By Neil Blevins
Created On: May 1st 2023
In trying to find good compositions using all of the various
techniques, like Compositional weight, Focal Points, Contrast, etc, you
tend to come across the same general sorts of compositions again and
again. And while we all want to make innovative stuff, there's nothing
wrong with the foundation of our compositions to be based on tried and
true formulas. After all, the reason they work is because the eye and
brain process visuals in a specific way, and these sorts of rules have
been proven to work well with the human brain for thousands of years.
So lets go through a bunch of the more common types of compositions,
and hopefully these will help explain some of your own compositions,
why they work or why they don't, and inspire you to try using them as
the basis for new work.
Here's two great resources on this subject:
Here's the 18 Composition Types discussed in the video:
- The Circle
- The Rectangle
- The Pyramid
- The Cross
- The Slide
- Z Arrangement
- L Arrangement
- H Arrangement
- Y Arrangement
- C Arrangement
- V Arrangement
- X Arrangement
- Compound Curve
- Rule Of Thirds
- Golden Ratio
Causes the eye to follow the curve, which keeps it from exiting the
picture frame. Circles can be actual circles, or implied circles.
Just like the canvas itself, a second rectangular shape is placed
inside the painting, trapping the viewer’s eye inside. Feels more
formal than the circle because it has hard edges. Rectangles can be
actual rectangles, or implied rectangles.
The pyramid has a big wide base vs a small thin top, and so it
frequently used to show stability and balance, just like the Pyramids
of Egypt that have stood up for thousands of years. Pyramids can be
actual pyramids or implied.
In older paintings, a common technique was to place your subject near
the center of the painting, and the subject would be entirely in the
frame without going out of frame. This plus a predisposition for
symmetry defines the iconic painting. Used commonly for formal or
religious subjects. Someone you're supposed to look up to or idolize.
The cross is two lines, one vertical, one horizontal, with a point in
the center. It leads the eye along the horizontal line, and then along
the vertical line, where the two cross creates a focal point. Also in
the western world, the cross has a religious meaning, which can enhance
or detract from your painting's meaning. Like Iconic, can also feel a
The diagonal element in the painting causes the eye to travel along it,
which gives the image a sense of speed, like gravity pulling you down a
slide. The implied movement also makes the image more dynamic, and a
touch uneasy. In film, tilting the camera to create this sort of slide
is called a "dutch angle", and is used to give the audience the feeling
that something is wrong.
Has the dynamic feeling of the slide, but then adds a bar at the top
and bottom which helps keep the subject anchored.
Makes an L shape. Similar to the Rectangle, except the rectangle is
touching the side of the painting. Can feel a little unbalanced if
you're not careful, since a lot of the detail is weighted to one side.
A very stable arrangement, since you have straight vertical lines that
are balanced on each side of the painting. Always reminds me a bit of a
horse with a rider.
The top of the Y gives a sense of movement due to the diagonal nature
of the lines, but then the V is stabilized with a pillar the the bottom.
Similar to the L, but we add a roof. Can give an uneasy feeling because
we have something looming at the top of the image when we should be
seeing bright blue sky, like a large bird ready to swoop down and
This gives an uneasy feeling because it is an upside down pyramid. If
the pyramid is stable, this is unstable, trying to stay upright on a
tiny point with a big weight above it. Can also feel dangerous, like
someone is stabbing downwards with a sharp knife.
Half way between a slide and a cross. Very dynamic composition, implies
movement, but also where the two lines cross creates an excellent focal
point. The 2 diagonals trap the eye. X marks the spot.
This is frequently used as a way to lead a viewer's eye into a
painting. Like for example a river that swerves left and right and gets
smaller as it goes into the distance, it brings the viewer's eye along
with it to the focal point.
The Radii is where lines converge into a single dot. Can create a sense
of movement, placing your focal point near where the lines cross will
bring the eye right to where it's supposed to look. Also resembled a
one point perspective grid, or an explosion.
Like Iconic, a lot of older religious paintings used symmetry heavily,
and many old churches use symmetry in their architecture. So making
your painting heavily symmetrical gives that sense of power and ancient
majesty. Another good way to create symmetry: Use water reflections.
Rule Of Thirds
Split the canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Place
elements along these lines and object focal points where the lines
intersect. If you read books left to right, then placing objects at the
right intersections helps the eye travel towards something when it
enters the image on the left. Many paintings place one focal point at a
top intersection, and then a second at the bottom intersection on the
other side of the image. But make sure one of the focal points is
dominant, or they will fight for the eye’s attention.
This is a container for a lot of similar ideas, The Golden Rectangle,
The Golden Spiral, The Golden Rule, the Divine Proportions, etc. In
short, the Golden Ratio is a concept created by the Ancient Greeks
based on observing nature. Two quantities are in the golden ratio if
their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the
two quantities. Calculating this results in the number 1 to 1.618.
Using this ratio, we can create any number of different grids,
including rectangles, circles, and the spiral, which appears in a lot
of nature such as seashells. It's thought that this is a sort of divine
ratio that if you use it in your art, you're tapping into a godly
number that will please the eye.