Composition in Art - How to Create Thoughtful Compositions in Paintings
One of the ways to create a visually interesting painting is by designing a thoughtful composition.
While there is no exact formula that determines or guarantees a pleasing composition, there are certain principles that can help guide an artist, such as the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, and understanding what our eyes choose to focus on.
The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds divides a composition into thirds both vertically and horizontally and suggests that the artist put their focal point on one of those lines or around one of the four intersecting points. This is based on the belief that an image is more interesting when the focus is off-center (source).
Here we can see the Rule of Thirds applied to Dozing Lynx, a painting by renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman:
The lynx’s head is just to the left of the lower left intersection. To me, the composition does not seem out of balance even though it does not perfectly align with the Rule of Thirds. Bateman could have moved the lynx to the right but I’m guessing he made a conscious or unconscious decision not to. When you look at his other wildlife paintings, you can see that he often emphasizes the landscape and environment around the animal. Perhaps he does this because he is an ardent conservationist in addition to being an artist.
Below is one of my paintings, Fresh Powder, and as you can see the fox’s eye (the main focal point) is close to but not quite on one of the intersections.
Here is the original image on the left versus the modified image on the right, which has the eye falling exactly on the upper right intersection. Please ignore the bad Photoshop!
Which version do you think is more pleasing? I like the position of the fox in both, however, the background snow seems more prominent than the foreground snow in the modified version, which to me feels slightly less balanced. Perhaps, balance could be restored if I adjusted the height of the foreground snow.
Below is a Rule of Thirds chart that provides one-third and two-thirds measurements from 1 inch up to 88 inches that you are welcome to use for reference in your paintings (click on the chart to expand it):
The Golden Ratio
Sometimes called the Golden Mean or Divine Proportion, the Golden Ratio is a proportion frequently found in nature:
The Nautilus shell is a logarithmic spiral that expands at a ratio similar to the Golden Ratio (image source).
This delightful painting by Nathalie Daigle is appropriately named Spiral. One can see a logarithmic spiral in the curled-up elephant trunk.
In mathematical terms, the Golden Ratio looks like this:
B x 1.62 = A
A x 1.62 = A + B
A x 0.62 = B
(A + B) x 0.62 = A
The larger portion equals the smaller portion multiplied by 1.62. The smaller portion equals 0.62 of the larger portion.
For our purposes, the Golden Ratio can divide a composition into visually appealing sections similar to the Rule of Thirds. If you’re working on a canvas that measures 20 x 20 inches, for example, you might divide the painting up into sections that measure 12.4 inches (0.62 x 20) and 7.6 inches (the remainder, or 0.38 x 20).
This is another one of my paintings called The Philosopher. The owl’s eyes are just above and slightly right of two potential focal points.
Below is the original painting compared with a modified version where I moved the owl down and to the left in order to align the eyes perfectly with the golden ratio. Which one do you think is more pleasing? Personally, I feel like the increased negative space and seemingly shorter stature in the right image takes away from the regal quality I was trying to give the owl.
Below is a Golden Ratio chart that provides the 0.62 and 0.38 measurements from 1 inch up to 88 inches that you are welcome to use for reference in your paintings (click on the chart to expand it):
Composition Sweet Spots
When you combine the Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratio and apply it to a composition, you get “sweet spots,” or approximate favorable areas to place the focus of your painting in order for it to feel balanced:
The chart above is for a painting with a 1:1 aspect ratio where the length is the same measurement as the width. You can download a PDF containing charts for paintings with a 2:3, 3:4, 4:5, 5:6, and 9:16 aspect ratio here (also includes the 1:1 chart).
The outer circles represent the two-thirds measurement of the Rule of Thirds and 0.62 proportion of the Golden Ratio while the inner circles represent the one-third measurement and 0.38 proportion, respectively. While creating these charts I found it interesting that regardless of the aspect ratio, the smaller Rule of Thirds circle always runs through the Golden Ratio points of intersection.
In my personal opinion, I think that the band that is created between the inner and outer circles is where our eyes naturally tend to wander unless the main subject or a strong contrast pulls it somewhere else.
If we overlay this combined chart on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, for example, we can see that the wall behind the attendees falls neatly in the middle vertical third of the painting while the table occupies the lower horizontal third of the painting. These geometrical separations bring our eyes to the central figure of Jesus and the conversations on either side of him.
If we overlay the chart over Cassius Coolidge’s Poker Sympathy, we see the poker chips in the center of the table and many of the dogs in and around the “sweet spot” band (see below).
Of course, if the main subject of a painting is placed elsewhere on the canvas, our eyes will naturally gravitate there first. This is especially true for human faces (the subject we know best!). For example, the eye tracking of Unexpected Visitors demonstrates that our gaze will first move to faces regardless of where they are positioned.
The Viewer’s Gaze
It’s also important to pay attention to the edges of a painting as well as balancing areas with varying amounts of value, density, and detail.
In his book, Traditional Oil Painting, Virgil Elliott suggests that compositions should attempt to bring the viewer’s eye away from the edges toward a point of interest within the painting.
“As Western civilization teaches us to read from left to right, there is a tendency for the right border of a painting to exert a certain gravitational pull on the viewer’s eye. It is therefore particularly important to avoid leading it to the right edge. Lines may lead into the picture from the bottom, if there are more than one, suggesting a sort of road guiding the eye to the area of primary interest, where the lines would converge if carried all the in; but any line leading to the right edge will send the viewer out of the picture. The upper edge is likewise generally best avoided.”
Elliott argues diagonal lines are more visually interesting than vertical or horizontal lines, and curved lines in general are more interesting than straight lines. He suggests the most pleasing curved lines are “S” shapes.
He notes that with a certain degree of irregularity, parallel lines can create a compelling rhythm, such as with Velazquez’s The Surrender of Breda:
Note the lances in the upper right background. They almost create a fence and corral the viewer’s eye from exiting the painting and bring it back to the men interacting in the middle of the painting.
Another good example of bringing the viewer’s eye back into the middle of the painting would be Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The tall tree on the left (also the darkest part of the painting) and the moon on the right (the brightest part of the painting) cause the eye to play a sort of back-and-forth game of ping pong before the swirls in the sky and houses below pull us in. Elliott refers to this kind of composition as a Steelyard Composition, where two prominent elements that are different from each other create a counterbalance as well as an engaging tension. There is a kind of harmonious asymmetry.
Another example would be Childe Hassam’s Boston Common at Twilight:
The dense cluster of people getting on and off the train on the left offers a counterbalance to the open field of snow on the right.
It’s worth noting that Elliott is specifically discussing the aesthetics of traditional painting. I would argue that the more abstract a painting gets, the less relevant those suggestions are.
In a realistic painting, for example, a perfectly vertical or horizontal road or river would seem awkward and undermine the realism because straight lines rarely exist in nature, whereas a winding road or river would make a lot more sense and complement the realism.
On the other hand, in a modern or abstract painting, a horizontal or vertical line may not detract from the visual interest and could actually be part of its appeal. For example, in my painting, Eclipse 17, I used both horizontal and vertical lines to break up a gradient background, with a central starburst shape as the main focus. Of course, my opinion is biased! But I think the lines are an attractive feature of this painting and create a sense of movement in contrast to the starburst, which hovers in stillness above. The composition is intended to convey a union of opposites.
In Eclipse 17, I have also broken the Rule of Thirds and caused the viewer’s eye to drop off the right side of the canvas, however, I have incorporated the Golden Ratio with the diameter of the starburst. So, despite not checking all of the boxes, this composition contains a pleasing proportion.
In other words, I don’t think you have to follow all of the rules. Sometimes, you just have an intuitive sense when something looks and feels right and you’ve got to run with it.
A great historical example of a painting that breaks the rules yet is universally celebrated is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog:
The figure in the middle stands exactly within the inner circle of the Rule of Thirds. The surrounding clouds and mountains direct the viewer’s eye outward while the sky expands above the figure. You can’t help but feel as if you’re there. The unstructured composition communicates adventure and possibilities but it also possesses a meditative quality. It doesn’t follow the rules, but the contrast between the dark foreground and light background, the sense of expansiveness, and the wild haired central figure make it compelling.
Another type of painting that does not readily abide by the rules would be a painting that has no obvious focus.
Below is an image of one of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild paintings:
Where do your eyes go first when you look at this painting?
Every time I look at it my eyes start somewhere different. The composition has balance yet it’s not following any rules. If this painting was in your house, years could go by and you might notice a new detail or shape that you hadn't noticed before. For some people, this feeling of freshness and the simultaneous contrast of colors are what make Abstraktes Bild an attractive painting.
Below is Yayoi Kusama's Pacific Ocean from her Infinity Nets series. There is a subtle contrast between areas with tighter circles and looser circles but no obvious place for the eyes to settle. The painting achieves balance via repetition and rhthym.
In sum, the rules and what our eyes look for are all worth considering when putting together a composition, but ultimately, you have to play around to find a combination that brings together the various elements of your painting in an interesting way that represents your vision. The more you practice, the more intuitive the process will become!