Top 10 Painting Tips for Strong Compositions

Composing a painting using a viewfinder
Photo by Lisa Marder

Strong composition in a painting is a characteristic that is not measurable or quantifiable and is based on different elements and the relationships between them. However, following these painting tips will help you know what to look for and improve your compositions. If the composition in painting is done well you don't notice it initially; you know that the painting has something about it that is particularly appealing. But when a painting's composition is done badly (such as when the subject is floating in the middle of the canvas, or squeezed into a corner), the effect is very noticeable, and the painting feels awkward.
Initially, you may have to work at implementing these compositional painting tips deliberately, but with practice, they will become instinctive.

Are You Using a Viewfinder?

If painting from the real world—whether landscape, still life or portrait, or to create an abstract composition—use a viewfinder to isolate your subject and the key elements in a scene, check their placement, and determine the format. When painting landscape outside, move around. Don't be satisfied with the first pretty scene. The scene through your viewfinder can change dramatically when you move your position by just a couple feet. Try horizontal, vertical, and square formats. The same applies to other genres. Move the viewfinder around until you find the composition that feels right to you.

Where Is the Focal Point?

The focal point is the thing that is the main subject of the painting. The focal point should draw the viewer's eye to it. Place the focal point on one of the 'intersection spots' from the Rule of Thirds, then check the other elements in the painting, which should lead the eye towards this point. It doesn't have to be an overt 'path,' such as a road leading to a house; it can be more subtle, an implied line such as a color repeated in flowers. (Also, don't try to include too much in one painting.)

Are the Values Varied? Is There Contrast?

Do a thumbnail sketch of your painting's composition in just three values: white (light), black (dark), and grey (mid-tone). Now check how much of each value there is in the drawing. For a strong composition, you want them to be in quite different amounts, not similar. Try this rule to start: "two-thirds, one-third, and a little bit." For example, two-thirds dark in tone, one-third light in tone, and a small area or object that's mid-tone. Often the focal point is the area where there is the greatest contrast in value. 

You might also consider composing your painting using Notan, the Japanese term for the balance and harmony of light and dark within a composition. 

How Many Elements Are There?

Have an odd number of elements in the painting rather than even. 

How Are the Elements Spaced?

Finding neat and orderly arrangements of elements in nature is rare. Just think of the difference between a natural forest, where the trees grow any which way, and a plantation, where the trees are planted in evenly spaced rows. Varying the space between the elements in your composition, the angles at which they lie, and their sizes make a painting more interesting.

Are Any Elements Kissing?

Kissing, in this context, means just touching. Elements must either be apart or overlapping. No kissing please, as this creates a weak, connected shape which will distract the viewer's eye, causing a momentary pause as they puzzle it out.

Do Warm or Cool Colors Dominate?

It doesn't matter whether the overall feeling of the color in a painting is warm or cool, it just shouldn't try to be both.

Is There Unity?

Do the elements in the painting's composition feel they belong together or are they separate bits that happen to be in the same painting? Sometimes simplifying a painting and creating more negative space can help create unity. You can also help unify a painting coloristically by glazing over the whole painting with a single color; you can always touch up the highlights again if necessary.

Is There Variety?

A painting should have variety as well as unity. Change any of the elements of art to create variety within the composition — for example, a curved line to offset straight lines, a spot of red against a green background. Don't get stuck in a rut and use the same composition all the time, either, no matter how successful it is. Vary the size, vary where you put the horizon line, where you put the focal point, swap between portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) shaped canvases. You can even try shaped canvases.

Is the Underlying Composition Obvious?

The painting isn't finished yet if the first thoughts of someone seeing your painting are going to be analytical: "There's the focal point, with a spot of yellow to highlight it; that line there leads my eye in; that object was placed there for balance, etc." Run through a checklist for helping you determine whether your painting is finished, including whether your composition is strong and helps your painting convey the message you intended.