7 Ways to Get Your Compositions Right the First Time

Painting Lessons for Powerful Shapes & Forms

Composition is king! But the ‘how’ of that ascension to the throne starts with basic steps–simple things you can do to put your painting’s design on the right path. Here are seven painting lessons in the basic areas you should take into account when designing your composition for a drawing or painting, all having to do somewhat with the importance of shapes. Thanks to artist Robert Reynolds for informing this list with a keen painter’s eye. It helped immensely.

Nothing Good Comes from Stasis

1.    Be aware of static shapes. The completely dark, opened doorway or window into a building can create static shapes that immediately become “visual traps.” Varying the static shapes with graduated tones can add interest and take away the static hole created.

2.    Dividing a composition so that it has a number of equal shapes, horizontally or vertically, can lead to a static composition as well. Be alert for horizontal or vertical lines that unintentionally slice a painting in half or break it up into equal shapes.

Storm at Sea by Robert Reynolds.
Storm at Sea by Robert Reynolds.

Nothing Steals Attention Like…

3.    Be alert that placing interesting shapes or elements on the edge of your composition could steal interest from the center of interest in your composition.

4.    When learning how to paint strong compositions, be aware that creating perfectly shaped triangles in the corners of your composition can draw the viewer’s attention away from the center of interest. If triangles are unavoidable, soften the edges or stagger the forms.

Long Shadows / Irish Hills by Robert Reynolds.
Long Shadows / Irish Hills by Robert Reynolds.

5.    Dividing your design into too many similar shapes is apt to produce an uninteresting composition. Likewise, be sure that the negative spaces between shapes are not all the same width or height. There is a case to be made for occasionally repeated shapes in a composition. This will in fact hold it together. For every rule, there is always an exception.

6.     Unless it is your intention, be careful not to include so many tension-creating shapes that the composition becomes busy or irritating.

See Abstraction in It All

7.    The abstract components of a painting are a very important consideration. A representational painting is only as strong as its abstract components, so when you are evaluating your works be sure to look at your compositions with an “abstract” eye.

Like all things, the more you put these steps into practice, the more they will seem natural and, eventually, become second nature as you create. Don’t worry about getting a composition perfect–that’s a race you can never win because perfection is a myth. Instead, just don’t let your artistic momentum with compositions go to waste. Further your composition know-how by joining us for Johannes Vloothuis’ Paint Along on Composition Lessons Using Mass Planning. This live online workshop is taking reservations now–but if you can’t make all the dates and times, that’s no problem. The workshop is recorded and stored for you to watch whenever it is convenient, so when you are ready for a composition, these composition painting lessons are ready for you! Enjoy!



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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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