Good composition helps you create artworks that draw people in, keep their focus, and better express your message.
In this article, we go over what composition in art is, why it’s important, and how you can improve your composition.
After spending the week researching composition, I’ve put together a useful guide to help you with your composition.
What is composition in art?
Composition is how you arrange different elements of your art (like line, shape, color, texture, etc). How you use different elements affects what you are trying to communicate and how it makes the viewer react. Good composition helps you create more interesting artworks especially when you’re starting out.
Why composition matters
Good composition can make your art more interesting and visually pleasing. But, if you compose your art poorly, the viewer might find it hard to focus on your art or appreciate its beauty. The composition of your art can make your art more coherent. It can strengthen your message instead of distracting the viewer from the art.
Here are some tactics and strategies that you can use to improve your composition. These aren’t strict rules but rather general guidelines that can help.
8 Principles of art and design
You can improve your composition by utilizing the 8 principles of art and design:
Unity is the sense of coherence of your art, and the feeling of completeness or wholeness. If your artwork has unity, you will feel that it is a completed work. Try to identify if your artwork is missing certain elements or feelings. Make adjustments accordingly.
Harmony relates to unity and people often mix these together. Harmony is how well each individual part of your art works with each other. You can ask yourself: do your colors fit the theme of your art? Does your brushwork work well with the subject you’re trying to represent? Artworks with good harmony do not have parts that stick out like a sore thumb.
In Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, you can see how well each element works with each other. The low saturation colors he chose are harmonious with the grainy texture of the painting.
You would want to make sure your art is proportional in most situations. When drawing a face, make sure your eyes, nose, and mouth are where they should be. Check the size of everything in your painting to see if they are proportional to each other. You might also find it hard to make things proportional if you don’t have a good understanding of perspective.
In Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café, you can see that things are proportional even when the style is not realistic. You can also purposely distort proportion to fit your message.
Variety makes your art more interesting. For example, in Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris street; Rainy Day, the people holding umbrellas all have different gestures and shapes. They are all wearing similar clothes and holding similar umbrellas. But, they look interesting because there are variations in gestures and shapes. Too much repetition can lead to boredom. You can vary shapes, colors, line thickness, size, textures, and other elements in your artwork.
You can emphasize an area of focus in your art to draw the viewer’s eyes to that area. Usually, the viewer looks at that area first. In Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, the captain (dressed in black and a red sash) and his lieutenant (yellow with a white sash) are the main emphases of the artwork. Paintings without an area of emphasis can cause the viewer’s eyes to wander and not know where to settle on. You can jump to this section on focal points.
Movement can make your art looks more alive and dynamic. You can lead your viewer’s eyes through movement. In Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Napoleon and the horse give you a very dynamic feel. The diagonal landscape also adds to the feeling of movement.
Use diagonal lines if you want your work to have movement and to seem dynamic. If you are drawing a more static, stable subject, then use more horizontal and vertical lines (for example, buildings).
Balance refers to how weight distributes throughout your drawing. Your drawing might feel unbalanced if you only focus on one side of the canvas. In my sketch of a beetle on a tree branch, I tried to give the drawing a more balanced feel by adding flowers to the other side of the branch.
This doesn’t mean that you need to have equally big objects on both sides of your canvas. But, you can try adding some counterweight on the other side to make your drawing seem more balanced.
You can repeat patterns of elements like shapes, lines, and colors to create rhythm. Rhythm suggests movement, creates tempo and path for the viewer’s eyes to go to. In Jacob Lawrence’s Parade, the repeated patterns of the marchers create the rhythm.
You can make irregular rhythms where the repeated patterns vary. This makes the artwork seem more natural. But, you can also use regular rhythms where the patterns are similar to each other. This makes your work seem more intentional and structured.
Aside from the 8 principles of design, you can use concepts like simplification to change the composition of your art. Simplifying your artwork can make it more unified and harmonious. It can also give your art a different feeling.
In George Wesley Bellows’s Stag at Sharkey’s, the fighters are simplified. Not every detail of the human body, like the face, was included. Yet, the painting comes together quite nicely.
You can limit your color palette by only sticking to a few main colors. Or you can compress your range of value by sticking to light, medium, and dark but not much value in between. You can also limit your tools. For example, pick only 3 paintbrushes that you want to use. Lastly, you can minimize details in less important areas. All of these techniques help with simplification.
Create focal points
Your art should have at least one focal point. This can help the viewer focus on the most important subject you are trying to portray. Without a focal point, the viewer’s eyes might wander aimlessly and don’t know where to look.
You can create focal points by using contrast, isolation, location, size, convergence, unusual, details, and line weight.
Contrast – contrasting colors and values can make something stand out. For example, a man with a pink shirt on a sunny beach.
Isolation – you can isolate an object from the group to make it stand out.
Size – Bigger objects tend to draw more attention than smaller ones.
Location – Some objects draw more attention by being in certain locations. For example, the eyes of a person draw more attention than the ears.
Convergence – lines that lead to a single object can also put the focus on that object.
Unusual – making the object different from the crowd would draw attention to it.
Details – adding more details usually draw the viewer to look closer in that area.
Line weight – heavier, thicker lines surrounding the area of focus would draw in the viewer.
One thing to be careful of is to not have too many focal points. Having too many focal points would divert the focus from the main one. It would cause the eyes to bounce around as if there were no focal points. Try to stick to one or two focal points for most cases.
Use leading lines
Leading lines guide the path and direction of your viewer’s eyes. Try to avoid lines that lead the viewer outside of the canvas. Leading lines can help you guide the viewer to main areas of focus. They also keep the viewer’s eyes from lingering away from your artwork.
In the sketch above, the left one has lines leading into the drawing that retains interest. The other one leads the viewer’s eyes off of the drawing.
Different ways to use negative space
There are 3 main ways to use negative space in your art that give different feelings:
Mostly positive space
One way you can compose your artwork is by using mainly positive space. This is great for putting a close focus on the subject that you are drawing. You can see this mostly in portraits and detailed close-up drawings.
Balanced positive space and negative space
You can also use a balanced look that distributes negative and positive space more evenly.
Mostly negative space
Finally, you can use mostly negative space to frame your art. This is used a lot in landscape paintings and environment design. You can use this type of framing if you want viewers to move around your artwork more.
There isn’t one best way to use negative space. It depends on how you apply it to your art and what you want to convey. Pick the one you like best.
Rule of thirds and the Golden Ratio
The rule of thirds can make your composition look more interesting. If you grid your canvas up to 9 equal squares, you get the rule of thirds grid that can help you compose better art.
Try placing the horizon line on the top horizontal line or the bottom horizontal line to see which one works better. You can also place important objects and focal points on the intersections. Your eyes are naturally drawn to those areas. This makes your artwork look more interesting.
The golden ratio is quite similar to the rule of thirds. Here is our in-depth article on the golden ratio in art and the rule of thirds.
Rule of odds
In most cases, odd numbers look more pleasing to the eye. This also makes it easier for one object to be more dominant. Having even numbers might make it hard for the viewer to decide which object to focus on. Even the famous chef Gordon Ramsey sticks to placing odd numbers of food (like scallops) on his plate!
But, you can still use even numbers if you are trying to go for a more balanced, structural look.
Usually, a good way to plan your composition is to create little thumbnails of what your art would look like. Try different orientations like portrait, landscape, or square. You can also play with where you place your objects or what objects to include in your work. This process allows you to try out different compositions and pick the best one.
Break the rules
In art, there are no hard rules that you must stick to. Jackson Pollock, a famous American painter known for his abstract expressionist art, did not follow rules like proportion, emphasis, or balance. According to the New York Times, his artwork No. 5 was sold for more than 140 million in 2006.
Another example of rule-breaking comes from Frank Stella. His work breaks the traditional confines of a canvas as you can see in Shoubeegi. He does not follow traditional rules that guide composition in art but still makes great artworks.
What to do next
Now that you know how to improve your composition in art, try it out and let us know how it went! Be sure to check out our article on beginner art techniques.