Art Composition Tips

Art Composition Tips

When sitting down to write this article on art composition tips, something suddenly occurred to me. Out of all of the years I have studied art, both self taught and art school, which one would you think I learned the most about art composition? Most people might think it was school that taught me the most. After all, one pays thousands of dollars to go to those places right? You should come out knowing a thing or two about composition. 

But it wasn’t until now that I realized that it was when I was on my own that I learned the most. I’m not saying that art school is useless, by the way. There were plenty of things I know that I did learn. But when I really pondered over it, there was no class that seemed to specifically target composition. It was brought up in a more casual way during assignments:

Try placing that apple further left. See, it’s a little more balanced now.

Careful with that use of red up there. It’s drawing the eye out of the painting.

The diagonal of that mountain is moving too swiftly. You need something to slow it down.

These comments are insightful and helpful. They clearly address art composition. But it’s in an indirect manner, I think. They talk about what the picture you are working on lacks or what it needs for balance. There was never an actual class or even a session where the teacher stood up and laid out some initial ground rules for composition. I was never aware of the Rule of Thirds or The Golden Mean. I barely even heard the actual word “composition” until I studied on my own. I’m sure there are schools and/or classes somewhere that differ from my personal experience – especially for photography. I have heard from some people in photograpy that they had a lot more instruction on composition. But for me, it felt like a quiet expectation that composition would just come naturally, over time. 

The Center Of Interest

Most of us, in the beginnings, have a strong tendency to place our subject matter right smack in the middle of the picture. It was like this for us in childhood when we first picked up crayons and were told to draw a picture. We just automatically think that because our focus is a house, or a bird, or a tree, or whatever, then that thing should be in in the center. That’s what we want you to look at. So put it in the middle.

But putting it in the center every single time can result in boredom for the viewer over time. There’s nothing about the picture to draw the eye out of the middle. It stays locked there and doesn’t move around to take in the rest of it. It isn’t until you place your subject matter, or your center of interest “off center” that your eye naturally becomes more interested. You start to look around the picture, observing how things come together, because ultimately, your mind likes order. When it doesn’t have to create order and sense out of it, it tends to become bored more easily and then moves onto the next thing.

This isn’t to say you should never put your focus right in the center. Every rule can be broken and still create a dynamic piece. Once again, it depends on how you balance that center.

The Rule of Thirds

When I think of Rule of Thirds, I always think of the artist, Thomas Kinkade. I think of him, not only because he used this composition rule a lot, but because when I first learned about the Rule of Thirds, several artists used him as an example. What was funny is that 2 out of 3 of those artists hated him. (If you’re curious as to why, one said it was because he never used anything other than the Rule of Thirds. Another just said it was because some of his paintings made him feel as if the witch from Hansel and Gretel lurked inside one of those cozy house scenes.) 

Anyway, the basic idea behind the Rule of Thirds is that you have a rectangular format to start with. And you divide it into “thirds”. Since I just made all that talk about Thomas Kinkade, here’s one of his paintings below, divided accordingly.

The basic idea is that you put your center of interest – in this case, the cottage – along one of the intersecting lines. Usually, one of the top intersections. There are four intersections total, so you have four places to choose from when planning your composition. So you see, the focal point isn’t right in the middle but off a little bit. At the same time, your eye gets drawn to the sky, which is also along an intersecting line. Then, to balance out the cottage, you can see that tiny cottage off in the distance, just below the sky. 

So, even though the majority of the scene takes place toward the left, your eye will find itself traveling all over the painting. There is still some center action, as you can see with the path that leads us in. But this is a way to show you how using the Rule of Thirds can help create a scene that will keep the viewing looking and even better, create a story. I love coming across pictures that make your mind create a background behind the picture.

Some people don’t care for the Rule of Thirds. They think it’s too simple and keeps you from branching out past it to learn other ways of composing your artwork. I believe it’s a good place to start when you are first learning about composition. Its simplicity is exactly what you need in the beginning. After that, it becomes fun to learn what other ways you can arrange your scene to entice your viewers.

The Golden Mean

The way the Golden Mean or also known as, the Golden Ratio, is supposed to work is that your center of interest goes right where the spiral coils in. Then you also put your subjects along the curved line in order to deliberately draw the viewer all over the picture to the center of interest. 

This is a little more complicated than the Rule of Thirds because it requires more planning. But it also allows for more creativity because you are not limited to only the four points of interesection that the Rule of Thirds has. Now, you can explore further how to arrange your subject matter so that your eye travels all around the picture to curl in on the focal point.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an example of the use of the Golden Mean. Take a look at the picture below…

Once again, I am reminded of the thought I always have when I look at this painting…

I am sure she’s up to something. I don’t know what, but I’m certain of it. The only thing is…I can’t tell if what she’s up to is good or bad…:D 

Hmm…but maybe that’s the result of a good composition. What is she up to? What is she thinking? Why is she smiling like that? I have been left wondering…

More Art Composition Tips

1. Create an Entrance. You want to invite the viewer into the world you’ve created. Use the bottom of the picture to create a path within, such as the Kinkade painting above. You can see that he invites us in with the path from the bottom edge.

2. Create Contrast. Create a lot of light or dramatic darks with your center of interest. This will make it really pop out and the eye will naturally be drawn to the difference in value. (At the same time, if there is a moon, sun or some other light source in addition to your focal point, be careful, as it will tend to take the eye’s attention away.)

3. Keep Your Backgrounds Simple. If your backgrounds are way too busy, people will look at those more than the center of interest. 

4. Be careful with Size. The bigger something is, the more attention it will create. This is fine if that’s where your main focus is. But if it isn’t, then your picture may turn out unbalanced.

5. Don’t Let Objects Touch the Edges. It’s better if they just run off the edge or there is an overlap between objects. If the edge of a object lines up with the edge of the canvas or paper or with the edge of another object, it will make the viewer look at the touching point. It will also create a crowded feeling, as if you crammed in your subject matter.

Tools For Composition

There are a few tools to help aid you in creating your composition. Usually these are clear plastic grids or what is known as a View Catcher such as you see below. Click on the picture to see my review of it. My husband bought it for me along with what it now one of my very favorite books on composition. And both have helped me tremendously in my own studies of composition in art.

However, there is one tool that is totally free, and that’s using your own two hands. If you’re not able to buy a View Catcher or maybe you did buy one and just forgot it the very day you needed it (that would be me), then you can use your own hands to help aid you.


Like anything, composition in art simply takes practice. As you progress in your artistic endeavors, your eye will naturally balance your compositions more and more effectively. You’ll see the values, you’ll know what colors to add or subtract, you’ll know how to tie it all in together to create a strong, dynamic piece. 

And people will hopefully marvel at the genius of your art’s delight! 😀

Happy creating!

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