How to Improve Your Painting's Composition

How to Improve Your Painting's Composition

April 14, 2020

Have you ever looked at your paintings and felt like it is “off?” Something about it just nags at you, but you’re not sure why?

Before you give up on it, let's troubleshoot. Take a look at your painting and ask yourself these questions:

  1.  Does it have variation in pattern or brushstrokes?
  2.  Is your focal point off-center?
  3.  Does the eye move around, or are you drawn to one area?
  4.  Does your scene continue naturally off the canvas, or are there any items  that kiss/end at the edges?
  5.  Do you have variation in color?
  6.  Do you have a dominant value?
  7.  Is there any contrast?

If you answer 'no' to any of these questions, your composition could probably use some improvement.

Let's take a look at this painting that I recently completed. Can you identify some ways that it could be stronger?

1. For starters, the focal point is in the dead center.

I painted a smaller version to use as reference, but as I enlarged this painting, I lost the magic of the original composition. Now the viewer’s eye goes straight to the center of the painting and stops abruptly.

Luckily, the fix doesn't require magic. An easy way to find your focal point is to draw a grid of thirds on your painting. If your eye lands in the center box, the composition needs to be fixed. Try shifting the focus in any direction outside of this area in a way that makes sense with the surrounding activity.

2. It needs more variation in the foreground brush strokes.

I got carried away with the grasses, painting every individual grass blade. I used the same brush throughout and the resulting bunches of grass have no expression, no gesture, and feel too much the same.

Try switching brushes when working in different areas of your painting. If you find yourself zoning in on a particular element for too long, chances are you're overworking it. Move to another area of the painting and come back to adjust.

3. There isn’t a dominant value.

I've got about the same amount of light values and mid-tones, with a few dark accents. You should always have a dominant value that stands out over the others. To fix this, I chose to add more light values, making the painting more dynamic.

When you paint with a lot of color like I do, it can be hard to tell what your values are. If you’re ever unsure about your values, take a quick photo with your phone in black and white mode. If the painting looks all the same level of gray, you don’t have enough contrast. The best paintings will look just as beautiful in black and white as color.

This painting has too much of the same value, not enough contrast

This iteration has ~60% light values, 30% mid-tones, and 10% dark across the composition.

This variation in value makes for a stronger painting overall.

A few more tips

Create variety with brushstrokes. An easy way to make sure you have enough texture is to switch your brush out as you move across the surface of your painting. Try experimenting with different materials to apply and remove paint, such as a palette knife, toothbrush, rags, or any household item with an interesting texture.

Establish your perspective first. The process of painting may be one of discovery, but you'll want to have an idea of where you're going to guide the way. You wouldn't start out on a hike without a trail map, so why leave your painting up to fate?

We discuss one and two-point perspective in more detail in another post, but a quick trick to help viewers understand the space you're creating is to make the elements in the foreground  more crisp, and blurrier as the eye moves up and away.

Start over. It happens to every artist: you've over-worked your painting and got stuck. There may be some good elements worth salvaging though! So before you scrap the whole thing, try this trick for fixing a whole section of your painting.


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