6 Ideas for Better Painting Compositions

Over the past 25 years, I’ve heard my friend Jack Beal address art students on the critical importance of pictorial composition—the ways in which artists can develop their paintings to create a convincing illusion of space and to direct viewers’ attention toward the elements of primary or secondary importance. Some of his advice is commonly offered by other art teachers, but many of his recommendations are not generally understood or consistently applied. Here is some of the advice Beal and other knowledgeable teachers offer their students.

  1. Avoid putting the center of interest in the middle of the painting. It’s very hard to engage viewers in a complete painting if they are focused on what’s happening in the middle, or the “dead center,” as it is appropriately called. It’s better to move the horizon line up or down in a landscape, to make the focal point into one of the four quadrants of the rectangle, or to use one of the time-tested principles such as the golden mean to determine the best placement of the center of interest.
  2. Use a diagonal shape to bring the viewer into the painting from the bottom. Think of the bottom edge of a painting as a ledge the viewers have to cross to enter the space. If you show them where they can easily step over that ledge, they are more apt to feel invited into the picture. The diagonal can be established by a large, dark clump of bushes in the foreground; a road or pathway to walk along; a knife lying on the edge of a table pointed to the rest of a still life arrangement; or a shaft of light coming from over the viewer’s shoulder into the space.

    Once you have persuaded the viewers to enter the painting, it is helpful to lead them through the space and out again. Don’t take them down a road that ends in the middle of the painting or suggest they follow a piece of cloth that disappears behind a box within your still life arrangement. Use a well-defined diagonal shape to lead viewers out of the painting.

  3. Recognize that fences, roads, railroad tracks, and other pathways are like arrows pointing viewers’ eyes in a specific direction. Make sure that if you point them toward one area of the painting you don’t leave them there.
  4. Don’t shy away from leaving some areas of the painting open and airy. Many people who work from photographs fail to adjust for the fact that the camera has a limited depth of field and will only document what happens within a narrow space. When they paint from those photographs, they wind up filling their paintings with all the leaves and flowers shown in their close-up shots or with just the foreground elements of a landscape. Since everything in the background of their photographs is a blur, they don’t know how to develop those sections of their paintings. That’s why it helps to take a lot of photographs of a potential painting subject—details, overall shots, various exposure settings, etc.—so that you have enough information to paint a complete view of the subject.
  5. Consider repeating colors, shapes, and patterns to help create interest throughout the painting. This is one of the “rules” of composition that often gets repeated, and it certainly has merit. If you only have one red object in your still life, it will overwhelm the rest of the picture. If you only have one orange shape in your landscape, it will likely become the focal point of the image. The best thing to do is to repeat colors, shapes, and patterns. You don’t need the exact same mixture of red or the same textural pattern. Just make sure to maintain some level of repetition and variety.
  6. Try to look at the paintings objectively: Turn your paintings upside down or look at them in a mirror. Put them away for a few days. We all become so completely engaged in our drawings and paintings that we can’t judge them objectively. It helps to turn the image upside down, put it away for a while, or look at it in a mirror so you begin to see it differently and can therefore recognize how to improve it.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

7 thoughts on “6 Ideas for Better Painting Compositions

  1. I think of Jack Beal as THE authority when it comes to composition principles.

    Having studied with him has given me the tools I need to make my paintings stand out in the crowd.

    thanks Steve for posting this important information.

  2. The use of a mirror is like having a second opinion, I use it to check proportion and and design as a whole, if something’s off you’ll see it right away.

  3. Good Advice but one should remember the rule of thirds or the Golden Mean. The goal is to keep the viewer inside the painting not moving on to look at another painting. The Golden Mean is repeated in beauty in nature as well as in painting. The eye is drawn to the most vivid color in the painting and this can be used to draw to the focus point in the painting. Paint like a millionaire.

  4. I think we all have learned the hard way and made many mistakes in compositions, I like this article as a reminder of what not to do and suggestions on what to do. I like the term ‘illusion of space’ especially when we have only four sides to work with for the most part, excluding oval surfaces. I like to think of the canvas as a stage where the observer can be presented either a balcony view, front box seats or off-side seats. Rex Brandt taught that illustrious view. An artist can involve the viewer as a participant in perspective positioning and transport them from a 2 dimensional surface to a 3D one. From above, below, to the side or eye level, there are more ways to enter into a painting than you can shake a stick at. Rex Brandt also believed in a passage through the work to take the viewer into the setting. Through trial and error we learn how to place our shapes and directional lines that best suit our creative statement. I no longer look at the four sides like borders, it is good to have half a tree coming in from the sides or bottom, it allows the viewer to use their imagination and take part in the creative process to see more outside the painting. As long as it is not a pine tree that is running out of the top of the painting in stark contrast to the sky. I have learned not to lead a viewer straight out of the painting with strong contrasting objects. I try to use design fundamentals to keep their eye moving around the painting. I also like the idea that each side of the painting needs to have different combinations of shapes, values and colors leaving the edges, not divided into equal divisions of shapes exiting the sides. Within these borders an artist has a wide range of choices in shapes and lines, values, color and textures to entertain the viewer. Yes, I do like ‘illusion of space’ and how I can tweek it within each canvas and beyond it. We want our customers to enter into the painting and stay awhile to enjoy the scenery and feel as if they were taken somewhere other than where they stand.