Achieving a good composition is crucial to getting an appealing painting or picture. Whether it’s digital painting, matte painting, visual design, photography or films, getting this aspect correct can make or break it. That’s why it’s so important to understand what makes up a good composition, and what techniques one should implement in order to achieve that.
In last week’s tutorial, we looked at creating environment art thumbnails. So for this week’s article, I want to shine light on a highly important subject that goes together with that: creating good compositions.
This won’t be another one of those “rule of thirds” articles, because composition encompasses not only that, but a myriad of principles. I will be going through some of the most fundamental techniques and mindsets, and direct it primarily at digital painting. It’s however equally as applicable on any other visual media; logos, videos, photos, banners, and anything that is presented visually.
Understanding what good composition is
Before we go into composition examples and techniques, let’s talk about what a good composition actually is.
Composition is what makes up the structure of your visual media. It is the subjects, the relations between them, the negative and positive space (more on this later) and everything that deals with the way which the artist chooses to express his or her art to the audience.
In music, composition is all the notes and melodies, the rhythm and accents and the entire structure. In painting, it’s the actual painting. You have other aspects of painting and music as well, such as texture and perspective, which interplay with the composition, but the composition is the foundation of it all. It’s how everything is laid out.
A good composition follows a set of aspects that allow the main subjects to be in the focus, unobstructedly. It allows for the focal points to be clear and appealing. If you look at a masterpiece from a great classical painter, they have put a lot of thought into composition. They compose their paintings to flow nicely, to lead the eye where they want it to go, and to not hinder the audience understanding of it.
On a side note: There are some genres, such as abstract art, where this is intentionally counter-acted, so as to make the audience ponder and reflect over what is shown. But even in such genres, certain principles of composition are followed to allow it to be appealing to look at.
Here are some of the most fundamental keys to approaching good composition.
1. Well, you need to know it… The Rule of Thirds!
So let me keep this short, since there is so much on this on the web and everyone worships this guideline. Hear that? Guideline! It’s not a stone-set rule, and I encourage people to achieve interesting compositions without sticking to it zealously. But, here it is – and it’s a great guideline to use a lot. I use it pretty much all the time, albeit subconsciously these days, and I consciously alter it to not always have the same look on my paintings.
When determining where important things should be placed in paintings, it’s a bad habit to always place things in the dead center.
Enter The Rule of Thirds. It is what artists, cinematographers, designers and photographers use when placing their subjects in their visual media. You basically imagine that there is a 3×3 grid on your canvas. The lines in that grid marks lines of interest where subjects can be. The cross-points of the lines mark important focal points where it’s nice to place subjects.
Take a look at the image below. Here, the hill with the tree is dead center in the image:
And then look what happens when I place the tree and hill a bit to the right, and further down:
That’s what you need to know about rule of thirds. Start placing your important subjects in the cross-points of the grid, and get your horizon lined up with the horizontal lines, and so on, to make your compositions feel nicer.
2. Negative and Positive space
This one is a bit trickier to wrap one’s head around, but once you start getting it, your compositions will improve dramatically.
Negative space and positive space both make up the totality of your painting. In general, the negative space is the area which does not include your important subjects, and it is what helps define your positive space where you place important focal points. The positive space is the area your subjects take up, and you want this in focus and nicely portrayed in your image.
Below you will find an image that illustrates how important the relationship of negative contra positive space is. Notice how if you look at the left part of the image, you will see a simple vase, with the white area being the negative space, properly outlining and focusing the subject (the vase). While if you look at the right picture, now the negative space suddenly becomes the shape of the vase, and you will see the subject being two faces. So the white space (the negative space in this one) actually helps the subjects appear, where the black area now is the positive space:
Now, there is an entire genre of art like this that plays with the mind, but the concept of negative and positive space is important for any composition! The objective of the negative space is to give focus to the positive space made up by your important subjects. The negative space should not have excessive details or any major focal points, because that then blends into the positive space and removes focus from what you want to have as focus.
Ever noticed how the sky is so prevalent in many paintings and photos, even though nothing really important exists in it? Often times, this is to give a great contrast to the positive space that contains the subjects. The brightness of the sky and the randomness of it makes it easy for the important subjects to pop out.
Take a look at the example below:
The sky nicely works as negative space here. And so do the rocks close up to us, as they don’t draw in the attention to themselves, but rather wrap around the image at the edges to focus the important subjects (the people and the stone pillar). There isn’t anything very interesting or eye catching in the areas around the main subject, and that all helps.
… Be simple. Your paintings should not contain too much information, too many focal points and subjects everywhere, as that will confuse the eye. Some of the artists whose best paintings I’ve seen have mastered this beautifully, and stay simple and elegant in their negative spaces, giving enough focus for their positive space to be the highlight of the painting.
One more note on this: it is important to have balance in your paintings, to give a proper sense of negative contra positive space, and I’d argue to say that more negative space is better than more positive space because then there is less focus all over the painting. Rather have your subjects focused in a smaller area, with a well thought out placement. Always think about your subjects and focal points, and if the negative space helps bringing them out nicely and naturally.
Here you can see the character on the far left (totally ignoring the rule of thirds) is nicely portrayed by the brighter landscape in the background which is acting as negative space to define the character. Same goes for the small village in the middle which is my secondary focal point. The birds and the highlighted rocks also acts as important focal points, but most of this painting is negative space!
3. Guide your viewer’s eyes
Another important aspect of a good composition is to properly guide your viewers throughout the painting. You want to know where you are placing your focal points (be aware of the rule of thirds!), have a good balance of negative space to not lead the eye out of your desired focal point, and, which is the point for this aspect, you want to guide your viewers using a well thought out flow.
Now, a good flow can be achieved in a few ways. One thing you should not do is have the objects in your scenes pointing out of it. You don’t want to angle and point things in a way that leads your viewers eye out of the path and away from your focal points.
You want to have the flow of your painting, your lines, angles and directions leading them into it. Far end corners should be stopping points, and not points of interests. This is why vignetting (darkening of the edges of an image) is nice as it strengthens the center of your image.
Take a look at the image below:
Notice how I am guiding the viewer INTO the painting. Into the focal points. I want the viewer’s eyes to finally land and rest on the band of riders with the banners. The rocks are leaning into the painting, the slopes are descending, and the light (being a focal area on its own) is also helping out by shining down on them. Note also how the direction of light rays hit the hard, dark edge of the nearest cliff wall which acts as negative space, and the line stops there so the eye wants to bounce down to the right.
As such: (if it makes any sense!)
Everything is pointing inwards and trying to, from the outside and in, to lead the eye into the main focal point I’ve chosen in the bottom left part of the image, and the god rays area. Also note how I’m very loosely following the rule of thirds here – it can truly be tweaked to your liking! The important thing is to just not place your important subjects in the dead center all the time.
As a final note on guiding the eye, try to be simple with your shapes. Too large and edgy shapes on big mountains will create jumps in the smooth path you’re trying to lead your viewer with. Only if it’s an important focal point and you want the viewer to stay there can you do more interesting and edgy shapes.
4. Flip your canvas!
Here’s a quick tip to really help you achieve a nice looking digital painting, no matter what it is: flip your canvas horizontally!
Flipping it horizontally will show you most of the composition problems you have in your painting, even if you don’t realize they are there. When sitting and working a longer time, your eyes will get used to the painting, and consequently get used to any errors the painting may have in a composition sense. Even sitting only a few minutes with a painting may ease your eyes to these problems.
As you flip your canvas, your brain doesn’t know what’s happening – suddenly there’s a new painting in front of it! You will immediately see that the painting might be very heavily directional in a certain way and lack balance, so you can continue painting on it while it’s flipped until you get a good balance back, and then you flip it again.
Flipping back and forth like this will solve a ton of compositional problems, and it will help you spot them much easier.
Go to your key commands in Photoshop (if you’re painting in it, which I highly recommend), find “Flip Canvas Horizontal” under Application Menus – Image and set it to a key command (I use cmd-H on Mac and ctrl-H on PC).
5. Create a good composition early
In many of my other articles and tutorials, I mention that the first 30 minutes is the most important time for a painting. This is where you set what your subjects will be, how your painting will be structured – what your composition will be.
In the earliest of stages, be sure to think through what it is you want to paint. Even if you have no idea, you can play around with shapes, photos, brushes, and so on, and try to come up with a good composition.
Early on, try to make sure you achieve a proper composition. This is where last week’s thumbnailing exercise and techniques comes in handy – you make several thumbnails quickly, not spending much time on each thumb, and just try to achieve a solid, balanced, and good looking composition to later render to a final.
Since the majority of the painting, especially compositionally, occurs in the first few minutes of a painting, most of your big decisions happen here, but obviously you can change your composition as you go. However, doing major changes after hours of work won’t do you any good in the long run!
The principles and techniques we’ve looked at in this article are some the most fundamental for achieving good composition. Of course, there are more, but those come naturally when you paint more and more, and when you study more.
- Remember the rule of thirds! It will help you get a more natural and visually appealing composition.
- Use negative space to outline your important subjects, keep it balanced and don’t add too much stuff everywhere – focus on your positive space!
- Guide your viewers’ eyes with your lines, have objects lean into the painting and remember to lead the eye in a natural path into the focal points. Don’t lead your viewer away from it!
- Flip your canvas to ensure that you spot issues with your compositions. A good image should work from both left to right, and right to left.
- Be sure to nail the majority of your composition early on. The first 30 minutes of a painting is the most important period, so be sure to give it thought and see what works best before going into rendering it out.
That’s it for this one, folks. Hope you learned something that will help you out achieving great compositions of your own in your quest to become a better artist!
Below you will see two paintings. From all the aspects we’ve talked about here – which one do you think has the best composition? First, or second one? Why?
I’ll leave you with that!
Until next time, guys. Stay creative!
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