No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition. –Claude Monet
Composition is basically the way you arrange elements in your artwork—the overall design of your drawing or painting.
The study of composition can be very complicated. Designing a good composition is the key to any successful work of art, but unfortunately there is no secret or magical trick to it. This lesson is meant to be a very simple approach to basic composition—just enough to get you started off in the right direction. If you’re interested in learning about formal composition, you can see the full lessons in our Student Resource Center.
In this lesson, we’ll cover the basics so that you can compose a successful, simple still life.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
First things first: take your paper or canvas and using a soft pencil or piece of vine charcoal, draw a square then divide it into thirds vertically and horizontally so it looks like this:
Now let’s discuss why we had you do this.
When designing your composition, putting your focal point in that center box (marked with an X below) will make it feel static. To create a more dynamic composition, position objects and focal points along the intersections of those lines (circled in red below).
This doesn’t mean that the center box should be completely blank—just don’t position objects directly in the center of it. Let’s look at one of my favorite paintings for an example of this rule in use:
When I place the grid over the painting, you can see that Cotán has left the center box open:
Just the edge of the melon is peeking into it, which makes the painting seem more exciting.
You can create more dynamic compositions by positioning objects at and along intersections of those lines.
Balance is way individual elements in your drawing or painting are distributed. Imagine your drawing as a scale: the items in your drawing should be balanced so that the scale doesn’t tip one way or the other.
- Unbalanced: In the first image above, there are too many heavy items on the left, making the composition unbalanced. Don’t think about the actual weight of the items, but their visual weight. Large objects carry more visual weight than small objects.
- Symmetrical Balance: The second image shows symmetrical balance. While the scale isn’t toppling over in either direction, symmetry often makes for a less exciting visual composition.
- Asymmetrical Balance: The third image shows asymmetrical balance, which is the most visually pleasing of the three. There’s an odd number of items grouped together, which is more interesting than an even number of items. Two of the items are smaller and grouped together to balance out the weight of the third larger object.
Let’s look at the still life again and see how Cotán is using asymmetrical balance:
The hanging fruits on the left are balanced out by the two smaller fruits down on the right hand side of the painting, as well as the right wall:
While it might seem that in order to create balance, you should have an even number of objects in your composition, the opposite is true. Odd numbers are more visually appealing and make for a much more sophisticated design, which leads into our next compositional rule…
The Rule of Odds applies to the number of objects of interest in your painting or drawing. An odd number of items will make the artwork more visually exciting. Even numbers often create a balance that is too symmetrical, which can make the painting seem stale.
Notice how Cotán has five objects of interest in his still life painting. Look what happens when we eliminate one of the objects:
For now, when you set up a still life to draw or paint from, use three objects of varying sizes and visual weights. If you’re an overachiever, you can use five objects, but it’s better to keep things simple to start with.
Exercise One: Make A Viewfinder
Find a piece of cardboard (one wide side of a cereal box would work fine) and cut a 4-inch by 6-inch rectangle out of the center of it. Now, find some string and some tape—you’re going to make your own Rule of Thirds viewfinder. Mark with a pencil each third around all sides of the rectangle and tape your string along those marks. Here’s mine:
Now, walk around your house and look at different objects through your viewfinder. Try coming up with different compositions, keeping your focal points along the intersections of the strings.
Here I have set up a little still life with some objects from my kitchen:
This is my first setup. Let’s see how it looks through the viewfinder:
Not too bad. Now I will try some other setups:
I think this is the winning setup for me.
Now it’s your turn…
Exercise Two: Practicing With Composition Setup
Using your viewfinder, set up a still life that has asymmetrical balance with an odd number of items. Move the objects around and look through your viewfinder to determine the composition that appeals to you the most, using the above rules. When you come up with a composition you like, make a small thumbnail sketch of it (about 2” x 3.5” or so) so you can compare the compositions and choose your favorite.
Bonus Exercise: Draw Your Selected Setup
Now draw your composed still life! Show us your work using our submission form.
Remember, just keep practicing compositions using the rules of thirds, asymmetrical balance and odds. Just like with any other skill, at first you have to work hard to put the rules into use, but after you keep practicing and working at it, soon it will be second nature.
Use a piece of paper or canvas that is at least 8″ x 10″ to work on your still life. For painting, start with the background first, then move on to larger areas, only filling in details at the very end. Remember that this exercise may take you several hours to complete. If you can’t do it all at once, take a photo of your still life setup so you can finish it at a later time.
Practice, practice, practice! 😉
Key Lesson Learnings: Using the Rule of Odds, Asymmetrical Balance, and the Rule of Thirds, you have begun to learn about how to compose an appealing drawing or painting and had your first experience painting a still life on your own.
Next Lesson: Fabric And Drapery