Basics of Art Composition
Composition is as important as the colors that you choose to set the mood and define the story that you’re telling through your painting. When things are not placed, spaced or sized properly it makes it difficult to look at a painting and find the balance and the beauty in it (unless it is an abstract piece, but even they have parameters for what is appealing to the human eye).
Basics of Art Composition
Rule of Thirds
The easiest place to start is with the Rule of Thirds. When you look at your canvas imagine it divided vertically and horizontally into thirds, it’ll look like a tic-tac- toe board. You can also take a pencil and lightly draw the grid if that makes you more comfortable, then you can either paint over it or erase the lines once you’ve composed your piece.
The points where the grid lines intersect are the places that the human eye is naturally drawn to. These are the places that you will want to use for the focal points of your painting.
Once you’ve determined the theme, subject(s) and/or object(s) for your masterpiece you can begin to visualize how you should lay them all out to make the most visually stimulating composition.
There are always exceptions to rules and creating a work of art really is all about expressing yourself and having fun, but once you learn the basics it will be easier to create the kind of art that will hang on a wall for many years to come.
In the examples below you will see how photographers and painters use the Rule of Thirds to create visually appealing art.
Basics Lesson Two
Rule of Odds
One of the first things that you’ll need to decide is how many items or subjects you want to have in your painting.
There’s an easy little trick to creating a more powerful piece of art. It’s called The Rule of Odds. If you have an odd number of objects, three, five, seven, etc… rather than an even number, two, four or six, it tricks the eyes and the brain so that they don’t naturally pair things up or group them together. When there’s one odd object left out it keeps the eyes moving across your composition allowing them to view your entire work of art and not miss out on any of it.
When you use an even number of elements the viewers eyes instinctively pair them up or group them together. It’s not known exactly why we naturally pair or group even numbers of objects, but it is thought to be related to the fact that our bodies are designed in pairs: two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, etc….
Basics Lesson Three
Placement of Objects, Figures & Elements
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to paint the next step is figuring out how you’re going to compose, or layout your piece.
There are several “rules” that offer design principals and mathematical formulas (The Golden Ratio) that have been used successfully for centuries that you can apply in order to create the most visually attractive art. But I think that the most important thing to remember is to use your imagination, pay attention to how you feel when you look at your creation and above all else, HAVE FUN!
There are a few easy ways that you can place the objects, figures and various elements without having to commit paint to your canvas.
One method is by sketching it out on a piece of paper. I recommend using paper that’s the same size as your canvas so that your scale and proportions are correct. Be sure that you have a good eraser handy so that when you see something that looks or feels out of place you can erase it and sketch it in a different location without leaving smear marks. Some people choose to sketch it lightly directly on their canvas, but I prefer to wait to do that until I’ve got it laid out and am happy with my composition.
My favorite way to layout a painting is to play with the elements by using cutout shapes. You can make them out of paper or cardboard then try them out in various locations on your canvas. This is also a great way to see if the sizes of your elements are proportional for your masterpiece. It’s certainly a lot easier and faster than painting something in and then having to scrub it out again if it’s not where you want it to be.
Basics Lesson Four
To Paint the Background First or Not?
There are no technical rules for this subject. This is more about what the artist prefers. In doing some research I have noticed that the preference of many artists is to work on the background first.
Some artists will only paint their backgrounds first and then add in their subjects, while others sketch the subject first and then work around it. There are also those that take the overall approach and do both at the same time. Which technique will work best for you is really up to you.
I have always painted the background first. That was how I was taught and it quickly became my preference. I would wet my canvas all over and then sketch my subject in, then go back to working on the background until I was happy with it. Once I had that down it was easy to finish my subjects and then go back and put shadows where they needed to be based on the placement of the subjects. This takes a bit of time as you have to wait for the paints to dry before you can move on to the next stage.
This tulip painting is the exception; I sketched and started to paint my subjects first, then laid in some of the background, but worked mostly on the details of the flowers. Now I am faced with the challenge of how to get the background to the edges of the tulips without getting any paint on my subjects.
I’ve been advised that the best approach would be to mask off the flowers using painters tape, so as not to pull off any of the tulips paint and then finish the background, which eventually will have depth and texture to it along with a poem that I have written which I will etch into the paint. I’m going to give it a try and I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes.
I’m glad that I have played with this approach, now I know that this is not how I’m most comfortable. Nest time around I’m going back to painting my background first. For me it feels like the logical progression.
As you can see it really is up to you to determine how you’re most comfortable and which technique works best for you. Most importantly remember that creating art is meant to be fun.
Basics Lesson Five
Determining the Light Source
Deciding where to have the light come from in your painting is really up to you the artist. There are a few exceptions, such as if your painting has a sun, moon or other glowing object in the background, then that would dictate where you place the light source.
This is a really good place to use artistic license. Artistic license means that you can have the light coming from whichever direction you want. You simply decide where you want it, then paint in the colors at their most saturated, closest to the light and weaken them the furthest from the light, gradually tinting, toning or shading along the way.
One mistake that new artists often make when trying to figure out how to paint light is to use random brushstrokes in the area of the light source to denote the direction of light, this won’t give you the effect that you’re looking for. You want to use your brushstrokes purposefully to give the light a sense of direction, a path to show where it is flowing from.
Your brushstrokes should not line up in a perfect row, they should have a sense of movement and fluidity to them. This is easy to achieve by jogging a little to the left or right with each new stroke. Imagine each stroke playfully dancing across your canvas rather than stoically marching like soldiers.
Light is movement, it changes all throughout the day and is affected by many things. Remember to keep true to this and you will be on your way to painting like one of the masters!