Tutorial ImagineFX magazine #30
There are endless ways to approach the composition of a painting; this article will cover the most common principles on composition.
(C) Henning Ludvigsen
Our working methods are just as unique as our personalities. Some, if not most artists tend to jump the gun and start sketching immediately while their creativity is flowing, which is great as it’s being done because of the right reason; the passion for art. Some artists has got a more of an intuitional feel for composition than others, and don’t have to dwell too much throughout the process to make their piece work. There are no absolute rules about composition, or about creating art in general, but there are ways that work better than others, no matter if it comes naturally, or if you’re following the book of theories.
Still, a piece of art has to function, and in the end composition is what might make or break a piece no matter which principles used getting there. Good composition is fundamental for communicating the message we want to say to the world. Most of us probably don’t think too much about how we get there, but tend to follow our artistic guts and rely on this to guide our way. Still, there are many ways of tying your piece together, and it’s all up to you how deep you want to dive into the world of artistic compositional theory.
In this article we will take a closer look at a few techniques that might help you out. Who knows, you might be surprised to discover that you’re perhaps already implementing some of these techniques into your work, be it conscious or subconscious. No matter how we’re working, being aware of a few pointers that artists have been using for hundreds of years couldn’t hurt, right?
Slice it up in thirds
I think most of us know about, or have at least heard about “The Rule of Thirds”. This is probably the most commonly used technique used to balance a composition. Imagine that your canvas is divided into nine equally sized portions by two vertical and two horizontal lines. You should either place the elements or the focal point of your painting inside the imaginary boxes, or where the lines intersect. The way of dividing into thirds is often referred to as the “golden rule”. This grid will scale according to the size and proportions of the canvas, so it doesn’t matter if the canvas is perfectly quadratic or widely rectangular. The amount of squares must always stay the same; 3×3.
Well balanced triangles
(C) Andreas Rocha
I guess the Egyptians were on to something. There’s just something incredibly safe and grounded about pyramids or triangular shapes. You can use more obvious pyramid shapes to build your piece and make it appear very nicely balanced, as shown in this example by Andreas Rocha. If you want to take the triangular shapes even further, you can also balance your piece by applying bright areas scattered around in places of interest in a triangular shape. The same goes for placement of colour, or even a combination of both contrast and colour.
Apart from triangles, other forms work well as compositional frameworks. Circles to lead the eye towards the focal point of the piece, squares, centred cross, L-compositions, radii (lines pointing towards a focal point, often composed as an “expanding” wheel-shape), or rectangular compositions.
Simple balance and contrast
(C) Levente Peterffy
You can also base the theory about triangular shapes, and simplify it a bit. It’s easy to compose a nicely balanced painting with characters, at least compared with a painting with several characters, structures and landscapes. By keeping areas of interest with high contrast, this will attract attention to the eye and you can choose to dim down areas that are not crucial for the overall painting to work, artistically. In this example by Levente Peterffy, the golden rule is clearly showing, and the focal point is controlled by contrast in light and shadow.
(C) Henning Ludvigsen
A good way of creating convincing depth to your painting is by placing repetitive elements next to scenery landmarks or elements to compare them with. By placing a character or an element close to the camera, and then several more of them further away, preferably in relation to other objects or landmarks in the distance, you suddenly have a clearer composition as you now can read the size of the elements, and the depth gets empathized further.
Tilting the camera
A simple effect to make a boring painting more exciting is by simply tilting the “camera” a little. This effect usually works best with more dynamic subjects and compositions.
Complexity vs simplicity
Painters can borrow a lot of theory and principles on composition from photographers. Take for instance portrait photography. A zoomed in picture of a person will work a lot better than a panoramic photograph with a lot of environment behind and around the character, because simplicity wins over richness in detail for this kind of subjects. A portrait should be simple, and by leaving out unnecessary attention seekers around the main subject, the painting will function better as a whole.
Eye centering principle
(C) Henning Ludvigsen
The eyes are one of the most important key-features when painting characters. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that artists throughout hundreds of years have consistently made sure that at least one of the subjects eyes are placed in the dead vertical centre of the canvas. On the other hand, having a more symmetrical composition might work better for more specific expressions, by for example centring both eyes equally in the composition, as shown here in this painting by Cris Griffin.
(C) Cris Griffin
You can use different ways of balancing the piece depending on the angle the subject was painted, or on the areas of interest in the piece, for example by contrast or colour.
Motion, lines of attention and direction
Motion can have different meanings. One is the most obvious one where you use action and point moving elements or lines towards the focal point to “steer” the composition to where you want the centre of attention to be. This is a very efficient attention-seeker which can easily get out of hand when used overly eagerly.
The other principle of motion is composing the natural path the eye will follow when looking at the piece. By placing characters and elements and shapes so that they create a natural flow in the piece will create movement and lead your eye towards the focal point of the painting. This maybe even if the subject itself is calm and without action on its own, as shown here in Volkan Baga’s wonderful example.
(C) Volkan Baga
Combining several principles
(C) Volkan Baga
If you really want to make a statement or make it clear who or what is important in your composition, it’s possible to combine several theories, just like German fantasy artist Volkan Baga is doing in this example. Here you can see the Radii, with the centre aligned straight lines on the background creating a wheel shape, focusing all directions towards the centre where the old mage is standing. He is also relying a lot on symmetrical composition, which often contradicts the safe guidelines of the golden rule because of the way the main focal points are centred in the piece. You can also find several pyramid and triangular shapes both based on colours, shape, and value. He is also using the highest contrast in the focal point of the piece; around the central persons head, and the warmest colours in the centre of the piece, and colder around the darker edges. The composition here can also give us pointers towards old traditional iconic art.
After talking with a number of artists, I have the impression that most of us are balancing the composition based on feeling rather than set rules. Still, I believe that a few of the above mentioned methods might still be working behind the scenes of each of every one of us even if we might not be aware of it. Having interest in art usually means that we have spent some amount of time pondering over our very own ideal painters, and perhaps we picked something up from them on the way?
The bottom line is that composition is truly important for a painting to work and communicate your message to the viewer. What is less important is the method of getting there, be it depending on compositional rules or relying on your very own artistic sense.
1) The rule of thirds
Andreas Rocha used the rule of thirds to balance his piece, Exodus. This painting is dramatic yet very calm and soothing to look at. This is because the composition is very simple and efficient. His vanishing point is placed 2/3 on the left side of the canvas and all elements in the piece are pointing towards the very same point. He also took advantage of keeping this area with the most contrast both in values and colour.
(C) Andreas Rocha
2) Using a cross or L-composition
This is another simple way of creating balance in your work. I made the left example by using a vague centred cross composition, while the right example has got more of a suggested L-shape composition. Also notice that one of the eyes of the character to the right is placed after using the eye centring principle.
(C) FFG / Henning Ludvigsen
By breaking your piece up into implied shapes, your composition will appear stronger and easier to read. On this example you can see several triangular shapes simply showing because Levente Peterffy chose to use this crop in his composition. Had he zoomed out, several of the triangles might have disappeared from the composition. You can also use repetitive implied shapes, and there are many ways of suggesting them, be it in physical shapes like here, or more vaguely by repetitive areas of colour or contrast hidden in the piece.
(C) Levente Peterffy
The thoughts behind the creation
of Ice Run
By using the rule of thirds, I decided that my ice landscape was to have a focal point at the bottom 2/3 to the right. Even the mountain range at the background is leading our eyes towards focal point. I am also planning on having a warm light source in and around the focal point as a contrast to the cold surroundings.
I added some sci-fi looking arches to create a more epic expression to this piece. By placing circular shapes like this, the viewer’s eyes will be lead even more towards the focal point. This also creates more depth and ties the piece more together.
I added some speeders and fog in the distance for more action, depth, and proportion to the piece. To empathize the size of the arches I made sure to have one of the speeders coming in close from the right, and a few more speeders further away into the scenery. This way we can compare the proportions and sizes of the elements in the piece and it becomes clearer. I also placed the light of the focal point, the engines of the closes speeder, and the strongest light on the closest arch so that they create a triangular shape, in which also points towards the focal point.
Explaining the golden ratio and the Fibonacci spiral
The golden ratio
A commonly used mean to make your composition aesthetically pleasing is The Golden Ratio, and this technique has been used since the Renaissance amongst artists and architects. It’s a principle based on mathematical formula, and is a ratio or proportion defined by the number Phi (1.618033988749895).
When putting this principle into a physical example, we can say that A+B is to A as A is to B.
The Fibonacci spiral
The Fibonacci spiral or the golden spiral as it’s also called is using the same main principle as the golden ratio. It’s a sequence of numbers named after Leonardo of Pisa, which was also known as Fibonacci, and we can see a lot of similar spiral shapes in nature, from the leaf arrangement in plants, to the patterns on the florets of a flower.