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Seven Tips To Improve Your Composition

Updated: May 14, 2023

One of the most common questions you are likely to ask yourself is, what shall I #paint? You rummage around for #inspiration, flicking through magazines and books, maybe settling on a calendar image or similar around half an hour later. It’s not the best but after thirty minutes of looking you just want to get on with the #painting so the picture will just have to do. At this point your inspiration level is low and you don’t feel over enthused to do your best, but your time window for painting is running out so you decide to just get on with it. The end results are disappointing and you feel sluffed that it didn’t work out this time. Sound familiar? Read on to find seven tips for seeking out and using your very own compositions that will inspire you to paint more and create exciting paintings.

1 Seek Out Your Own Compositions.

#Composition is the starting point of painting and if you want to be unique or involve your own choices through the entire painting process then it’s a good idea to find your own subject matter, whether that be still life, landscape, cityscape or whatever. Finding subjects that inspire you to #paint are more likely to bring out the best in you than using reference from elsewhere. (How to form a painting style so you can stand out from the crowd). It is also an enjoyable process and one that constantly develops the more you do. I've written this piece about landscape painting, but you can apply the tips to other subjects too. Finding #compositions can seem like hard work, especially in a #landscape or #city where there is so much going on in front of you, but by considering the elements of design outlined in this article, it is fairly easy to do. So just how do you pull a #painting out of nowhere?

Finding subjects that inspire you to paint are more likely to bring out the best in you than using reference from elsewhere.

First decide what #inspires you. What are you wanting to say through your #art? If you’re painting full landscapes but you really like #hedgerows, then shift your focus to hedgerows. If you enjoy painting #people then get down to the park, the beach or into town. If you’re not sure what your thing is, take a look through your folio of work and #sketchbooks to see if there is a common theme. Usually, we return time and again to the subjects that drive us. When you know the subject that interests you, it’s time to explore the principles of #design and arrangement.

2 Find A Focus

Paintings need a #focus – an area that holds the attention of the viewer. There are so many options for a focus and it often depends on the rest of the #scene as to how the focus might work. But, it could be anything from figures in a cityscape, #animals in a landscape, berries in a hedgerow, a particular #building, some trees, a patch of #light, a gate, the list is endless. The focus needs to be interesting and engaging enough to entice the #viewer to look, but there are many other elements to the composition too that guide the viewer and support the focus, so whilst you might see something of interest, it has to have support to make it work. When you go to explore your #subject, consider all the compositional points and if they are all present, you have a design. If one or more are missing, you will need to make some alterations via #studio #sketches before you begin the painting.

Landscape with drystone wall and lane

Back home before sun down, watercolour 56 x 38cm

The focus doesn't have to be a single item, it can be a collective of shapes. Here the light on the track, the trees and posts all formulate a focus. Notice how the wall lines, grasses and field lines all guide the eye towards that area of interest.

3 Divide Into Shapes

When you have found a focus, consider how it is going to relate to the rest of the painting in terms of #shape. Compositions work best when they comprise a few simple shapes, generally a large shape, then medium shapes then small shapes. It’s all about #contrast, therefore placing small shapes against large #shapes will put the focus onto the smaller ones. Examples might be some cattle against a big backdrop of #trees, a couple of climbers against a mountain, or even segments of light sliced up by cast shadows on a road. Finding large shapes can be tricky at times, so try zooming in with a #camera to try out different arrangements. Cameras are very versatile tools for on site composition work. You might want to learn more about composition, design and shapes through my tutorial videos.

painting of cows grazing by trees

Autumn Grazing, Acrylic on paper 24 x 18cm

The two connected cows and the light end of the building form the focus of this piece. The simplicity of the subject by way of the large background trees puts greater emphasis on the smaller shapes of the animals.

4 Use The Grid

You’ve more than likely seen the compositional grid which is the division of a space into three equal sections. If not, here it is:

The grid or golden rectangle is a way of helping you offset elements in a painting. It is generally considered best not to divide spaces in half but into thirds as this creates contrasting #proportions which we find visually more intriguing, for example, two thirds foreground space to one third background. Maybe you place your focus one third in and one third up the #picture space. I use the grid all the time, but never let it rule my decision making. Shapes and #spaces have to balance too, so on occasion there may be some element or other that ends up one fifth into the picture space instead. It's there as a guide not a rigid #framework.

The most important element of this is the border as it isolates a section of whatever you are looking at and that narrows down your field.

It generally works best if you place your focus somewhere around one of the third sections, but it doesn’t have to be directly on the third, just make sure it is off #centre and is #harmonious with the other elements of design like the balance of shapes and values. You can use a grid in a couple of ways, either with a #picture finder or with a #camera. It’s easy to make a picture finder using a cut out window of card. To divide the picture space into three sections each way, tape pieces of cotton across or mark up a piece of acetate into threes using an #ink pen and stick it to the window. However you go about it, you should have a window that is divided into sections, so that you can look through it and select subjects. The most important element of this is the #border as it isolates a section of whatever you are looking at and that narrows down your field to help locate #designs.

The border needs to match your painting for #proportion and this is where I’ve seen a number of students slip up. Using a window proportion of 3:2 to create a painting of proportion 1:1 just wont work. Familiarise yourself with proportions so that you can select and use corresponding ones. You’ll find some common proportions on a camera and this is also where you will find a #compositional grid. Most phone cameras have the grid option in settings, which superimposes the compositional grid over the view in your screen. It’s massively helpful to have this and you can easily switch proportions too. Similarly, most modern #digital cameras have the grid overlay option to allow for arranging composition.

Picture of a camera screen with overlay grid

The most common proportions are:

1:1 square

A square painting will need a #square picture finder. Ideal for simple designs and patterns.

3:2 landscape proportion

A natural, well proportioned #landscape proportion. A piece of half imperial #watercolour paper 56 x 38cm is about 3:2 proportion. When turned on its side to portrait format, the proportion feels too long. #Portrait formats look better at 4:3.

4:3 landscape

A nice landscape #proportion that has more height than its 3:2 cousin. Turned on its side to portrait format, the proportion also feels #balanced. A quarter piece of watercolour paper 38 x 28cm is about 4:3 proportion.

5 Use Leads

Once you have a focus set against some interesting shapes, it’s time to look at how you can point the viewer towards it. See this as a #guide, like a hotel concierge showing you to your room. The guide is part of the painting but is only acting in support. The main attraction is the focus. The lead can be subtle or it can be strong. I use #walls, #roads, #tracks, #fence lines, even shadow #edges to point the eye towards the focus, but you might have other subjects that require a different lead, for example if you paint big #skies, consider using #cloud shapes, light breaks or stormy weather to push the eye down to the land or wherever your focus is. The #lead is best seen on site so that you can move around and find the optimum balance. Using a camera screen condenses the image and frames the scene, which helps you see the design objectively without the interference of #detail.

painting of shadows cast across a snow covered road

Afternoon Shadows Rake Across The Snow, watercolour 56 x 38cm

Depth is achieved here by the diminishing perspective that ends at the building, but in terms of design there is much more going on. The huge shape of the foreground puts greater emphasis on the smaller, distant shapes. The focus of the piece is placed on the building, the warmth in the adjacent tree, and the cool shadow at the end of the road. The eye constantly returns to that point via the leading lines.

6 Consider The Values

For a painting full of depth, try to include a full range of values. For a painting full of light, offset the value balance, for example use a small amount of light against a larger amount of #shade or visa versa. Ideally you want to aim for contrasting #values around your focus area as that will draw attention from the #viewer. There is no one answer to this, other than try not to have all #light or all #dark value, and don’t have one half light and the other half dark. The values need to connect the spaces from one side of your painting to the other and cast shadows are great at doing that. Every scene is different with different shapes and value balances, so seeking out your own subjects becomes exciting as you find one composition, then another, then another. Sometimes there are elements present in a scene and sometimes there are pieces missing. If the subject looks promising but not quite there, you might need to do a bit of altering.

Dark drystone wall with houses and an old chapel in the distance

The Old Chapel, watercolour 56 x 38cm

This was a commission painting for the chapel a number of years ago when I was in a phase of using lots of dark values set against smaller amounts of lighter value. Notice how the darks link across the painting and also from bottom to top. To maintain the feel of light, segments of bright values punctuate the darks. We are guided to the chapel not just through the wall lines and shadow lines, but we are invited out of the dark and into the light.

Every scene is different with different shapes and value balances, so seeking out your own subjects becomes exciting as you find one composition, then another, then another.

7 Omit Or Add

Subjects don't often present themselves as a perfect compositions. In fact, more often than not, #references need altering to conform to a better #arrangement. The less alterations you make the better as it can sometimes get very complex, for example if you are inventing #light or moving an entire #building. Often it might be something as simple as altering the direction of a #shadow or omitting a telegraph pole. You might have all the elements of a composition without a strong focus, so the inclusion of a few #animals or #people might be all that is required. If you are adding something new like this to the painting, use references to make them realistic. I’d always recommend making a final reference before you begin painting, whether that’s a sketch or an altered #photograph. Sometimes I draw into my photographs on the computer with a stylus pen. That way I have a clear #impression of how the composition will look before I paint.

On site value sketch focussing on shapes. The purpose was to calculate how the figures would interact with the shaded walls of the ruin.

When you’re next looking for your own painting #subjects, use these seven points to ensure you are achieving the strongest #design possible. Sometimes you might notice the focus first, other times it might be a big shape and a lead, then you look for a feature to use as a #focus. Re frame your view of your subject and see it as a collection of these design elements. Often, there will be a subject that just refuses to work harmoniously no matter how hard you try. You just have to learn to let go and move on to the next arrangement because that one is waiting just around the corner.

Paul Talbot-Greaves RI, Artist, Author, Tutor

Paul Talbot-Greaves is a member of the Royal Institute Of Painters In Watercolours, and has been painting and writing for 30 years. He writes many articles for The Artist magazine (UK), has four practical art books published and has contributed to various others. He is represented by numerous galleries based around the North of England. He can be found on Instagram and Facebook where he regularly posts up to date pieces and inspirational stories.


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Mattias Gustafsson
Mattias Gustafsson
May 01, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thankyou Paul! I'm learning so much by reading your posts. I try my best to get it right strengthened by your advice. Looking forward to the next post.

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