Tips for Improving Composition

Top 10 painting tips for strong compositions

Strong composition in a painting is a characteristic that cannot be measured or quantified 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 in your compositions. If the composition in the painting is well made, you don’t just notice the painting has something that is particularly attractive. But when the composition of a painting is done wrong (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 paint feels uncomfortable.
Initially, you may need to work to implement these compositive painting tips deliberately, but with practice, they will become instinctive.

Color Saturation - The Ultimate Guide for Artists
Sargent

Where’s the focal point?

The focal point is what is the main theme of painting. The focal point should attract the viewer’s attention. Place the focal point at one of the ‘intersection points’ of the Ruler of The Thirds, then check the other elements in the paint, which should direct the eye toward this point. It doesn’t have to be an open ‘road’, like a road leading to a house; may be more subtle, a line implied as a color that is repeated in the flowers. (Also, don’t try to include too much in a painting).

Are the values varied? Is there any contrast?

Make a thumbnail sketch of your painting composition in just three values: white (light), black (dark), and gray (medium tone). Now check how much of each value is in the drawing. For a strong composition, it is necessary that they are in quite different amounts, not similar. Try this rule to start: “two-thirds, one-third and a little.” For example, two-thirds of dark tone, a third of light tone, and a small area or object that is medium-pitched. Often, the focal point is the area where the highest value contrast exists.

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

Anders Zorn Nude Under A Fir 1892
Anders Zorn Nude Under A Fir 1892

How many items are there?

It is better to have an odd number of elements in the painting instead of even.

How are the elements spaced?

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

Edgar-Alwin-Payne-Eucalyptus
Edgar-Alwin-Payne-Eucalyptus

Is there an element kissing?

Kissing, in this context, means just touching. Elements must be separated or overlapping. Do not kiss, please, as this creates a weak and connected shape that will distract the viewer’s view, causing a momentary pause while deciphering it.

Do warm or cold colors dominate?

No matter if the overall color feeling in a painting is warm or cold, you just shouldn’t try to be both.

Color Saturation - The Ultimate Guide for Artists
Sargent

Is there a unit?

Do the elements in the composition of the painting feel that they belong together or are they separate parts that are in the same painting? Sometimes simplifying a painting and creating more negative space can help create the unit. It can also help unify a painting coloristically by putting a candle on the entire paint with a single color; you can always tweak the highlighted items again if necessary.

Is there variety?

A painting must have variety and unity. Change any of the elements of art to create variety within the composition, for example, a curved line to compensate for straight lines, a red spot against a green background. Don’t get caught up in a routine using the same composition all the time. Varies the size, varies where to place the horizon line, where to place the focal point, switches between canvases vertically (horizontal) and horizontal (horizontal). You can even try shaped canvases.

Konstantin-Korovin-Harbor-In-Norway-
Konstantin Korovin Harbor In Norway

Is the underlying composition obvious?

The composition has to be subtle and flow. If someone who sees your work, for the first time, is thinking “There’s the focal point, with a yellow spot to highlight it; that line carries my eye there; that object was placed there for balance, etc.” then your composition is not subtle is too obvious. Review the composition again and add or remove elements that suggest a path. A composition is not a map of the zoo where the first stop is the elephants, then the monkeys and at 11h the dolphin show.

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Do you really want to improve your drawings?

Most people who ask me say yes, if they want to improve their drawings. And when I ask them what they do for better, they tell me “I draw a lot, I copy things from instagram or pinterest”.

I’m sure you’ve done something like this. However, let me ask you, after so many hours of drawing, after so many copies, has the effort really paid off?

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Stop wasting time copying other people’s mistakes, because that’s what you do when you pull down any pinterest or instagram drawing and copy it. Because, not only, you’re copying the drawing, but you’re also copying its owner’s mistakes. 

And when I say copying, I mean learning, internalizing and making those mistakes yours, with everything that entails. It’s hard to get rid of bad habits, a lot. I see that at the Atelier every day. 

Believe me, there are tons of bad drawings on the net with problems and mistakes of all kinds. If you want to learn and improve, copy worthwhile drawings that you can get an apprenticeship from. 

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How can you improve your drawings?

You don’t have to invent the wheel, everything is simpler, Copy what already works.

One of the most effective practice modes to improve your drawing is to copy masterpieces. That is, copy a reproduction of a work by a great master. And in case you need to refresh your memory you can see a list of the great masters here.

If you prefer, there are also a lot of really good contemporary artists who make amazing drawings. You can see a list Here. 

Anatomy drawings to copy here

And speaking of anatomy, it’s hard to imagine a better way to start than by copying drawings from the Repin Academy in St. Petersburg.

These drawings are authentic expert eye jewelry. Enjoy them and savor them patiently and with care because there is much to learn from these little wonders.

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