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Toolkit Golden Rules of Composition in Art – Explained & Illustrated

Ardak Kassenova

What is Composition in Art? Why is Composition important? What is the most common purpose for Composition in Art? | Practical Tips and Techniques

Jump to Golden Rules of Composition | Pick a good subject | Plan your composition | Create a strong focal point | Use of compositional maps | Colour choice | Positive and negative spaces | Scale and perspective


composition in art “The Fighting Temeraire” by J.M.W. Turner
“The Fighting Temeraire” by J.M.W. Turner

What is Composition in art?

Composition in art is the arrangement of the various elements within an artwork. In more detail, it is how the elements of art and design – line, shape, form, colour, texture, value, and space – are laid out in accordance to the principles of art and design – scale, proportion, unity, variety, rhythm, mass, shape, space, balance, contrast, emphasis, volume, perspective, and depth. Creating a harmonious relationship between the elements and the principles. Here in this article, I tried to explain the basic principles and rules of composition in simple terms, with illustrative examples based on the great masters’ works, and a few of my own as well.


What is the most common purpose for Composition in art?

Composition is an often overlooked step in art making. Perhaps all the rules put together seem too daunting, but if you tackle them one at a time, you’ll realize that they’re actually quite straightforward. Understanding the how and why of each rule gives you the freedom to creatively use them in endless ways or even to break away from them. When done right, it brings you one step closer to creating a compelling work of art.

How you arrange and position the elements within an artwork will affect how a viewer experiences and interacts with it. If the elements to be used are haphazardly planned, the final work can end up being too chaotic. The goal is for all of them to exist together in harmony. For each work, one or two elements may dominate and become the focal point(s), and the other elements take supporting roles. A successful composition in art ensures that there aren’t too many elements competing for attention. This way, the viewer’s eye will know where to focus and can better appreciate the work in its entirety.


The Golden Rules of Composition

And after drawing comes composition. A well-composed painting is half done.’Pierre Bonnard

Leonardo Da Vinci’s ink drawing called “The Vitruvian Man” is an excellent example of the ultimate golden rule, the “Golden Ratio” in art composition. Mathematically, it is a ratio of 1 to 1.618, also known as the “Golden Number”. It illustrates the ideal proportions of the human body, blending mathematics and art perfectly. During the Renaissance, artists called it the “Divine Proportion”, they applied the mathematical theory to their compositions in order to create an aesthetically pleasing and balanced work of art. The most common application of it is the usage of a Golden Rectangle as illustrated in the image below.

Composition in Art Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Vitruvian Man”
Using Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Vitruvian Man”, start with a rectangle with its sides measuring in the 1:1.618 ratio. Then divide that rectangle into a square and rectangle that gives you a new and smaller rectangle in the 1:1.618 ratio. Continue this partitioning within each new rectangle, they get smaller but are still adhering to the ratio.

That is just a very quick passing on the Golden Ratio, for it certainly deserves its own chapter for an in-depth understanding of its history, the mathematics, and how it can be put into practice. Today, there are other simpler and easier ways to achieve a good composition in art. Let’s dive into each one below.

Pick a Good Subject

Picking a good subject matter that is aesthetically pleasing might sound too obvious, but creating a good composition starts with having a great subject and brings you one step closer to your goal. Why not start by finding inspiration from subjects around your home for a still life or perhaps you will feel more inspired by the outdoors? You can start with a theme in mind, such as various landscapes, or simply something that is striking to the eye like a vase of vibrant flowers, to help develop your use of colour.

Don’t limit yourself, try to explore them all, and you might just stumble on the one that inspires you the most. It’s important that you are genuinely interested in your subject, this passion will sustain you and will show in your finished work. Keep in mind that your aim early on is to develop your skills, and to quote Vincent Van Gogh, “As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward.” As you can see, Van Gogh’s interest with the sunflowers was so great that he created so many paintings of them as the subject matter.

Composition in Art Vincent Van Gogh’s four versions of The Arles Sunflowers
Vincent Van Gogh’s four versions of The Arles Sunflowers.
From left to right: 1st version, 2nd version, 3rd version, and 4th version. Each painting has sunflowers as the subject, and yet each one differs from the other versions, showing how much you can explore the variations of a single subject that genuinely interests you.

Plan Your Composition

To create a good composition in art, imagine you are designing a visual map for the viewer, to draw their attention towards a strong focal point. If the elements are just randomly placed without thought as to their function, the viewer will be left in confusion and may lose interest because the work feels incomplete. This is why how you arrange them in your painting should be done with great consideration and careful study. The last thing you want is your work looking like a collection of scattered items without harmony and connection to each other.

This is where the habit of daily sketching will greatly benefit you, having a sketch journal at hand gives you time to work on your ideas, write down your notes, and create several studies of your potential artwork before moving on to the next stage.

Composition in art
My Pen and Ink sketch of the castle in Italy using our ZenART Artist Sketchbook Journal – B6 pocket size, which I bring with me for drawing outdoors. I first made a quick sketch to carefully work on the composition before doing any painting. As you can see I slightly ran out of paper, and the lower part of the sketch couldn’t fit. 🙂 Nevertheless, I was happy with the key elements of composition. In the long run, this will save you time, especially precious when working en plein air, will keep you from wasting your art materials unnecessarily, and keep your spirits high.

Create a Strong Focal Point

The focal point of a painting is the section which naturally draws in the eye of the viewer. Focal points have no restrictions and can be of any size, shape, or colour you choose. Creating strong focal points is an essential skill to master as it will influence the overall composition of your artwork and how it will be viewed. To ensure that, there are several techniques that artists can use – contrast, isolation, placement, convergence, and the unusual. Before you begin any painting, take your time and come up with a focal point. Ask yourself questions such as: 

  • What is the main attraction of my painting?
  • How do I want it to stand out? 
  • What technique can I use to make sure it stands out? 

These leading questions will ensure that your art composition has a strong focal point and will capture the viewer’s attention.

Composition in art Gerrit van Honthorst “The Matchmaker”
In this painting by Gerrit van Honthorst titled “The Matchmaker”, the contrast between light and shadow (chiaroscuro) was used to create a strong focal point – the warmly lit lady on the right, while the other two on the left serve as accents.

Use of Compositional Maps

Brilliant art masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, and Titian perfected this compositional drawing technique. Compositional maps emphasize the main subjects of the painting, allowing them to stand out from the rest by capturing the viewers’ eye, seamlessly leading it around the artwork towards the focal point.

The Triangle

The triangle in art is a time-tested favourite among artists when aspiring to create a perfectly balanced composition. It’s a very stable and strong shape and translates well when used as a compositional guide.

The lines guide the eye of the viewer to move from one point of the triangle to the next in a continuous flow, eliminating distractions and allowing the eye to focus on the main subjects with great ease. The invisible triangle visually holds all of the painting’s elements and their relationship to each other together.

Composition in art Raphael’s “Canigiani Holy Family”
Raphael’s “Canigiani Holy Family.” Joseph (his head as the peak) hunched over his staff looks down on Elisabeth who is seated (her body’s position perfectly aligned to the edge of the triangle) with John the Baptist on her lap with his body following the form of hers creating a smooth flow, he in turn looks onto and touches baby Jesus, who is similarly positioned on Mary’s lap, and finally her head rests under Joseph’s arms, completing the flow of the triangle.

When you use more triangles, the chances of achieving a more dynamic composition in your work increases as well. Below is an example of an artwork containing more than one triangle, creating a very interesting visual conversation.

Composition in Art Edgar Degas’ “Dance Class at the Opera.”
Edgar Degas’ “Dance Class at the Opera.” The form of the ballerina on the left follows the diagonal line towards the other ballerina stretching her leg following the same line. On the right side, the ballerina’s body mimics the corner of the triangle, with her stretched foot pointing towards the solo ballerina on the left. She and the other ballerinas’ positions follow the diagonal line, leaving the Ballet Master framed in the triangle, he in turn is looking at the solo ballerina on the left as she looks back at him as well. The empty chair is left alone and centre at another triangle. The story this painting creates is just astounding. It makes you wonder, who is the chair for?

The Rule of Thirds

Three is clearly a golden number when laying out the different elements in art and is by nature, also a balanced number. This mathematical theory can be used in creating compositions in art as well, it helps the placement of the subjects in your painting to remain balanced and not all crowded at the centre.

J.M.W. Turner’s famous landscape painting, “The Fighting Temeraire,” is a classic example of the Rule of Thirds. The ships intersect the left vertical line while the horizon starts at the lower horizontal line. The off centre placement of the ships gives it a more dynamic flow and contrast against the vast backdrop of the sea and sky.

This is how it works: Imagine your picture plane, then divide it by thirds of both horizontal and vertical lines. Now, you have grid-like divisions across the whole surface. The four points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect each other will be the best placements for your focal points.

It’s time to decide which of the four to use for your main focal point, then use the remaining three points for the supporting elements. Placing your important subjects on or very near these points ensures an even distribution and creates an aesthetically appealing composition. This gives the eye of the viewers a balanced space to move around in and better appreciate each key element of the painting.

My plein air painting of a castle in Italy using our very own Artists’ Oil paints from the Infinity Palette Series. I made a sketch first (which you’ve seen earlier) and used the Rule of Thirds for this art composition. The three towering sections of the castle serve as the main structures (they are positioned abutting the vertical lines), with the focal point being the clock tower, while the greenery below and the blue skies above perfectly frame the castle.

Make use of the magic circle

Using the magic circle in your composition in art gives it a sense of balance accompanied by the flowing motion of the circular shape, creating a natural attraction between the viewers’ eye and the artwork. To use this drawing technique, you can have an actual round shaped object with or as your subject or place your key elements in a circular formation, this ensures that your viewers’ attention is focused exactly where you want it to be.

 Using my ZenART B5 Artist Sketchbook, I made a watercolour study for an oil painting using the magic circle. At the top left, you can see that I sketched the Koi fishes in motion, swimming together in a circular formation. As noted above, symbolic of the cycle of giving and receiving, to soak up nature’s healing energy.
Nicolas Poussin’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, is a great example of the use of the magic circle. The dancers are formed in a circle with their hands clasped together and are evidently in motion – dancing around in a circle. This painting also used “The Triangle”, making the overall composition even more dynamic.

Balance of your Colour Choices

Now that you’re familiar with the different ways you can achieve eye-catching compositional mapping, let’s get acquainted with the similarly important theory of colour harmony. In art composition, colour harmony deals with the various characteristics that aesthetically pleasing colour combinations have. These combinations create contrasts and complements that are considered to be harmonious. They can be of complementary colours, split-complementary colours, colour triads, or analogous colours. 

When choosing your colours, make sure that they are in balance with each other. Study the difference between warm and cool colours and take advantage of the Colour Mixing Guide to help you plan out your colour palette.

Henri Matisse’s painting titled “Dance” uses the split-complementary colour harmony quite vividly. It was said that he painted them directly from the paint tubes. He used only three colours – red, green, and blue. The stark brightness of the red against the subdued green and blue background colours creates an intense contrast. This painting also makes use of the Magic Circle as its main compositional map. Just like the dancers in Poussin’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, the dancers here are similarly dancing in a circle with hands clasped together.

Balance Positive and Negative Space

Positive space is the main focus of your artwork, while the negative space is the background or the area surrounding your main object. Negative space is not blank space, but rather serves as a support to accentuate the object of focus. Balancing the negative and positive space is a delicate process, you can easily go overboard either way if you’re not careful. To be on the safe side, try to keep approximately equal amounts of negative and positive space in your art composition. However, if you wish to create a busy, crowded painting, using a lot of negative space works well by giving emphasis to the positive space. When used well, how you balance your positive and negative space will help tell your stories in your compositions in art alone.

In this illustration, the concept of positive and negative space is up to what the viewer sees. The composition contains both the vase and the silhouetted faces. If you see a vase, the faces recede and become the background. If you see the faces, then the vase becomes the background. Whichever is dominant to the viewer’s eye becomes the positive space.
Here you will see the differences between the negative and positive space when used equally and in disproportionate amounts. From left to right: The first illustration shows a balanced positive and negative space, the second shows a mostly negative space, and the third shows a mostly positive space.
 Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” shows great balance between positive and negative space. The background (negative space) subtly allows the great wave (positive space) to be the main feature of the art composition.

Master Scale and Perspective

Scale

The term scale refers to the size of an object in relation to the other objects in your artwork. We often relate scale to the size of the human body, if the object is smaller or bigger in relation to us. It also refers to the whole structure of your work’s composition in art.

Artists from various periods have explored the use of scale to create visual impacts. When used with ideal proportions, it can give your painting a sense of realism. But when altered to a larger or smaller than life size, allows the artist the opportunity to make a statement or bring an element of whim or fantasy to the work.

Rene Magritte’s “The Portrait of Stephy Langui” tells a very surreal story through the use of larger than life objects. Stephy is peering in the cavern while the two men seem to be oblivious to her and the enormous rock beside them. How your compositions are seen can be quite subjective, a different story may unfold for each viewer’s eye.
In ancient Egyptian art, scale was used to depict the hierarchical status of the figures or objects. Gods and pharaohs were painted larger than the average person, while slaves were painted smaller.

Perspective

Perspective is a technique used to create three-dimensional imagery on two-dimensional surfaces to give them the illusion of depth. When it comes to compositions, there are two kinds of perspective – linear perspective and atmospheric (aerial) perspective.


Linear Perspective

Linear perspective is achieved by using lines and vanishing points. As the object draws nearer to the vanishing point, the smaller and less detailed it will be. A single artwork can contain a one-point perspective, two-point perspective, or a multiple-point perspective.

My watercolour and pen and ink study on my ZenART B6 Artist Sketchbook of a convent in Italy using one-point perspective. The pathway, the pillars, and the arches all follow the linear path and become smaller and smaller as they near the vanishing point.
Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day” illustrates the use of a two-point perspective at a Parisian intersection with great accuracy as shown above.

Imagine yourself walking along a straight road with telephone poles lining the sidewalk. The poles nearest you are tall and the details are clear; but as you look ahead, the poles gradually become smaller and the details become hazier and hazier the farther they are from you. Eventually, the last ones visible to your eye look so small that it seems like you could pick them up with your thumb and forefinger. Having a thorough understanding of perspective is quite important when creating art compositions of landscapes and cityscapes.


Atmospheric perspective

Another way to show depth and distance in your painting is through the use of atmospheric perspective. As the name suggests, this is a technique that shows the effect of the atmosphere in your composition. For example – objects in the foreground like the grass, nearby trees, and flowers are in sharper focus and details and have deeper or brighter colours and values. As the landscape recedes, the atmosphere will cause objects to appear paler, blurry, and have a bluer tone. If the sky is overcast with little to no sun, the atmosphere will cause distant objects to look even paler and less sharp, having an even more greyish than blue tone.

Normally, the farther the background goes, the paler the bluish tone will be. But remember, there are always exceptions especially in nature. Autumn colors, a cloud casting a shadow on a faraway hill, areas that are suddenly more densely covered with trees – all these can cause some areas in the background to be darker or of a different colour. Just be sure to observe your surroundings with thoughtfulness and try to capture the beautiful colour changes you see.

Claude Lorrain’s “Seaport at Sunset” perfectly captures the magic of atmospheric (aerial perspective) that can be achieved in art compositions. The objects at the foreground are full of details and are painted in vivid colors. The farther the background is from the foreground, the more diminished the details become, the distant areas look a little foggy, and the colors become lighter and lighter. The bluish tone is overlaid with the warm tones coming from the setting sun on the horizon.

Contrasting colours helps give an illusion of depth and space in your painting. With the use of warm, earthy colours for the foreground and cool colours for the horizon, thereby creating the optical perception of even greater depth.

(On top) My sketch study of a castle in Italy in pen and ink on our ZenART B6 Sketchbook Journal.
 (Below) Mid-progress of my painting on canvas using contrasting colours. You can see how helpful it is to first sketch out your ideas, simplify and even make compositional decisions (like removing some trees) before committing to it on canvas.

Practicing the use of scaling and perspective can be easy! Start out by studying photos showing fundamentally correct scales and perspectives, copying their layout, and paying close attention to how the details differ or change. And nothing beats painting en plein air for a better understanding of how atmospheric perspective works. Once you have a better grasp of how these two work together, you can slowly explore and experiment on the different ways you can use them for your own compositions in art.

I hope that this has given you all the tools you need to explore and experiment in creating your own compositions. Take your time and tackle each rule or technique one at a time. Remember to keep your sketch journal handy and practice sketching on it as often as you can, bring it along as you never know when or where inspiration might strike! 

And of course, we’d like to hear about your experience. Which rules of composition are new for you? Which one/s do you normally/intuitively use? What rule of composition in art do you find most challenging? Feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll be happy to answer any queries you have. 

So, now that you have gone through the Golden Rules of Composition, it’s time to put them into practice! The next chapter we have in store for you will help you jumpstart your composition exercises – Tricks of the Composition Trade, easy and useful tips you can use to help you achieve great art compositions.


— MEET THE AUTHOR—
Ardak Kassenova, ZenART Supplies co-founder, @ardak_zenart

Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style—contemporary impressionism—share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it’s time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.

My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums.” 

Read more about Ardak Kassenova in this feature. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!

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