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Artist Community
Written by Shadi Ejtemaee

In my opinion, composition is one of the most important and often overlooked elements in a painting. It can mean the difference between a strong alluring piece or a weak, confusing, or even tasteless piece. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but one should generally know the basics before attempting to break them.

What is composition?
Composition can be defined as the arranging of elements in relation to each other and to the whole to communicate an idea or feeling effectively to the viewer.

Basics of composition

This is the space within the borders of where your elements will lie. It is often intimidating to stare at a blank canvas and think about how you will lay down your composition. A good way of getting started with your composition is to paint the entire canvas with a solid or light wash colour that you like. It's ok if you have to paint this over as you progress further in your work, it's just a little trick to get you started.

Depth is optional depending on the style of painting. When depth is created, it gives the art a sense of three dimensional space. Depth can be useful in bringing out the focal point by making subjects in the foreground larger and more detailed.

Lines can be used to create movement, integration and texture. Line can be used strategically to move the viewers' eye to the focal point.

Value refers to lightness and darkness. In a painting, it can be used to create a mood or place emphasis on more important subjects. As a general rule, people tend to look at the lighter areas in a painting first.

Elements and subjects should be used in a unified manner with no subject being left unaccounted for. In other words, all elements and subjects should fit together in harmony instead of fighting each other for the viewers' attention.

Try thinking of elements like this:

1. Primary Element or Focal Point
This is where you want the viewers spending a majority of their time. Use the other elements in your painting to keep leading the viewer's eye back to this point. It is usually good to use only one main point of interest.

2. Secondary Elements
These are elements that are less important than Primary elements, but ones that hold importance in creating harmony and balance, and can also be used to lead the viewers eye to the Primary Element.

3. Tertiary Elements
These are the least important of the elements, however, they are important in unifying the painting as a whole and really bringing everything together. Tertiary elements might be the background, clouds, sky etc.

Two basic ways of balancing a painting are, symmetrical and asymmetrical. While symmetrically balanced paintings can create a calming and visually stable effect, asymmetrical paintings can create a more dynamic, interesting and sometimes more pleasing visual.

"The Golden Section" or "Rule of Thirds"
You may have heard of the golden section, very popular in photography. It's a mathematical construction used extensively by architects, photographers, musicians, and artists over many centuries. This is how it works: envision two horizontal, and two vertical lines dividing your painting into thirds. The place where the lines meet is where you should place your most important elements.

Although it's possible to create an interesting painting by placing your focal point dead centre, it is generally found to be weak and uninteresting. Using the rule of thirds can help you create a more balanced and visually intriguing piece with added character, movement, and flow.

When it comes to composition, I believe a common mistake that artists make is not setting a focal point. This usually results in confusion for the viewer as they have nowhere to focus which in turn results in the viewer losing interest.

Each artist will view any given subject in a different manner which means they will commonly have a different focal point. It is important to know how to effectively communicate your focal point to the viewer. Your focal point should be the strongest element in your painting. It should draw the viewers' eye repeatedly but allow the rest of the piece to be seen as well.

Of course every artist is different in the way they create. These are very basic guidelines that I have found helpful in my own paintings. I share them with you in hopes that they will also be helpful to you.


Strings 2004