LANDSCAPE COMPOSITION RULESWritten
by Johannes Vloothuis
I have put together a
series of “ rules” (I’d prefer the word, tips) of composition
that when used properly should reduce the flaws in your landscape
paintings. These are a compilation of what appears in most books
on composition plus some of my own ideas. A word of caution;
do not allow these to hinder your work. They are to help you
out when you are in doubt on where to place diverse elements
in your work. Rules are made to be broken, in which case you
should at least know what rule you are breaking and why and
not err due to insufficient knowledge. There are 23 pages so
get a cup of coffee and prepare yourself for a long haul.
Look at the picture to the left. A Landscape painting should contain
a center of interest, which is the most predominant and
beautiful area in a painting. The center of interest can
be further enhanced when it contains a focal point creating
a "bulls-eye" effect by adding a touch of purer
color, and/or value contrast. This area will become the
star in your play. The surrounding area should be subordinate.
A well developed center of interest contains:
The strongest color and if possible complementary
A strong shift in value contrast (Light-dark or vice
Preferably, not essentially, it should take up a good
portion of the picture plane and gradually become subdued
Man made structures, animals or human figures will
further enhance the center of interest. They take the
role of main actors.
The subordinate and surrounding elements should direct
or lead the viewer to that center of interest by means
of pointers and visual paths. See fig 1 &2.
It should not be placed in the center nor halfway
in the picture, preferably in any of the 1/3 portions.
This area should not be blocked, not even partially.
This will diminish its importance.
An effectively designed center of interest will grasp
and hold the viewer's attention.
Fig 2. The logs
correctly placed are great pointers that lead the viewer’s
eye to the area the artist prefers.
3. The shore serves as a visual path that leads to the
bridge which is the center of interest.
You may want to include a second center of interest. This will
add another chapter to your story. I don't condone this practice
though unless you are very skilled. There is a risk that they
will compete with each other.
Do not place one on
top of another. Only one should predominate in size. The best
way to place them will be across each other in a diagonal
format. In case this can’t be done then placing them horizontally
is the second option.
4. This painting didn’t need the flowers in the foreground.
However, the artist decided to add a second center of interest.
3. Avoid pushing the viewer out of the painting. This
can be avoided if the elements don't point towards the
edge or run out of the picture, such as tree trunks, roads,
and rivers. You can add "stops" to avoid the
viewer from exiting. A rule of thumb; animals and people
should be facing and looking inwards.
Fig 5. Observe
the horse on the right. The artist subdued the value.
Squint your eyes. See how it merges with the trees.
If this horse were lighter in value the viewer would
mount the horse and ride right out.
Fig. 5a. Observe the
first painting. See how the log is too straight and pointing
towards the edge. The one in the middle has been edited. Some
broken off branches were extended to slow down the speed as
well as a branch added at the end (a stop). (Last picture)A
better alternative might be to remove the log completely.
Now the viewer will follow the shore line.
Rivers, streams, roads, etc. should enter the picture with
an “S” movement. The second option, not as good, in a curve.
Straight lines should be avoided at all costs. The velocity
is too fast. Allow the viewer to take a slow visual “walk”.
6. This stream in this composition has a nice lazy “S”
7. The visual path is a curve. Compare the both pictures
and see which one takes you for a slower ride, more
Fig 8. Incorrect: The
road enters in a straight line. The visual path is too fast.
9. The image to the right shows a much better approach.
Logic doesn’t apply to art. What counts is the visual impact.
Sunlight on a field of grass may appear even if it is a
cloudy day. Linear and atmospheric perspective can be distorted
if the result is a better look. Cast shadows can be longer
than they would appear at a specific time of day. Feel free
to use your artist’s license.
Fig. 10 Observe
how the trees give the appearance that the wind is blowing
from right to left. However the direction of the rain
shows the opposite direction.
Group your subjects of importance within the center of interest.
Don’t scatter them around where they would compete for attention.
11 . All the people appear in the same radius within the center
of interest which is located at the bottom right.
Fig. 12. The horse is
wrongly placed. Had the artist positioned it near the bench,
the composition would’ve improved.
You may wish to allow the viewer to interact and become a
participant. Let him look for the pot of gold at the end of
the rainbow instead of you providing all the visual information.
Set your painting up for the viewer to wander around using
his own imagination.
13. What is around the bend? Will there be a lake? What
about a town? Here the artist left it to your imagination.
The path doesn’t go anywhere. You tell me.
Depth. An artist is limited to creating the illusion of three
dimensions on a flat two dimensional surface. We are to trick
the people who see our paintings to believe that what they
see looks real. Sometimes I have heard people ask me when
they see my paintings. “Is it a photograph?”. How far from
the truth they are! There is nothing real about my work, just
a representation of reality. Here are a few gimmicks that
will work to create the illusion of depth.
Place objects so they overlap.
Atmospheric perspective. Colors get cooler (bluer) and
lighter in value as they recede into the background. They
get warmer and the dark values become darker as they get
closer. Note. In nature this doesn’t always prove to
be right. When we look at a tree that is 100 yards away
it will still be dark and a warm green. The value shift
will be very subtle in comparison to a tree right next
to you. This slight difference wouldn’t even show in a
photo. If you paint it this way you won’t be creating
the illusion of depth. However, If you add more mauve
or blue to your greens as well as lighten them, this will
push them farther into the distance. The more you apply
this concept the further they will recede. Simulate it
is a humid day with a lot of moist in the air. This has
to be exaggerated to a point.
Elements are smaller and less defined in the distance
than in the foreground.
Create at least three planes. Each should have a predominant
value. Usually known as foreground, middle ground, and
Subtract texture from objects that are in the background.
See Fig 13 on the previous page. There is a good feeling
of distance. The pine trees are placed in front of the
mountain which in return is behind telling us they are
farther away. The intensity of the yellow that appears
on the highlights in the foreground is much warmer, whereas
in the background some mauve was added to cool them. The
shadows in the far mountain are lighter and bluer than
in the middle ground. There are three planes.
Fig. 14. You can add
more planes which will enhance the feeling of distance if
you darken the foreground.