add tension and dynamic energy, which is why I used them in Chasing Shadows. I wanted the trees to be active and liven up the composition.
I also used implied diagonals formed by the rocks and grasses behind the trees to create a rapid visual movement like what we might experience in the distant river.
Warm and cool color temperatures, complementary colors, local color, relative color, the psychology of color – there are so many ways to use color as an artist. Color affects everything around us and makes the world spectacular.
While we don’t necessarily want to focus on color as a universal psychological tool, the dynamics of color in nature offer a universal language.
While we don’t necessarily want to focus on color as a universal psychological tool, the dynamics of color in nature offer a universal language.
Color psychology is cultural. America might favor a white wedding dress, but China loves red and uses white for funerals. While we don’t necessarily want to focus on color as a universal psychological tool, the dynamics of color in nature offer a universal language.
No matter where we live on the earth certain aspects of the atmosphere is similar. Heat and cold are usually experienced, most plants have green leaves, the sky often appears blue, and water reacts with known characteristics and effects.
With the Voice of Rushing Waters was painted on location at the base of Diavolezza in Switzerland. When I painted it, I didn’t worry about the colors being different than colors I would find here in the United States. I didn’t change the colors on my palette just because I was thousands of miles away from where I usually paint.
Sure, the light effects can alter slightly depending on the climate and altitude, but it’s a wonderful thing to know that the colors of the earth cross cultures.
So, how can color be used in our compositions?
Color can be used to harmonize, balance, create movement, produce rhythm and generate emphasis throughout our designs.
In the painting above I dispersed bits of lavender in the water, rocks, and background to help harmonize them. I also subdued the colors in the surrounding trees and rocks and magnified the colors in the waterfall itself.
By placing the stronger colors around the focal point, the viewer is drawn there.
Color attracts attention. The most effective use of color is to guide that attention to the center of interest. By placing the stronger colors around the focal point, the viewer is drawn there.
In a humid climate, the atmosphere (made up of gas molecules smaller than light waves) will scatter shorter blue wavelengths in all directions more than longer red and yellow wavelengths and cause us to see a bluer sky. That same atmosphere will also often cause distant objects to receive a ‘blue filter’ which causes them to look farther away.
That’s why traditionally cooler colors recede and warmer colors will seem to advance – that does not apply in all situations though. We can use that knowledge to create distance in our paintings.
That effect of atmosphere can work even with shorter distances. In Birdsong, I used cooler blues and lavenders to push into the background and warmer reds and yellows to advance toward the viewer. I planned my composition based on the use of color to create a feeling of depth.
We’ve already mentioned the importance of squinting, but it’s worth repeating, especially when it comes to value. A 3-dimensional form is dependent on values that become light and shadow.
White is the lightest or highest value (think high key). Black is the darkest or lowest value (low key).
Value is one of our best tools for creating contrast and leading the viewer around our design and ultimately to the center of interest.
Value is one of our best tools for creating contrast and leading the viewer around our design and ultimately to the center of interest.
It’s important to remember that color has inherent value as well (no pun intended unless you really get a kick out of it – then it was all planned). Ultramarine blue or Alizarin Purple come out of the tube as a darker value. Lemon Yellow and Cadmium Orange come from the tube as lighter values.
The darkest green leaves in Fairy Dust were created with Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and a touch of Sap Green with a dash of Transparent Oxide Red.
I used those darks to direct the viewer from spot to spot throughout the flowers. The high contrast between the dark leaves and lighter background draws the eye. The same thing applies to the brighter leaves resting against darker background areas.
Knowing the values of colors will help us craft our paintings as well as our compositions.
When I begin a painting I often lay in the shadow and light pattern first as large shapes. I especially like to place the lightest and darkest values in the painting quickly, so I know how to plan the relative strength of all other values.
The word ‘form’ is used interchangeably for all kinds elements in art. For our purposes ‘form’ applies to both physical and abstract shapes and objects, and positive and negative shapes.
Shadows are abstract shapes while trees are physical objects. The sky showing between branches is often negative space, but also forms shapes and mass that complete the patterns in compositions.
We will discuss mass and pattern in greater detail later in this post.
Hard and soft edges are the hallmark of successful realism. Until you get a handle on edges your work will lack life. Using edges successfully is often a dividing line between professional and amateur painting.
The detail from Colors of the Wind (shown earlier) shows the use of hard edges for the light side of the tree and broken edges for the shadow side. Those broken edges help the shadow side move away from the viewer and dissolve into the background while the hard edge pops out toward the viewer and away from the background.
Where two shapes of the same value cross, the edges disappear. That’s how we get ‘lost’ edges.
That is what we see in nature as values collide between forward objects and those in the background shadows and lights. Where two shapes of the same value cross, the edges disappear. That’s how we get ‘lost’ edges.
Just plain fun!
I love simulating the look of texture on rocks, trees or any other rough, bumpy, smooth or rippled surface. That’s part of what made painting Song of the Lonely Mountain so fun.
I used a dry-brush stroke to simulate the rough surface of mountain rocks by dragging one color over another in a way that allowed the underlayer to show through.
Follow along and paint your own Rocky Mountain waterfall: masteroilpainting.com/7-steps-to-paint-mountain-waterfall
One of the greatest contributions to realist art was the discovery of perspective. Getting perspective portrayed accurately in your paintings is critical. The viewer will know instinctively if your drawing or image is off, especially with regards to perspective.
Interestingly, we can use many of the other design tools to help create the effect of perspective.
It is one of the primary tools we have to create a feeling of depth. Interestingly, we can use many of the other design tools to help create the effect of perspective.
For instance, lines, such as fence posts or tree trunks, can convince the viewer that they are traveling off into the distance as they get smaller and less distinct.
In Twilight Tango the shrubs and pine trees behind the aspens get smaller and recede which tells the viewer they are getting farther away. That is perspective at work.
Some of the strategies we can use for depicting space or depth are proportion; shading (values); overlapping; foreshortening; position and clarity (think atmospheric perspective).
Pattern is the underlying flow or plan of the structure that organizes the image. It’s the skeleton or unifying masses – physical and abstract. The most noticeable trait of pattern is connecting all the key dark or light shapes together.
This is one of the most important design principles to understand.
When we squint at an image with strong light and dark patterns we quickly see their separation.
One of the simplest ideas to teach pattern is the use of light and dark as unifying shapes that flow through a composition. When we squint at an image with strong light and dark patterns we quickly see their separation. Often that pattern stands out even without squinting.
The value that is most connected, light or dark, holds the design together. I often begin my paintings by laying in the shadow pattern to give direction to my painting.
Whether we want the underlying patterns to be subtle (to keep the interest of the viewer growing gradually), or obvious and dramatic (to draw the viewer in quickly and forcibly), forming light/dark patterns in the initial stages can quickly establish the tone or message of the painting.
Three artists that come to mind that tie light/dark shapes into exquisite abstract patterns in their work are Sir Frank Brangwyn, Steve Huston and Nancy Guzik.
Squint and you’ll easily see the definite placement and separation of strong light and dark shapes in each artists’ work.
By increasing the contrast a bit (as seen above), you can see clearly how the artist kept the darks connected to one another to create a flow or forward movement in the design.
Notice in Pull #2 that Steve keeps the values distinct. Even in the lighter top arm the values are kept dark enough to clearly separate from the light background values. Separation of values creates a visual harmony for the viewer. We aren’t confused by what is part of the figure and what belongs to the background.
Again, altering the contrast slightly shows the clear distinction between light and dark (as seen below).
See how powerful connecting the dark or light shapes can be. We can feel the force of movement created by the design. That arrangement of abstract shapes becomes the primary plan.
If we keep the brushstrokes, colors, values, and edges in harmony with that initial plan the painting will be a delight for the viewer and will convey our message with clarity and confidence.
Once more, altering the contrast shows what we see when we squint (as seen above). The dark and light values are separated into definite shapes. They form a compelling design that masterfully moves the viewer through the painting.
Pattern in art generates the flow or paths in our paintings. It’s how we communicate the sense of balance, rhythm, harmony, movement or contrast we hope the viewer experiences in our work. It is created using both physical and abstract elements.
Physical refers to actual objects like rocks, houses, trees, people, animals, and mosquitoes (they get into the paintings way too often).
Abstract refers to elements such as scale (size relationships), shapes (spirals, triangles, rectangles), shadows and energy (like the electric feeling in a Jackson Pollock drip painting).
Pattern doesn’t have to be formed with strong light and dark contrast. The transitions can be more involved and subtle. It is simply a way for us as artists to keep all the parts of our paintings moving according to a unifying plan.
In Stepping Through Magnolia Petals, I used abstract or negative shapes like the shadow on the lower right to guide the viewer to a physical object like the small blossoming tree to the left of the painting.
Notice that even in a painting where the contrast is not nearly as obvious, the dark shapes can still be connected to form a larger abstract pattern. By increasing the contrast in a converted black and white image we can strongly see the pattern. The benefit to that is that you can see the asymmetrical abstract shapes that are formed by the dark and light patterns and their connections.
The shadows give greater clarity to the movement of light…
The negative spaces and shapes of both the shadows and the light sky color help clarify and support the positive shapes or what we see as physical objects. The shadows give greater clarity to the movement of light through the scene and the light sky brings clarity to the shapes of the trees and other objects.
The positive and negative shapes are carefully placed to lead the viewer back and forth gently through the painting.
Also known as the focal point – the area in your painting you most want the viewer to appreciate.
One idea shared overwhelmingly by artists is that a painting’s impact on the viewer is stronger if one theme is dominant. Just as connecting dark or light shapes in the pattern of our paintings can be more powerful than a haphazard disconnected scattering of shapes, so is it with one dominant area of interest compared to multiple.
It brings clarity and focus which can help engage the viewer because they feel they understand what’s expected of them.
…choose one as the dominant subject, not both.
For example, if you are out in a field and you see some mind-blowingly beautiful trees and a once-in-a-lifetime dramatic sky at the same time – choose one as the dominant subject, not both.
If you decide to emphasize the landscape, you might put a few interesting clouds behind the trees, but those clouds are simply a support that brings attention to the trees, not something the viewer will notice with the same enthusiasm as the trees. And vice-versa.
Sky Tip – if the sky becomes the dominant feature, you may want to use ¾ of the canvas (or panel) for the sky and ¼ of the canvas for the landscape – or even no landscape at all.
Rich Bowman creates stunning skyscapes with oil paint and a palette knife that demonstrate this principle well. See how he minimizes color and increases contrast in the foreground, so the clouds become even more brilliant and powerful. Our attention becomes riveted on the center of interest.
That doesn’t mean you can’t, or should never, have more than one center of interest. It simply helps create a more significant statement if you focus on one theme more intently than you do on the other areas of interest.
…all of these can support the center of interest and lead the viewer’s eye where we want them to go.
You might also have one area within the center of interest that is more important. That’s why the elements of design are so critical. A hard edge in the right place, clever use of values, lines in other areas of the painting pointing to that spot – all of these can support the center of interest and lead the viewer’s eye where we want them to go.
Here is the early original version of Afternoon Delight. These grew right outside our back door and that building was behind the flowers. The problem was the building competed with the irises for attention which weakened the painting (of course, part of the reason for that was that the building and window were badly crafted anyway which is always a distraction).
So, I reworked the background a few years later when I realized what was wrong.
The new simplified dark bushes added needed contrast. I repeated colors from the Irises with the background flowers for harmony but still kept them simple. The Irises had very minor changes made and yet they suddenly felt vibrant and easily commanded center stage in the viewer’s mind.
The painting became more compelling because I emphasized one main focal point and crafted everything else to support that primary theme.
Do all the parts of the composition feel as if they belong together, or does something feel stuck or awkwardly out of place?
It’s much easier to point out when something is not in harmony than to describe what a harmonious painting is supposed to look like.
When it comes to unity in a painting I like to think of the Sesame Street song “one of these things is not like the other.” It’s much easier to point out when something is not in harmony than to describe what a harmonious painting is supposed to look like.
When a painting feels complete – nothing needs to be added or changed – then it’s harmonious.
The painting Legacy went through several sessions of thinking I was done, putting it aside and then seeing other things that needed fixing. I even sent it to a gallery and then had them send it back when I realized it didn’t feel right (not an easy decision with a large 36×48).
The first attempt had a couple of problems. The path was too large and distractive – it also cut the painting in two. The barn/house felt out of proportion and a little spooky for a light-filled fall scene.
In the second attempt I gabled the peak of the barn roof, added a shed, shrunk the path and added more color filled leaves. I also dry-brushed lavender throughout the foliage to create distance in the trees and give it a more open feeling.
That barn still didn’t work though. It was too strong and didn’t feel harmonious with the trees. The path also felt too strong and obvious.
So, I went to work again…
Finally, I put my brushes down because the painting felt good to me – I couldn’t see anything that seemed out of harmony.
Unity is tying all the elements of design together, so they make sense and feel consistent – we feel they belong together.
Now, it’s also possible to achieve so much unity that our paintings become static and boring. That’s where variety comes in.
We want to design our paintings with plenty of variety of textures, color temperature changes, light and shadow contrasts, color shifts, thick and thin paint – something to break up the monotony.
When we have a pleasing balance of unity and variety it contains areas that demand the viewer’s attention and other areas that allow the viewer’s eyes to rest.
Too much variety, on the other hand, may become busy or frenzied and wear out the viewer. When we have a pleasing balance of unity and variety it contains areas that demand the viewer’s attention and other areas that allow the viewer’s eyes to rest.
Another thing to keep in mind is that harmony can be lost when our message seems out of character with the methods or techniques used to craft the message – like a library softly playing heavy metal music in the background.
Maybe the librarian was told that it was important to play music quietly for the patrons, but not taught the reason. Without understanding the why or intent, it’s easy to travel in the wrong direction.
The clearer the vision the stronger the statement.
That’s why it helps to learn all that we can about why and how the principles and elements of art and design can help us. Then our ability grows, and we learn how to paint our message intelligently and with power.
I love what Richard Schmid says about balance – “If I can describe why a picture looks out of balance to me – exactly which thing bothers me – I am at the same time providing myself with the solution to correct it. If I am unhappy with things shoved to one side, I can just move them to the center, or the other side, or wherever I please. That’s all there is to it. There is no right place to put things except where they look best to me.”
Each painting is a new challenge, a unique puzzle, that requires new ways of thinking and a fresh approach to balance.
A lot of fuss has been made over the years about how to balance a painting. Each painting is a new challenge, a unique puzzle, that requires new ways of thinking and a fresh approach to balance.
There is no formula.
Keep in mind that balance is largely based on a feeling rather than a formula. If you feel something is off, or your trusted second set of eyes feels it’s unbalanced, then fix it.
Using Legacy again, I added the shed because the painting felt like it needed something to balance the lone barn. Why? I realized I wanted to make it feel like a bygone treasured homestead, rather than a lonely isolated building abandoned in the woods.
Contrast is concerned with the differences between the visual elements in a painting. Not simply differences, but how the placement makes those differences relatively stronger by proximity.
It deals not only with light and dark, as we often hear, but can be used with each of the before mentioned Design Elements. Red placed next to green boosts the saturation of each color because they’re compliments.
In Sacred Grove, I used the contrast of yellow and purple to subtly increase the effect of contrast in leaves.
Here is a detail of the small dot of lavender next to the yellow leaf.
That small bit of contrast helps separate the yellow leaves from the greens and oranges and pops the yellow forward more.
…there is no limit to how we can create contrast in our paintings.
Contrasts can involve large and small shapes, dark and light values, hard and soft edges, negative and positive spaces, rough and smooth textures – there is no limit to how we can create contrast in our paintings.
It’s crucial in our efforts to create points of interest. They are used to draw the viewers’ attention to a spot in the painting. Because of that, contrasts are one of the most commonly applied design principles by artists.
Movement and Rhythm
We usually want the viewer to roam around our paintings. Whether we have one focal point or many, our goal is to have the entire painting engage the viewer.
Like rhythm or the ‘beat’ in music, movement in a painting is created using elements like line, shape, texture or brush strokes in a regular pattern that move the viewer’s eyes in a choreographed arrangement – like a dance.
Van Gogh’s Starry Night is one of the strongest examples of rhythm in painting because his swirling brushstrokes lead the viewer melodically through the entire painting.
No clear direction of light (or it is a subdued characteristic). It focuses on local color that is not overly influenced by a strong light source. The image is flattened by the lack of definite shadows. The image is also made up of 3 main values – light, medium, and dark. The medium value will be closer to either the light or dark value, and one value will dominate.
The medium value will be closer to either the light or dark value, and one value will dominate.
The wonderful merit of a Local Tone approach is the opportunity to focus on elegant color transitions and distinct yet subtle pops of light and dark.
Nicolai Fechin put the Local Tone principle to dazzling use in his landscape paintings.
In Nicolai’s painting (above) the medium value is dominant with the sky, hill, plants, and foreground covering the bulk of the painting. He sprinkles some darker values around and lights up the painting with bright tan cliffs and bluffs.
Richard Schmid is another artist who uses this effect superbly, such as in Apache Trail.
There isn’t a definite area of interest or focal point. The focus of these paintings is to stimulate effect, rather than craft a message, story, or place. It’s about textures, movement, and the psychological effect it has on the viewer.
It’s about textures, movement, and the psychological effect it has on the viewer.
Jackson Pollock is most known for the Equalization Effect, most notably in his drip paintings. There is no clear center of interest and the effect is a feeling of energy and movement.
Equalization does not mean that every value, texture or color is the same throughout. If a color is used, like a yellow drip in one area, that yellow or another like it will be used in other areas around the painting with no single yellow being more dominant than another.
Each color, value, or shape will also have variety such as the blue ‘poles’ in Pollock’s painting (above). They tilt in slightly different directions and with varying widths and treatment. Notice, however, that no single ‘pole’ is more important than another.
Another example is how Gustav Klimt used small dashes of color with about the same value to create a textural tapestry of fallen leaves from bottom to top (above). The leaves get smaller as they travel back and up through the trees, but the values and treatment remain essentially the same.
Gestalt means “unified whole”. We want the world we see to have unity and organization. Our brains tend to organize visual chaos by grouping similar elements into categories such as Proximity, Similarity, Closure, and Continuity.
Our brains tend to organize visual chaos by grouping similar elements into categories such as Proximity, Similarity, Closure, and Continuity.
The closer objects are placed near each other, the more likely they are to be seen as a single group or pattern, or even as a single entity rather than as individual separate shapes.
That doesn’t mean they have to feel like one object. Proximity can create tension as well, as seen in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. When Adams and God’s fingers ‘almost touch’ Michelangelo is using proximity to unify the figures as well as create dynamic tension and powerful expression.
Just like it sounds – similarity occurs when the objects, or elements, we see look like one another. When characteristics such as color, texture, shape, size, value, or direction are repeated in a painting they create unity because of similarity.
The lily pads in my painting Waterlily Fall help unify the design of the painting because they are similar in color, shape, size, and texture to each other and to other objects such as the grasses and leaves.
When we see a familiar shape or object like a square or the wall of a building and that shape is broken by a flower bush or beam of light, our brains will fill in the broken line or ‘close’ the shape.
The painting above is also an example of Closure because our minds complete the curving lines of the lily pads even when one pad overlaps another.
Continuity or Continuation
The easiest way to think of this is when it feels like someone is looking in a specific direction. This can also be accomplished using a figure staring in a certain direction in the painting. The viewer’s eye will tend to follow the line of sight. An ‘implied line’ is created which the viewer follows. We are compelled to move from, or through, one object to another.
The viewer’s eye will tend to follow the line of sight.
I use continuity often in my paintings by pointing a branch or group of leaves toward another, which leads to another, to guide the viewer through my paintings.
Morrow’s Meadow uses the branch on the lower right to point diagonally and create an implied line that leads the viewer to the branches of the trees on the left of the painting.
This refers to the separation (or not) of the focal object (or positive space) and the background (or negative space).
During my high school days, M.C. Escher provided endless fascination for me with his metamorphosis etchings like Sky and Water. These images show how easily the figure and background can become confused.
Our job as artists is to make sure that there is a clear distinction between the background and our main subject to avoid visual confusion. Unless of course we deliberately ignore that principle for a specific effect.
Bev Doolittle created wonderful paintings that cleverly combined figures and background.
Rule of Thirds
You’ve probably heard about this one – it’s extremely popular among painters and photographers.
I am NOT a big fan! Before you egg my house though, let me explain.
In the rule of thirds, you divide your painting with two vertical and two horizontal lines into 9 basically identical rectangles – or more simply said, you divide it into thirds.
The idea is to place our center of interest near or at one of the intersecting points (the red dots). That gives us an easy way to keep the center of interest in an asymmetrical position (or a spot more interesting for the viewer than right in the middle).
So, let’s take this winter scene I shot near Selma on a cold -15 degree (Fahrenheit) day.
See how the horizon line is about in the middle. For most artists, they consider that a terrible thing to do. The road also leads us nearly to the center of the photo.
The rule of thirds helps us create a more compelling composition by shifting the horizon line to one of the dividing lines. We then move the road closer to an intersecting point.
Or, we can move the horizon down and the road to the right.
You may be asking “if it makes compositions more engaging, then what’s the problem”?
My problem is that it’s a formula! What happens when we use formulas? We shut down our creative thinking and create images that resemble everyone else’s.
We shut down our creative thinking and create images that resemble everyone else’s.
The Rule of Thirds can be helpful as a tiny thought in our minds if we have a tendency to create boring designs. We can look quickly at the placement of our focal point to see if shifting things to a more asymmetrical position might help.
Remember though, the most engaging paintings rarely fit well into any formulaic approach or grid. There are way too many possibilities to limit ourselves like that.
That brings us to Dynamic Symmetry which seems to be growing like a seemingly benign wart right on the tip of art’s nose.
These are mathematical ratios for finding pleasingly proportioned compositions.
Here’s an example of dynamic symmetry I put together with photoshop:
They call it a Baroque Diagonal when the major (or longer) line goes bottom left to upper right and a Sinister Diagonal when it runs right to left.
Several photographers and painters credited Myron Barnstone for their understanding of the use of dynamic symmetry. A few of them used the same images of Edgar Degas’ paintings and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photographs to demonstrate the theory.
According to several articles, Degas placed the Ballerinas in line with both the Baroque and Sinister Diagonals to emphasize action and movement. Where the lines intersect is an important point of emphasis.
The Baroque Diagonal and reciprocal intersect at the brightest point.
That may be true, but I feel they are using some liberties and stretching reality to make things fit their vision of an ideal design. I don’t believe Degas graphed out golden rectangles on his canvases to design his paintings.
Especially since the image above is a detail from a larger painting (below) that does not fit as neatly into the same series of diagonals.
Watch out when researching Dynamic Symmetry. I’ve noticed a tendency in those who are ardent fans to take modern or historical artworks and place them in a grid to show exactly how each artist used dynamic symmetry to make their work spell-binding. They then insist that all great art follows this pattern.
I’ve noticed a tendency in those who are ardent fans to take modern or historical artworks and place them in a grid to show exactly how each artist used dynamic symmetry to make their work spell-binding.
It seems to me that if we use enough lines we will eventually hit every major point in a painting. But will that actually teach a painter how to design a powerful composition when standing out in nature?
It reminds me of the personality machine at state fairs in the 80’s.
At the fair, we would write our signature on a slip of paper. Then they would send that slip through an impressive looking machine with a bunch of dazzling lights and sounds while we held our breath, anxious for our personality to be revealed. The puzzle ‘of us’ would finally be solved using only our signature.
Finally, a list of attributes would print out and, low and behold, they would fit us to a T. That is, if we ignored the ones that didn’t fit our personality and focused only on those that did. Still, we would ooh and aah and be duly impressed, and for a few bucks it was great entertainment.
That’s the ‘magic’ of tricks like those – the ability to adjust them so they fit just about anyone. That’s how I feel about dynamic symmetry.
That’s the ‘magic’ of tricks like those – the ability to adjust them so they fit just about anyone.
There are dozens (or hundreds) of templates you can buy and use that will help you craft the perfect composition. Those grids can get very complex and impressive looking. They certainly seem legitimate, especially since many have strong mathematical ties like Root rectangles.
According to the people who sell those templates, if you learn the intricacies of dynamic symmetry you will become a ‘god in the artworld’ with your mathematically powerful compositions.
Maybe mathematical ratios will one day solve all artists’ design challenges, but after a few millennia of supposed use, it still hasn’t happened. It’s interesting to note that even though golden ratios have been around for eons, the phrase dynamic symmetry was first coined in the early 1900’s by a student of William Merritt Chase.
Golden Mean and Fibonacci Numbers
These are closely associated with properties of Dynamic Symmetry.
The Golden Mean (also known as the golden ratio, golden rectangle or golden section) is simply the 1 to 1.618 ratio.
Back in the 90’s I admired the work of Michael Workman when he was showing at the Meyer Galleries in Santa Fe. He was a big advocate of using the Golden Mean in painting.
I love Workman’s paintings, but I’ve always had a tough time seeing how he used the Golden Mean to determine where to place each element in his work. In all fairness, that may be because using anything even resembling math made my eyes glass over.
It’s obvious that I’m an artist, not a mathematician.
But let’s go ahead and play with this. If we place a Fibonacci Spiral (it approximates a Golden Spiral) on one of his paintings it fits like this.
Or we can flip it over.
What about the Rule of Thirds?
Yep, there are some intersections like the top of the highest mountain, the bottom right curve of the road and the curve of the snow on the right.
But what about all the other things like the small hill in shadow on the left; the placement of each of the buildings and trees; the 3 horizontal lines that don’t overlap any dividing lines? How do we determine where to place those?
This exercise isn’t in any way a disservice to Michael’s paintings – they’re beautiful – but it shows that even someone who promotes the Golden Mean can create amazing work that deviates from it. Of course, it’s possible that he has divided his design according to some specific calculations that I don’t see or understand, but that isn’t the point.
There are so many possible additions and subtractions we can make in our paintings. Every time I’ve seen someone paint according to a formula there ends up being a part that doesn’t fit their formula.
…even if they do come out with the ‘perfect’ formula, would we want it?
And think about it – even if they do come out with the ‘perfect’ formula, would we want it? For me, painting is fun because it’s challenging and creative.
Now, having some guidelines or ideas that might give us a starting point can help recognize why something doesn’t feel right. For those who would still like to learn more about Fibonacci Numbers this next part is for you.
Turn Fibonacci Numbers into the Golden Mean
The easiest way to show what the golden mean looks like is to use a Fibonacci Numbers inspired rectangle. Fibonacci numbers are amazingly fun, especially when placed in a graphed rectangle (I threw this together in Photoshop so it’s not 100% spot-on, but it’s close enough).
Simply start with a 2×3 inch rectangle. Then divide it into a square with 2 – 1-inch squares and 1 – 2-inch square. Add those 3 together for the next size square to add to the existing rectangle (every number or square after adding the first two is the sum of the two proceeding squares). So: 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 8+5=13; 8+13=21.
Then we can remove the grid for a fancy compositional layout:
We can even add an approximation of the famous Golden Spiral:
Of course, if we want to go smaller or larger the sequence will go on infinitely!
The Fibonacci numbers and spirals are found in plenty of God’s creations like pineapple fruit, pine cones, and flowers.
The Golden Spiral, on the other hand, does not fit as closely in nature as we have often heard. Nature doesn’t want to be confined to a rigid framework any more than our compositions do.
What does any of this do for your painting designs?
If your painting seems lackluster you can see if moving some things around to match dynamic symmetry helps it feel better.
You can use your understanding of rectangles, Fibonacci numbers, spirals, and golden sections to give you an approximate sense of dynamic placement of objects, lines, and shapes in your paintings. If your painting seems lackluster you can see if moving some things around to match dynamic symmetry helps it feel better.
Final Thoughts on Composition
We don’t need to obsess over the theories and details of composition ‘rules’ or guidelines. Once we have a decent grasp of what has been discussed and discovered by artists thus far we can move forward and follow our instincts.
Once we have a decent grasp of what has been discussed and discovered by artists thus far we can move forward and follow our instincts.
Enjoy it – have fun and don’t fret.
Richard Schmid summed it up nicely “Most compositions rarely involve all the elements of design. For example, many paintings do not contain large simple masses, strong lines, or even a noticeable pattern, yet they satisfy us.”
And Edward Weston stated “to consult composition before making a picture (or painting a masterpiece) is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.”
Experiment, reflect and play, and see what exciting discoveries you make as you craft your own unique and ingenious designs.
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Thank you, Bill, for an inspiring treatise on composition. I struggle with composition and feel that you have captured a lot of useful information that I will try out in my next paintings and exercises. It was just what I needed to make my paintings more coherent and interesting. BTW, I love your paintings and style.
Positively a most remarkable article. Bill, you have a God given talent to teach art with words. Fantastic and best teacher! Thank you for taking the time to teach us!
THANK YOU! This article was the best explanation of composition concepts that I have ever read! Your explanation was an easy read and your examples backing up your explanation made it so easy to understand.
gosh, what a goldmine of information you have provided here!
Thank you very much from a VERY amateur artist.
It’s really amazing article and I want to say a lot of thanks for such an excellent explanation!
Wow! Great article. Im focusing on watercolor landscapes and Plein air. I’m going to use this as my study course to move forward. Thank you !
Bill the material you covered was very informative. As most of us who have felt the irresistible urge to create since we were children and didn’t come to the realization that wow I’m an artist. The youth of today have a distinct advantage of being tested and placed in the gifted and talented programs.. Where as they would have other wised been shuffled to the side as average students or below .What prompted my commentary and rung a bell was the comment you made about anything dealing with numbers and your eyes glaze over. For years I would not disclose that numbers and I don’t jell,.Today as an adult i tell people (I’m not wired that way). But when it comes to creativity we can rock with the best of um. I hear notes and sing as well. Joplin was a painter Eric Clapton was a stained glass artist and many more follow the same pattern. I am happy with who I am and my achievements in art. Thanks 🙏 Bill
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Tôi không biết nói gì. Cảm ơn ông rất nhiều. Tôi đang học vẽ và bài viết này đã giúp ích rất nhiều cho tôi về lý thuyết. Trân trọng cảm ởn ông.