easy composition tips: create appealing paintings, the rule of thirds and more

Easy composition guidelines to create no-fail paintings.


what is a good composition in art?

  • A good artistic composition has the painting elements arranged in a pleasing manner.

The composition pulls the viewers in and makes them feel comfortable. They will find pleasure or interest in looking at your paintings.

how do you compose a painting to pull the viewer in?

  • Arrange the elements of a painting with the easy composition rules.

Artists don't have to copy nature or photographs. We have an artistic license to arrange the elements in our paintings to make them pleasing to the viewers.

Good composition helps your viewers enjoy your paintings.

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what is the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is the easiest and simplest way to compose pleasing paintings.

how do we use the rule of thirds?

Using the rule of thirds makes an easy composition.Using the Rule of Thirds

Divide your painting surface into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Draw two lines up and down and across your painting surface.

This gives you nine equal spaces. This works when your painting is oriented either horizontal or vertical.

Place your focal point, the center of interest at one of the intersections.

You may use any intersection, left, right, top or bottom.

See the example of my Scrub Jay painting at the right. He is located on the intersection of the third lines.

The viewer's eye is drawn into the painting and can freely move out around the rest of the painting.


why do we use the rule of thirds?

The focal point is never in the center of the painting. This is easy composition.

If the focal point is dead center in the middle of the painting, it is like diving into a deep hole. It is hard for the viewer's eye to move to other areas in the painting.


the rule of center lines

Avoid placing main elements of a painting on the center lines for good art composition.The Rule of Center Lines

The Rule of Center Lines is a second method of easy composition.

  • The red lines mean danger.

Don't put the main subject of your painting on the center lines either horizontally or vertically.

Place any main objects to the left or right of the vertical center line and above or below the horizontal line.  

If you put a main object or the horizon on the center line, it cuts the painting right in half.


watch out for these mistakes

Example of poor compositionPoor Composition

The Oyster Catcher in the painting at the right is dead-centered in the middle of the painting.

Also, the centered horizon cuts the painting in half.

Then the viewer sees two paintings instead of one cohesive painting. They feel uncomfortable and don't know where to look.

These two mistakes make a very poor composition.

Easy composition is always placing the horizon above or below the center. Also, don't put your main subject in the very center of the painting.




more tips for easy composition

After you position the main subjects of your painting, you are well on your way to an exciting painting. Here are a few other things in mind.

variety is very important

vary the sizes, shapes and colors thru-out the entire painting. artist Carol MayVariety Is the Spice of Life
  • Vary the sizes, shapes and colors. This is a very important item for easy composition.

Don't repeat sizes and shapes thru-out the painting. Have large, small and medium items in the painting, never all the same size.

The same goes for color. Don't have equal amounts of warm and cool colors.

Use your dominant, focus color in a smaller amount. There will be larger amounts of the other colors.

The focus color in this turtle painting is orange. Blue and yellow are the supporting colors.


placing people or animals

  • Position people or animals facing into the painting. The viewer will follow their line of vision.

Don't have them looking out the side of the painting. Their line-of-sight will carry the viewer's eye right out of the painting.

Notice the turtle in the painting above is looking into the painting. He has plenty of space in front of his face to look into the painting.

What does Wikipedia say about composition?


watch your lines

Lines are an important element of good composition. art by Carol MayLines Are Important in Composition
  • Don't line up anything parallel with the edges of the painting.

Parallel lines close to the edge of the canvas will pull the viewer's eye out of the painting. Or they will pull their eyes away from the focal point.

  • A line going directly out the side of the painting, especially out of the corners, will lead the viewer's eye right out of the painting.
  • Break the horizon line.

A long, straight horizon with no break gives the viewer a highway to travel right out of the painting. Use a bird, a tree, a mountain or something for a break to keep the viewer inside the painting.

In this painting the lighthouse tilts slightly to the center of the painting. The top of the lighthouse is subdued, so it doesn't lead the viewer's eye out of the painting.

Neither the lighthouse, nor the horizon are on the center lines of the painting. The horizon on the right side of the canvas has less value contrast and softened edges to keep the eyes inside the painting.

avoid geometric shapes

  • Shy away from using definite geometric shapes like a square, circle or triangle. They are too static and non-artistic.

But what if you have a building that is rectangular, a mountain that is shaped like a triangle or a lake that is a circle?

  • Then you can use your artistic license and change them.

Move the view of the building to change its shape. Or camouflage it with foliage or shadows, etc. Put whoop-dee-dos in the mountain to change its shape. Make a meandering shoreline that is not a perfect circle and etc.


use odd numbers

  • Numbers such as three, five or seven are more pleasing to the eye.

For some reason even numbers such as two, four or six are more stagnant and unexciting to the eye.

So, no matter if its trees, rocks or apples, use odd numbers for easy composition.


group items

  • Things look better in groups or near other items.

Single items are great for the focal area. But in other areas of the painting, group items together. Then they are more comfortable for the viewer.


avoid tangents

  • If items are touching each other, overlap them. Don't have them just barely touching, that's a tangent.

Artists call that kissing. Avoid objects kissing each other or kissing the side of the canvas.

Overlap them somewhat. Then they won't feel disconcerting.

above all trust yourself

  • You are the artist! Trust yourself. Use your artistic license.

With these easy composition guidelines you can change and move things around.

If it looks and feel right to you, it will please the viewer. And that's what it's all about.


want to learn more about composition?

Check out the "Mastering Composition" book.

A hardback book with a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars from 295 readers.

When your composition is right, your paintings just flow. Good composition pulls in the viewer and they will enjoy your paintings!



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