Composition in Painting: How to Create Better Painting Compositions

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landscape painting composition of green hills and trees

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The best paintings are those that have a strong composition. But what is composition in painting? Composition is the arrangement of elements in a work of art. It’s how the artist arranges shapes, colors, and lines to create a pleasing effect. A good painting composition can make a painting look effortless, while a bad one can make it look chaotic and unappealing.

As an artist, learning to see and understand composition is essential to creating beautiful paintings. If you’re studying painting, take some time to study the works of master painters and analyze their compositions. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about this important aspect of art!

Elements of a good painting composition

Looking at master paintings is very helpful for learning more about composition and making better compositions in your own painting. There are a few things to consider when looking at painting composition in master paintings.

What to look for in good painting compositions:

  • The overall shape of the painting
  • The use of light and dark colors
  • The balance of the painting
  • And the movement in the painting

When you look at the overall shape of a painting, you can see the basic design of the painting. The shapes in the painting can give you an idea of how the artist wanted the viewer to see the painting.

Next up, we will take a look at several master painting examples and how they constructed their painting compositions.

Different types (examples) of composition in painting

Classical Balance

This painting (below) by Raphael is a great example of classical balance in a painting composition. You can see that there is an even distribution of weight on either side of the painting

The Sistine Madonna, Raphael. This painting is a wonderful example of classical balance in a painting composition

Next, is a very different piece by Van Gogh that also has a classic balance composition. There is even weight on both sides of the composition.

The bridge of Langlois at Arles with laundresses.*oil on canvas .*54 x 65 cm .*March 1888 .*

Imbalance in Painting Compositions

Most painting compositions help to create a mood and generate an emotional response. When there is an imbalance in painting compositions, it can create a more powerful and dramatic mood. This may be done intentionally by the artist to create a desired response, or it may be due to the natural flow of the painting. Either way, an imbalance can be very effective in creating a strong painting composition.

One way to create an imbalance in painting compositions is to use asymmetry. This can be done by placing objects off-center, or by using different sizes and shapes for elements in the painting. When everything is perfectly symmetrical, it can be very static and boring. An off-center composition can add interest and movement to a painting.

J.M.W.Turner, Valley of Aosta: Snow Storm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm (1836-7). Frederick T. Haskell Collection; The Art Institute of Chicago.

In the painting above by JMW Turner we see an example of imbalance and a dramatic use of strong contrasting values and opposing diagonals.

Different Space divisions in Composition

Most painting compositions are based on very basic spacial divisions. You can see small diagrams beneath each of the two paintings below that show the basic design foundation of each piece.

It might seem like an oversimplification at first, but diagrams such as these are the basis of many compositions!

Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Sunset

You can clearly see the basic cross design that is in the Monet painting above. The simplicity and strength of the composition is what makes the piece strong and stand out.

Below is a portrait by Ghirlandaio that has a basic center vertical space division. This is a common type of division used for portraits that makes for compelling painting compositions.

Portrait of a Young Woman, Domenico Ghirlandaio

Tips for creating better painting compositions

Creating a good composition in a painting requires a lot of thought and planning. Though there are particular elements that you can easily apply to your own painting to help with the composition creation process.

Get yourself a Viewfinder

A hand holding a view finder to find a painting composition
You can make your own or purchase a viewfinder inexpensively.

With a viewfinder, you can take away the distraction of your surrounding environment by looking through a small hole and move it around in search of a compelling arrangement. It’s hard to find a good composition when you can’t focus on one area at a time; however with this tool available it becomes much easier because we can take away all of the unnecessary distracting parts.

A viewfinder works best when moving it across an area in search of an interesting composition

Giorgio Morandi was a masterful painter who used viewfinders to great effect. He made many measurements on his devices, especially when figuring out what he wanted for an upcoming work of art – this is because they allow you more freedom and ease in composition than traditional methods do!

It is far easier and faster finding great compositions using a viewfinder than not. You will avoid having to fix and rearrange your painting’s composition later on. Many great artists use viewfinders, Giorgio Morandi being one of them. As you can see, Morandi made a lot of measurement notations on his viewfinder when figuring out compositions.

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Giorgio Morandi’s Viewfinder

Incorporate variety into your composition

One of the keys to successful painting compositions is variety in the design. That means variety in the size, shape, values and colors of your painting

When you incorporate variety into your painting, it becomes more interesting to look at. It’s less likely to be boring, and more likely to hold the viewer’s attention.

So how do you go about incorporating variety into your painting? Here are a few tips:

Use different negative shapes

In the sketch below we see that the negative shapes on the top and bottom are relatively similar. If the plant were moved it would make a better composition as the variety in the negative space would add interest to the composition.

Notice the negative shapes on the left side of the drawing

Avoid lining things up in a straight line

There are times in the real world when we do see things lined up in a straight row like in the sketch below. However, when things are lined up in such a way for a painting looks forced and artificial.

Objects that are lined up in a row usually do not work well for a painting composition

Most would agree that the composition of the above sketch is boring. There isn’t anything dynamic about it because the objects are simply lined up in a straight line.

Below we see how breaking things up by placing objects in different areas of space makes the composition much more exciting to look at.

Overlapping the bowl and pitcher makes the composition look more natural

Don’t crowd objects on one side

In the sketch below the objects are all pushed to one side of the piece. Therefore, it feels scrunched up and leaves a boring negative space on the left side

Objects are too crowded to one side making the composition uninteresting

Spreading things out in the sketch below shows how much more interesting a composition becomes when you create more variety and break up the blank negative spaces a little bit.

Shifting items in your composition helps to create more variety

Crop your composition (to make it more interesting)

You do not want to have everything fitting neatly inside your composition. Rather, try to have some things extending beyond the edge of your painting – cropping them in the process. Doing this also creates for an interesting and compelling composition. Also, cropped elements lead the eye to go beyond the painting making the piece come to life more. Conversely, It also helps the eye to enter the painting as well.

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This Lennart Anderson is a wonderful example of how cropping can create interesting and very natural painting compositions

As a visual example of what I am talking about above is a painting by Lennart Anderson. You can see a lot of cropping happening. On the left is a bright red piece of fabric cropped at the edge – not to mention the whole side of the table and tablecloth are cropped as well. Also, the knife in the middle left at the bottom of the painting is just barely cropped, as well as the chair on the right.

3 Ways to use SPACE to create compelling compositions

When painting, you must always consider how the space in your painting will be used. Whether your painting is small, medium or large in size, you will need to decide where the focus of your painting will be.

Once you know your focal point – you will then use the other spaces in the painting to support that focus. The placement of the focal point in your painting and how large you decide to make it, will have a big impact on your composition. Therefore, it is important to be thoughtful with the decision.

Take a look at the painted sketches of a dog below. You will see how different uses of picture space, create very different impressions (even when the subject is identical).

Smaller Focal Point

Using the example of the dog above. If you wanted your painting to show a lonely isolated dog, you could make the subject relatively small. You can also do this if you want the surrounding area around the dog to have a similar level of importance.

Slightly Larger Subject Focus

The dog is larger and more dominant in the image above, but the size of the subject still allows space for the environment around it. So, bushes or grass can be part of the painting.

Close Up

A close up is great if you want to concentrate on the colors and textures of your subject – as most of the space on the painting surface is filled it. A composition such as this is excellent for doing close up studies of any kind of subject matter.

How to start your own painting composition

Plan out your composition

When planning out a painting composition it is good to start with a large sheet of paper and make your composition as you work. For example, take a sheet of paper (or canvas) and start at the center and work without borders. Once you feel that you have something that you like then figure out where to place your borders. This allows you the freedom to think and work without the limitation of a frame.

Prepare your painting composition by making a charcoal drawing before you start

It is easiest to work out your painting composition in this manner with charcoal and paper first before using paints. This way you can quickly change your composition around as you are figuring things out.

Decide what size you want your painting to be

Size is an important consideration when choosing your composition. It is best to decide the size after choosing a composition. You want your canvas to fit the composition you choose, instead of making your composition work for the size you have.

You always want to have a purpose for choosing a certain size. The size you choose for your painting will influence its feel to the viewer. If you are not sure what size to make your painting, it is a good idea to try to paint close to life size.

Make sure you are able to fit everything on your canvas (or paper)

It is a very unpleasant moment when you realize that your painting composition will not fit fully on your canvas after having already invested several hours into painting your piece! I can tell you that this has happened to me several times and it is not fun.

Sketch out your painting composition on your canvas. This will ensure that your composition fits!

To avoid this happening, it is important to sketch out your painting on your canvas once you have your composition figured out. Make sure that you are measuring accurately so that there will not be any surprises later on!

Keep your painting composition simple but interesting

Above all else make sure that you are keeping your painting composition simple. Make sure that everything works together and that it does not feel like there are many different unrelated parts to it. It is helpful to refer to good paintings you like to get ideas for your own work. By doing this you will learn how to keep things simple, while still being able to create compelling compositions in art.

Tools and additional painting composition resources

The Artist’s Viewcatcher

Although you can make your own viewfinder with a piece of cardboard I personally love the Artist’s Viewcatcher. It is hard plastic and will not bend or break when thrown into a bag (when on the go) for plein air painting.

Tips for how to make great compositions! Learn how to design a painting. 9 Steps to making a good composition. Painting composition. Painting composition rules. Rules for making compositions. How to improve composition. Painting for beginners. Drawing for beginners.Composition in painting. Painting lesson. Painting tutorial. #composition #compositionrules #paintingcomposition #compositioninpainting #beginningpainting #learntopaint #paintinglesson
The Artist’s Viewcatcher is an inexpensive and valuable tool that you can purchase on Amazon, here.

A Study Of Composition In Art

A great way to study composition in art, is from the great artists of the past! The Painter’s Secret Geometry is a great book, that takes an in-depth look at how the old masters created their compositions.


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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    14 thoughts on “Composition in Painting: How to Create Better Painting Compositions”

    1. Hi Elisabeth
      The lesson was great, thank you so much.
      Some paintings have elements from several real picture.for example I saw a painting of a ceremony but walls,gates,doors and constuction had selected from different cities.How can I set them?can I do it by softwares, then paint?

      1. Hi Reza, Glad that you enjoyed this lesson! If you want to make a set up to paint from in real life you could create a miniature set up of our composition – using small figures or objects that represent what you are painting. This is one of the best ways to construct a larger composition with multiple elements.

    2. Hi Elizabeth, I especially liked “start at the center and work without borders”. This will give me more freedom with my ideas. Thank you.

    3. Hi Elisabeth,
      The trick from the view catcher was very good.
      I gone get one, somewere, or make one myself.
      Thank you for that!

    4. Your lesson on Composition in Painting was very helpful. I can look back on several of my paintings and see that I have had good and bad composition and see why the painting came out pleasing or not. Thank you for your art tutorials.

    5. Warren Petherbridge

      This is a great reminder of what is needed to start a painting. I have now two good eyes (cataracts removed), I see things in a different light, evrything is much clearer.and colours are very bright it is like having a see througj blind being removed. I intend starting painting again and will revisit the course material again to see if I can improve on my colour mixing and interpretation of the resource material. I have been drawing with pencils in the meantime and surprised myself with some of them. Ihanks for the refresher.
      regards Warren

      1. I am so glad to hear that all is now well with both of your eyes. It is very interesting for me to hear how the difference has been for you now post surgery and having the cataracts removed. I can imagine that you are getting used to a very different way of seeing – and brighter colors! I am glad that you will start painting again and revisit the course material.

        Am so glad to hear that this article was a good refresher!

    6. Sandy J. Schmidt

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks for the reminder of composition rules for a better painting. We always need reminders!!!

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