Art composition might sound like something very theoric and boring, especially when all you want to do is have fun and relax while drawing. I admit, a lot of times, I’m just mindlessly doodling, until I decide to pick one sketch and decide to make a final piece from it.
In fact, the places where I liked the most to hear about composition, was while studying paintings and art history. And it might not look like it, but studying these things and observing other paintings will help you improve your art as well!
So, what do I mean by this? First, talking about art composition doesn’t need to be boring. Each person has their way of learning and we just need to learn ours.
Second, we’re going to talk quite a bit about art composition, with lots of examples.
This way, as you read and look at pictures, you’ll be understanding art differently and applying that new knowledge into your own paintings! Simple and fun, right?
Now before diving into everything we need to know, what is Art Composition? Very simply put, it’s the organization of all the elements in a piece of artwork!
Art Composition Definition
Composition in Art is the term used to describe how each visual element is arranged or organized.
This not only applies to paintings, but also to photography and music for example.
Each element is arranged with thought.
We’re not merely throwing elements at random, we’re planning them carefully, to bring out the whole potential of the artwork.
Usually, we compose our works with a geometric structure in mind. But that’s not always the case. With the arrival of abstract styles, art composition can also take other forms and structures.
In short, the composition doesn’t always need to be clear to us or the viewer. It is an arrangement of elements, done so the painting is balanced, harmonious and overall agreeable to the artist and the viewer.
Why is Art Composition Important
Depending on your style, you can work with composition in different ways.
Sometimes you might not even notice that what you’re doing is for the sake of balance! Other times, you want to convey the exact opposite emotion, a feeling of chaos and confusion.
Nevertheless, you’re working with composition and you’ll be organizing your painting in a specific way.
Art composition will always be an important element of your artwork, the difference here is how conscious you are of it.
This is why it’s important to learn about it. That way, you can have a better notion of how to bring balance to your pieces and, through it, improve them!
You’ll also learn to plan your paintings more carefully.
A good way to practice your composition and planning skills is through thumbnails, but we’ll talk more about this later on, so stay tuned, because I won’t be just giving you theory here.
What Makes a Good Composition in Art
Besides using composition to create a sense of balance, you’re using it to grab the viewer’s attention and creating a mood!
Either through the color or how the elements are organized, your painting should have a focus. A place that will attract the viewer’s eyes, right away!
There are “rules” to make a good composition, that you’ve surely heard about before, such as the Golden Ratio or the Rule of Thirds.
For me there’s no such thing as rules in art and drawing, so let’s say they are tools.
A template, to help organize your drawings. If you’re having difficulty with how your painting is arranged, draw in tracing paper a grid or a spiral. Put it on top of your drawing. It might help you figure out what is out of place and how to resolve the problem!
The Elements of Art Composition
There are several different elements to take into consideration when making a good composition.
The first set is the elements of Art: line, shape, color, texture, value, form and space.
This might sound too complicated, but you’ve probably heard about most of them and they’re exactly what the sound like. Nevertheless, let’s go over them all:
You make two points on a piece of paper. Then you connect them.
That mark you just made, is the line.
A mark made using a pencil, a pen or a brush. There isn’t much more to that than this, other than that, as you know, you can have and draw several types of lines: vertical, horizontal, curved, etc.
The important point to make here about lines is that they don’t need to always be visible!
A lot of artists don’t use them in their paintings, but they’re still there. They are shown by the way the objects are arranged in the painting.
How the lines are portrayed in a drawing will also help us have a notion of movement, slow or fast and even help set the mood or direct the viewer's attention, through thicker or thinner lines!
We have a line, or more specifically, a closed line.
What’s inside of this outline? The shape!
The shape is the flat area, surrounded by an outline. Again, this outline does not need to be obviously visible.
We use all kinds of shapes when drawing.
Anything that you might want to draw, you can start with a shape. Look at any object, building, animal or person and I can assure you, you can easily learn to draw it, simply by finding its shapes.
This is something that I always show in my courses.
We always start by finding the shapes and then we work and develop our drawings from there. If you’re curious about drawing dogs, cats, your own characters and others, do take a peek at my drawing courses over on Udemy!
Color is a very important element in art.
With it, we can change the mood and atmosphere of a painting.
Making it more vibrant or very somber.
Color can also be used to capture the viewer’s attention or to break the monotony in a painting.
This is what you need to know about color and it’s part on composition.
There’s a whole lot we can talk about color and if you really want to know and learn more about it, I wrote a whole article about color, so be sure to check it out!
The look and feel of a surface.
It can give your painting a sense of 3D but also of something that is real and that you can touch.
You can give a sense of texture, through the way you paint, but also give actual texture and 3dimensionality.
You can do this by adding several layers of paint, using different brushes or tools or even by mix other materials, like sand, dirt, pebbles, shells, etc.
The texture is something that you can work better when doing traditional art.
But you can still give the idea of texture in digital, but using different brushes, with different textures, you can reproduce different fabrics, wood, stone, plastic, etc.
In a way, it can be harder to do, but it’s doable and definitely a fun experience!
How dark or light a color is.
Value is very important in a drawing.
It’s what creates contrast in a painting. It is especially important when painting in black in white and why a lot of artists start their drawings in those tones and then add color.
A good contrast of value is an essential element since, again, it will help guide the viewer’s attention but also create the balance in your painting!
We saw that the shape is the flat area, surrounded by an outline.
The form is the 3D version of the shape!
We took the shape and modeled it into something with perspective.
The form is mostly used in sculpture, for example, but it is also necessary for drawing when we work with different perspectives.
When drawing, we don’t necessarily have everything flat.
Some shapes need to take form, to give depth to our paintings!
The Space around, between, and within each component of a painting.
Space will help the viewer interpret a painting. We make use of space, very often, when creating perspective.
For example, drawing an object larger than another will give a sense that the latter is farther from the viewer.
There are two terms that you should know in painting: Positive and Negative space.
What do they mean?
Very simply put, Positive space refers to the subject, for example, a cup of tea.
Negative space is the empty space created around and between the cup of tea.
Make use of the space you have in your canvas, through value, color and perspective go balance your drawings!
Now, you might think this is all. Not really, here’s another set of elements for you!
The Visual Design Elements
We went through concrete elements that you add to your paintings, but there’s another set of elements.
These are more abstract, but also very important when creating a balanced and composed painting.
These are Harmony, Balance, Hierarchy, Proportion, Emphasis, Similarity, and Contrast.
Our main goal.
Be it either in painting, sculpture, architecture, graphic design, etc. Harmony is what we get when every element works perfectly together.
By harmony, we don’t mean that the painting needs to give a sense of calm.
It means that the drawing won’t look too aggressive to the viewer’s eyes. As in, if you paint something, where each color has the same value, it will be too much for our eyes, not pleasing at all.
We create harmony in a painting, through a combination of each element we talked previously: line, shape, color, value and so on, carefully balanced.
There’s 3 types of balance: symmetry, asymmetry, and radial.
The first means that everything is arranged in an identical way, in a common line. This is considered a very static kind of balance and it was very popular in Ancient Greece. The temples, with its columns and in the Renaissance period, which took some inspiration from the former and aspired for the perfect balance and symmetry!
Asymmetry is the opposite.
There’s balance in it, but less obvious.
It makes the viewer think and calls out for their curiosity.
As for the Radial balance, it means that the elements are organized around a center point.
You chose one point of your painting and everything else will revolve around that! Gothic Rose windows and mandalas are a great example of radial balance!
Not everything has the same importance.
Some elements of your drawing will be more important than others and you’ll want your viewer to focus on them.
Through scale, color, and contrast, you can guide the observer through the painting, from the most to the least important aspect of your drawing.
It is the relationship between the elements of your drawing and how they compare to each other.
Not everything will have the same size or appear in the same quantity, for example.
You can both exaggerate the proportions or keep them real. If the later, pay attention to them. If you draw a tree side by side with a person, chances are that the tree is bigger than the person.
Again, you can also use the proportion to give importance.
If you draw a character with exaggerated proportions, compared to the rest, then that means that it takes a major role in your painting!
As the name describes, it is used to highlight something in the painting.
Either emphasizing the color, value, the shapes or even the proportions. This will capture the viewer’s attention to a particular object or area of the painting.
Usually, this should be the main subject of your artwork.
For example, a colorful bird in the midst of a green jungle or, in a portrait, where the face is where we tend to look first.
There’s a set of rules, called the Gestalt principles, that describe how our eyes perceive visual elements.
It refers to how the human eye will naturally group together anything that is visually similar, into a larger group.
This is done to bring balance and unity to your pieces.
By using similar elements and shapes in your composition.
Pointillism is a good example of this being done.
A piece can be done with several dots. We do not see them individually, but as a whole, forming the picture! This is something I talk about (Stippling also known as Pointillism) on my article on Shading Drawings.
As for contrast, the idea here is to give objects or elements that can be similar, total opposite qualities.
For example, two circles, but one is red and the other very dark red. Creating a strong contrast will, again, attract the viewers' attention to an important focal point.
If one of the subjects will appear dramatically different than the rest, then our eyes will be automatically attracted to it!
Creating Harmony In Your Art
Now, all we’ve talked so far might seem just a bunch of words.
So, as I promised, let’s see some examples and exercises on how to create a good composition!
The Golden Ratio
It’s a mathematical ratio, but we’re not going to go over mathematics here.
What you need to know about the Golden Ratio, or Golden Spiral, in art is that it is commonly found in nature and very used in art. A lot of times unconsciously!
It makes everything look organic, natural and balanced, which it’s what we’re looking for. If you’re ever in doubt about your composition, draw it on a piece of tracing paper and put it on top of your drawing.
You’ll know right away if everything is well organized.
Our brains seem to be very into this ratio, so it will feel attracted to it and that will show on our works.
If you want to see the Golden Ratio in action, Leonardo Da Vinci is your place to go. The Mona Lisa, for example, is always very popular!
The Rule of Thirds
Just like the Golden Spiral, it is a guideline to create your composition.
I find this one easier to work with, as it’s also less complicated to build. Simply put, it is a grid, made of two vertical lines and two horizontal ones. This creates nine proportional boxes.
The important elements of the painting should be drawn on these lines.
By using this grid, you can more create dynamic compositions more easily.
Again, I feel that you shouldn’t overthink these matters.
Use these guidelines, when you have your composition more or less planned. Just to check and be sure you find it pleasing.
We usually tend to create this balance intuitively, so do not worry too much over these.
They are tools to help us out, but not obligatory rules to follow. Have fun!
Creating Movement With Composition
There are many ways to show movement in your paintings.
Through the poses of the subjects, lines that show movement, for example, a car moving fast, leaving a trail behind. How you draw your objects and of course, how they’re arranged.
We usually want to create a certain dynamism in our drawings, to keep them interesting and to make them feel alive.
Create lines and shapes in your drawings, to give your viewer’s an idea of the story in the painting, but also leave something out. Give space for the observer’s imagination.
Part of the fun in drawings and paintings is for it to allow different interpretations!
Drawing Thumbnails to Practice Composition
As I mentioned before, thumbnailing is a good way to plan your drawings and their composition!
I talked all about thumbnails over here. I really recommend that after reading this and getting a good notion of composition, you check that one out!
There’s even a template for you to download, for free, and you can start practicing right away.
In short, take a piece of paper, draw small rectangles on it, enough to fill the page.
Vertical or horizontal ones, depending on how you want your drawing to be. Now you just need to scribble down ideas and different versions of them.
This way, you can have a better notion of what works best, before jumping to the final version!
Art Composition Tips
Before jumping into exercises, let’s go over some tips for you to keep in mind when planning your drawings:
Focus On The Focal Points
What is the main subject of your painting?
Focus on that.
That element should be prioritized and the one that is most noticeable in your drawing. Either through color, contrast, size or placement.
In the end, you want that place to be the one the viewer’s eyes will rest at first glance. It’s what will call us to look at the painting!
Master Color To Improve Your Composition
Saturation, Hue, Value, Color Schemes are very important and there’s a lot to talk about it.
I mentioned before, I did write all about Color Theory here in the blog, but if you prefer it in video format, check out my course over on Udemy and you can get a better understanding of it.
As for its use in composition, what you need to know is that not only the use of color can make the whole mood and atmosphere of your paintings, but it is also what will grab the attention.
If you draw a busy square, full of people and animation it might be too confusing.
But add a kid, holding a very bright, red balloon. The whole picture will change dramatically.
This is where I will look first.
With this cue, I know right away that it’s the main focus of the painting and now, from there, I can study the rest of the painting.
Use Contrast To Your Advantage
Besides color, a good use of contrast will also help your composition and for the viewer to know where to look at.
Don’t be afraid to exaggerate your shadows or your lightings!
Just remember, to keep it balanced.
Don’t give everything the same shades of colors, the same weight of lines, shadows or lines.
The most important elements should have more contrast than others, less important. Otherwise, everything will mesh together and cause confusion.
Play With Perspective And Angles
Try changing the angle of your drawings and paintings, it can change everything up and give them a more dramatic expression.
Do consider also playing with different perspectives, each one has an effect on the overall artwork.
You can read more about the Types of Perspective Drawing and when to use them in my Article!
Art Composition Exercises
It is time for practice, so let’s go over some exercises so you can truly understand what we’ve been saying so far!
Frame A Landscape
Go out in the world or stand by your window and frame your horizon.
By frame, I mean to try and put the horizon line to your eye level and make a frame with your mind as if it was a painting. You can even take a photo with your phone so you can save it, it makes practicing easier.
Another option is to search for a landscape image, you can check one of the websites I mention in my Art References and Resources article, and save it to your PC.
Once you have that, draw it!
Focus on the main shapes of the landscape, not on the little details. If you find it hard to understand the composition, put a grid on top of it!
After you done that, try framing the landscape a bit to the side. If you took a photo before, simply take another photo by moving to the side. But if you have downloaded one from the internet, it makes this process more interesting.
Now you have to imagine how the composition looks further to one side.
This can be a very interesting art composition exercise since you’re using your imagination to compose an art piece.
Repetition Of An Object
This one is quite fun and lets you explore several different settings.
Simply choose an object, it can be a piece of fruit like an orange or an apple, or a random object from around the house like a pencil, a ball or your phone.
Now I want you to try and draw that same object in several different situations and compositions. For this, I would recommend you do a few Thumbnails to work with.
First, draw the object in the center of your thumbnail. Make it the most important object in your art piece, all alone in the middle of the square.
On another thumbnail, do the same, except I want you to also add another copy of that same object closer to us. Make that second and closer object the main attraction of the thumbnail.
See how the composition changes when we add more into the picture?
On your third thumbnail I want you to draw once again the object in the center, and then 4 more objects. One at each Corner of the thumbnail.
What do you think of this composition? What’s predominant here and what’s secondary? Does it depend on size alone or position?
Explore different repetitions of that object in the rest of the thumbnails, change size and position and see what happens to the overall composition. If you’re feeling brave, add some different colors and see the effect they have on it.
Study The Masters
This one is recommended a lot, I know, but it really helps!
Check out other people’s work like Da Vinci or Michelangelo, they really nailed down composition over and over again. So you absolutely know that if you’re studying them and even copying their final results, you are learning how to make good composition work.
You don’t even need to go that far back to the old masters, you can also check out the new age masters.
At some point in high school, we had a very interesting exercise. It consisted of choosing a painting by our favorite artist.
Then in a piece of paper, we’d make a grid and on top of the drawing we chose, rested a piece of tracing paper, also with the same grid. Now we had to copy the painting.
We had our grid, to help us place everything in the right places, as well as getting the proportions right. This is a very good exercise to practice composition and to understand how and why artists choose to paint things a certain way!
Summing It Up
Art Composition might sound like a dreadful word. But it doesn’t have to!
All you need to know about composition is: what is the main subject of your painting?
Focus on that, and arrange all the elements, so that everything will point out to where you want the viewer to look at. You can do this by using color, size, and contrast.
Once you master Composition, be sure to check out Color Theory.
Another tip: don’t overthink it.
Usually, you’ll intuitively know how to keep your drawing balanced. But you can always give or take something to improve your work.
Follow these tips and you’ll surely succeed!
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