9 Steps to Creating Better Compositions

Published Nov. 24th 2006


Great compositions don’t just happen by accident. They take planning, patience, and a knowledge of all the visual elements at your disposal. The great thing is, no matter how much or how little talent you have, you’ll always be able to improve your art by sketching out a good composition before you begin.

With that in mind, here are the 9 steps for better compositions:

1. Pick a good subject

This one might be a no-brainer, but you can’t have a great composition without something good to compose! Obviously your composition depends a lot on what you’re actually painting or drawing, so pick something interesting (visually at least), and always make sure that there’s a good light source from one direction to give the object a strong highlight and shadow. I like painting stuff with a lot of color, texture, sharp angles, etc, since those will increase a viewer’s interest.

2. Choose the size you want

How big do you want to portray your subject? The scale of art can change its entire feel, so it’s important to have a purpose for making an object larger or smaller than life.

For instance, a large, 6ft diameter painting that enlarges an object like a penny will have much more importance and meaning than a normal-size painting of a penny. By enlarging objects, you increase importance; reducing size usually diminishes importance. If you’re not sure what size to make it, just keep it as close to life-size as possible.

3. Create your own crop

Often the most powerful lines in a work of art are the four that most artists don’t even think to control. The edges of your canvas or paper are responsible for containing and shaping your final work of art. Why settle for drawing inside somebody else‘s lines? Make your own! If you’re planning on drawing a skyscraper, cut your paper to the height and width necessary for your subject. Painting a landscape? Why not make your canvas wider, for a panoramic view? This can be used to enhance practically every work of art, so make sure to think about it before choosing to use a standard canvas or paper.

4. Think about placement

The way you place shapes on a 2-dimensional surface lend levels of importance, meaning, and balance to a piece. Centering your subject vertically, horizontally, or both will always give a greater sense of stability to your work, but might end up feeling a little boring or typical as well.

Letting part of your subject get cropped off by the sides, top, or bottom will usually add more visual interest, as will making a single object fill the entire space. Do watch out for objects that barely touch edges, or for objects that just barely brush the borders of your artwork. This type of placement is awkward and should be avoided.

5. Control your lines

Any subject you choose will have at least an outline as well as other lines to give it depth, texture and detail. Our eyes naturally follow lines, so use that to your advantage in capturing the viewer’s gaze. Let your lines flow to the center of your work, or to the spots that you want the viewer to look at. Angled or curved lines generally add more visual interest and movement, but too much can be chaotic. Horizontals and verticals lend strength, solidity, and impressiveness but can be boring.

Avoid letting lines divide your art exactly in half; like with a horizon line running through the middle, or vertically with a tree. This pulls the viewer out of the space you’ve created and will distract from the image.

6. Balance positive and negative space

Positive space is any object or shape that stands out from the background and registers to the eye as “something.” Negative space is the background, or space around objects. Usually it’s suggested that you keep approximately equal amounts of positive and negative space to make a work feel more balanced. If you don’t have enough negative space, your art may feel busy and crowded, but too much negative space can cause the work to feel empty and subdued.

On the other hand, a busy, crowded painting may be your intent, and using a lot of negative space often works well at focusing attention on the positive space that is there. You get to choose how you want your art to feel, so pick a balance that’s right for your subject matter and style.

7. Add contrast

Visual art should have a full range of values from dark to light. Without bright highlights and dark shadows, an image will often feel gray or washed out, and will be less interesting. Darker areas in a predominantly light section will stand out and draw the eye, and the same is true for the reverse. Use this to focus attention but watch out for unintentionally doing so. Make sure you’re not adding emphasis to a corner or edge of a painting if your focus is meant to be in the center.

8. Simplify distracting elements

Too many shapes, lines, or colors can distract or confuse viewers. If you want the viewer to notice or return consistently to one part of the painting, simplify the rest of it. Decide what the focus should be and if YOUR eye gets distracted, change it! Another way to simplifying your art is to get closer to a single object. Leaving out the peripherals and zooming in until the whole frame is filled with only one thing always brings attention where you want it. Of course, doing so will change your positive/negative balance drastically.

9. Choose your colors deliberately

Bold color will catch attention so use them purposefully where you want people to look. Any color that’s all alone surrounded by another color will also stand out. Just like with contrast, this can happen unintentionally, so check for it in your composition.

Also be aware that warm colors (yellow, orange, and red) will make objects appear closer to the viewer, so use them to create depth and space. Cold colors (blue, purple, and some green) will cause objects to recede into the distance. When an object in the “back” of your painting is too warm, it’ll distract from your overall composition and pull attention where you don’t want it.

Finally, I’m a die-hard fan of sketching at the beginning of each creative process so I’d always recommend drawing out different compositions until you feel as though you’ve exhausted every option. If sketching’s not your thing, you could take a bunch of photos and then alter them digitally to find the best composition for your subject.

Whatever you do, don’t jump into something you have high hopes for without working through each of the steps above. I guarantee that if you follow the guidelines above, you’ll be amazed at the difference between your final composition and what your original idea actually was.

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