painting tips for beginner artists

COMPOSITION - how to achieve balance and harmony in your painting


We have all looked at a painting we are working on and felt it was just off somehow. If you feel the painting is not right, the composition may be the issue.

Get the composition right and everything else should work.

Have you noticed people doing a head tilt when viewing paintings in a gallery, or maybe you have done this when viewing your own work? If you need to tilt your head when looking at a painting there is something 'off' about the composition. We do the head tilt because our brain is trying to make sense of what we are seeing.

If the painting doers not make sense there is a lack of harmony within the painting. It should work as a whole without any parts feeling that they don’t sit quiet right within the composition. The different elements of the painting must fit together without feeling awkward. It is that awkward feeling that necessitates the head tilt.

If you feel your composition is not right it can be reasonably easy to fix.Taking a photo and using a black and white filter can help to show up any imbalances in the composition. Objects need to be unevenly spaced and in odd numbers - if the painting is too balanced it will be boring, but too unbalanced it will be inharmonious. Putting all the noise on one side of the canvas with a large negative space on the opposite side will be jarring. If you are unsure, then put an imaginary line down the middle of the painting, if it is the same on both sides then it is not visually stimulating.

landscape oil painting canvas art

Winter Sky - the composition here is balanced and harmonious without being asymmetrical and jarring. 

Use the rule of thirds. Divide the canvas into nine segments, like the grid on your camera app, then check each third is unique. If any two segments of the work are the same, the painting will not be interesting enough, but too different and it will look unnatural, jarring.

Put the focal point where lines cross - a third of the way in and a third of the way from either the top or the bottom. Do not put the focal point in the centre of the painting - we have tunnel vision and the eye will be drawn to this and will not travel around the painting. Also avoid the focal point being too close to the edge of the canvas, the eye will leave the canvas too quickly, we want our viewer to linger over the painting which they will only do if the composition draws the eye around the canvas.

The focal point should be the subject of the painting - the child on the beach, or the cows in the meadow - and this is where you will use your brightest colours, the eye is drawn to contrast and variety. Think too of a second and even third focal point, placed in such a way it will draw the eye around the painting. The second or third focal point should not be as visually stimulating as the main focal point, but placed to add interest to the composition as a whole.

Use leading lines to point to the focal point, a line of trees or cloud formation. It is all about leading the eye to stimulate interest and draw the eye into the depth of the painting.

oil on canvas landscape painting art

Leading lines such as a path draw the eye into the depths of the painting.

Writers are told to put a finished work in a draw and forget about it for a year at least, then read it with fresh eyes. If we are patient we might like to do this with our paintings. If you are trying to sell your work, hang it in your home or studio where you will see it constantly. You will see any adjustments you need to make. Alternatively take a photo of the finished work, looking at a photo of your painting will show you any adjustments you need to make - it works better than looking at the painting itself.


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