9 Composition Tips for Artists

Recently I blogged about using frameworks/templates for blogging. Now I’m thinking about compositional techniques to jump-start your artwork ideas.

A lot of these are pretty common and pretty well-known, but I thought it would be helpful to collect them in one place. Let me know if something sparks an idea or two. It’s not meant to be comprehensive. It’s just a starter.

I’m going to start with the simple and get more complex as we go.

1. An Obvious Focal Point

First of all, your composition needs to have an obvious focal point. What are we supposed to look at? Using a horizon line or perspective is a great way to accomplish this because it establishes context, even in an abstract piece. Our eyes naturally gravitate to the horizon.

2. Figure/Ground (Dominant/Subdominant)

This is kind of obvious, but you need something in the foreground and something in the background. It is pretty basic, but you want people to know what is in the front, and what is in the back, even if what you are doing is flat. Another way to look at this is what is dominant or subdominant? You could have a dominant field with a small element that immediately calls attention to itself if it is positioned in the right place.

3. Split it down the middle

Before you dismiss this as being boring or static, you can actually arrange things pretty dynamically this way if you do it right. I think of Josef Albers’ “homages to the square” series. There are concentric squares arranged on a square, weighted on the top or the bottom but centered on the canvas from side to side. There’s a certain elegance to things arranged in neat rows. It creates rhythm.

4. Think Horizontal / Think Vertical

Adopting an extreme creates an interesting composition on its own. Something that is obviously very vertical or horizontal creates a lot of interest just by being there. Emphasize it or counter it to make it even more interesting.

5. The Rule of Thirds

This is pretty well-known among most designers, photographers, and painters. What you do is you divide your field into equal thirds horizontally and vertically, so you wind up with a grid of nine equal rectangles or squares in the same proportion as the whole frame/field. Then just line your elements up along the grid, especially along the intersections of the grid lines. Remember there is a difference between asymmetrical balance and almost-but-not-quite-centered-so-it-looks-like-a-mistake.

6. The Golden Section

This is more advanced, and somewhat similar to the rule of thirds but it gets more complex because you can arrange elements along the division lines and the curves, sometimes both if you want. It’s very common in a lot of Renaissance art and architecture. You can start with a Golden Rectangle for the overall frame or apply the proportions to the composition using that framework.

7. Odd Number of Elements

Even numbers of things get boring in a hurry and feel kind of static, unless you create variety in the way they are spaced. Odd numbers of things are inherently more dynamic. Think “three” and “five.” Interestingly, this is also where “sacred” geometry begins, especially as it pertains to the golden section (two, three, five, eight…)

8. Avoid Tangents

When edges barely touch, or kiss, it creates a weak spot in your composition. Viewers aren’t sure what is in front or what is doing the overlapping. I avoid this by keeping my compositions relatively simple. I don’t use that many overlapping elements. (Related: don’t put pointy things around people’s eyes in your art unless you are trying to make them uncomfortable.)

9. Break all the Rules!

Once you figure out how to do all these right, you can break the rules and get away with it. Of course often times when you do this you wind up with something of a pattern or a texture, or something so disjointed the irregularity becomes regular. Think of Jackson PollockKeith Haring, or Hieronymous Bosch. All three of these artists have so much going on in their art that they kind of defy the principles of composition, but their art just works.

Does any of this inspire you to make something new? Let me know if it does! I’d be thrilled to see it.