Painting tips for the self taught artist - How to make an interesting composition

Painting tips for the self taught artist - How to make an interesting composition

One measure of the quality of a painting is how long you can capture the viewer's attention - why - because no one ever brought a painting after a cursory glance.

Does your viewer linger over the work, allowing the eye to wander, or is a quick look and move on to the next piece? 

You aim is to keep the viewer's interest, drawing them in and preventing them from leaving the painting. Here are some simple ways to ensure the eye travels the entire painting.


Cut out the bland

Each section of the painting should be unique to add interest. Ensure nothing is bland by dividing the painting into 3rds - draw a line 3rd of the way from the top and a 3rd of the way from the bottom of the canvas, then a 3rd in from the right and a 3rd in from the left - like putting grid lines in your camera app on a smart phone.

If two of the 3rds are the same, then the composition may look too bland. For example if the top 3rd is all pale blue sky, that is unlikely to add to the interest of the piece. Adjust this by adding more cloud in one part, change the hue slightly or add a couple of birds in flight to one of the 3rds. 

Get the balance right

Each portion must be distinct - interesting, but never in perfect symmetry. For example do not have two trees on one side of the painting and two trees of a similar size and hue on the other. Maybe two small trees in the distance and a larger tree in the foreground would look better.

A Word of caution - be careful to not go too far and make the painting assymetrical - which will give it an off-balanced feel. Draw an imaginary line halfway down and across the painting - if you have too much noise on one side, contrasting with too much negative space on the other, the composition needs adjusting. Getting it right means getting the right balance - the painting should have an overall harmony without being bland.

It is also important to get the right amount of harmony and contrast with regards to how you paint. Try a mixture of tight and loose painting, and a mixture of sharp and loose edges. If all your edges are sharp the painting will be jarring so check your edges and loosen some.

Leave it out

Leave out some details - parts of the painting can be left suggesting or hinting at things without telling the viewer exactly what they are looking at. Allowing the viewer to use their imagination can make a very rewarding painting. For example, painting leaves on trees - especially those in the distance, can be just dabs of green - you don’t have to paint every individual leaf.

Guide the eye

Let the eye travel around the painting, then always coming back to the focal point, which should draw the eye without being jarring. Use leading lines to direct the eye to where you want it to go. In my landscapes I like to use a path - as in the image below - it leads the eye in to the work. A line of clouds or a wall in the distance could have the same effect. You are manipulating the eye to travel deeper into the painting.


oil painting landscape canvas art


Finally if you like aspects of the painting but the overall effect just doesn’t seem right - go bold. Use large brush strokes painting in different directions, or even better, use a palette knife which will  help with bold gestures. Palette knives are good for splashes of colour as well as too much brushing will tone down colour. Our eyes are drawn to colour, so a splash of vibrant hue in an otherwise earth coloured landscape will always add interest, as in the splash of sunlight coming through the blossom trees in the image below.

landscape semi abstract canvas oil painting art

Hopefully this article was useful. Please feel free to check out other blogs posts on the website for more painting tips.

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