Know these 3 powerful rules of painting composition

SUMMARY: Some paintings are so much better due to their composition. Here are some easy ways to avoid composition mistakes.

Do you wonder why some paintings feel so much better than others?

There are many reasons, of course, some of them having to do with your own personal taste, but one of the most important factor is composition.

A well-composed painting feels more attractive because

  1. it has a focal point which tells people what the painting is about,
  2. it makes the eyes of the viewers move around the painting, keeping the viewer intrigued and entertained, and
  3. it tells a story that goes beyond the edge of the canvas/paper.

There are some easy things that you can do to make sure that your painting is well composed.

In the video below, Arts of Course Instructor Jess Rice explains  how he approaches composition and shares examples from his work.

Rough Video Transcript

Today, I'm going to show you some secrets of composition. I'm Jess Rice. I'm an art teacher, and beginners are my specialty. Some of the secrets to composition are fairly simple. There are just a few rules to follow, and they'll really help your paintings quite a bit. 

Before I start a landscape, a couple of questions that I ask myself right off the bat: Is it going to be a wide landscape? Or is it going to be a tall landscape? Wide landscapes. You can get wider objects in them. It's more sweeping if you want to focus on something in a landscape, a tree or something like that, maybe you want to do a tall landscape. 

Maybe it fits into your design a little bit better. So that's the first thing you want to ask yourself. Is it going to be a wide painting or a tall painting or even a square painting if you want? I generally try to stay away from square paintings. I usually do a wide one or a tall one. 

Next thing you want to think about is where your horizon line is. Where does the sky meet the ground? 

You can have a low horizon, or you can have a high horizon. A low horizon you're going to get a lot more sky in it. Taller mountains, taller trees. A high horizon you're going to get much more foreground in it, fields in the foreground or people in the foreground or sheep or cattle or whatever you want to put in the foreground.

With a high horizon, you're going to get a lot more of that in your foreground. Low horizon, a lot more sky. So, wide or tall, a low horizon or a high horizon. Those simple things to start with can start you on your way.

Another rule of composition is working with thirds. Everything in art is pretty much odd numbers. You always want to deal with threes, fives, sevens. You don't want to try to use equal numbers. You don't want two objects on your page or dividing your paper into quarters.

You actually want to divide it into thirds. It's more pleasing to look at. So, the simple rule of composition, doing a wide painting, is breaking my painting down into thirds, and I just kind of mark my drawing equal parts into thirds. Same on the side and then horizontally as well. Break my page into thirds, three equal portions. Where those intersect are where you want to place items in your painting. Those are your golden sections.

These four areas where those lines intersect, that's where you want to place objects and also horizon lines. So, I'm talking about a low horizon. I want to put it down on this third of my paper down here. I don't want to put it right in the middle of my paper because that splits it right into two.

Again, you'll have an equal number. You want to keep it into odd numbers. So, keep it on the third line. You want a high horizon. You do use that the top third line. That's how you would split your paper up.

It's much more pleasing to look at. And you have a nice design to start with right off the bat. If I'm going to place objects in here, I want to use that same rule, that rule of thirds.

If I want to put a big tree in here, I want to put it right on that third line. That's the most pleasing area to look at. If I want something over here, a lower tree. I'd put it on this one.

And maybe the moon coming up over here. That's a much nicer composition than trying to split your page into half or quarters, just much more pleasing to look at. 

So, before I start a landscape, I think about wide, tall. Where's my horizon line? Where does the sky meet the earth? And my rule of thirds breaking my paper into thirds and placing objects and my horizon line on those areas. 

Got a couple of examples here. This one has a low horizon. And I placed my main character, my focal point on that golden section. So that's in that third area. 

This one's tall, but rather than a landscape use the same composition rules. I've placed my character here on this golden line or this section and my dog here on the other golden section, or that's my focal point there. 

He's on this focal point or on this line, on this third line. And he is on this focal point. You're doing an animal. You want to put their eye on that focal point. So everything, if I split this into thirds and thirds this way, that eye falls right on that golden section.

So, there's a few composition secrets you can use on all your paintings.

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