12 pro tips to improve your artistic composition

07. Threes are everywhere

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

The Rule of Thirds seems to work its way into most aspects of picture making, and value is no exception. When constructing compositions, I tend to think in general arrangements of foreground, middle-ground and background.

To heighten the relationship between these three depths, I try to restrict each to a range of value, favouring black, white or grey. For instance, you can let the background predominately be white tones, the middle-ground predominantly greys and the foreground predominantly black tones.

Of course, any arrangement of these three values will work. By restricting your values in these areas you reinforce your image's sense of depth and make the silhouettes very easy to read – and that legibility is important.

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

Muddy values hurt the viewer's ability to discern shapes, especially at a small scale. That's why you'll see this technique used so often in trading card art. When your image is just a few inches tall, high-contrast compositions work especially well.

Triptych value schemes like this are readily apparent in the works of the Old Masters, particularly in the engravings of Gustave Doré.

His paintings all show different arrangements of black, white and grey to emphasise the difference between foreground, middle-ground and background.

08. Imbalance of values

Looking at Doré's engravings, not only has he divided his composition into three obvious layers of depth by using three ranges of value, he also creates an imbalance in the proportions of those values.

For instance, he may use a large amount of grey, and a small amount of white, but rarely equal amounts. This reinforces the importance of imbalance to create tension.

By letting the composition be dominated by grey, the small accents of white and black garner more attention, and draw our eye toward the subject.

09. The benefit of contrast

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

Black and white are inherently powerful tones. If you use them sparingly, and right next to each other, you can draw the viewer's attention to a particular spot with ease.

When painting, try reserving the purest whites and blacks for your focal point. For instance, if your main character has very pale skin, try placing something extremely dark on them, such as black hair or black clothes.

This is one of the easiest and most successful ways of making your subject pop. In my painting Blood Divided, I did just this to make sure the heroine sat apart from the background.

10. Making magic

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

Colour is an extremely powerful tool, and can inject a piece of art with mood and light. But it's also a strong compositional tool. Just like implied lines and contrasting values, colour can be used to draw the viewer's eye anywhere we want.

As mentioned before, disparities draw the viewer's eye. So, if there's a colour scheme in place that's predominantly red, any other hue (particularly a complementary green) draws attention to itself.

Or you can create a disparity between levels of saturation, such as a mainly grey painting with high saturation in a small area. The greater the disparity, the greater the attention it receives.

I often use this method to create the illusion of magic or dramatic lighting. A colour can appear intense simply by making the rest of the composition relatively desaturated, and/or complementary, in comparison.

My painting Soulborn is primarily red and purple, yet everything besides the similarly hued 'magic' element has been slightly reduced in saturation.

11. What's your angle?

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

Imbalance can create a more exciting flow to your composition, but it can also add drama. The next time your painting isn't exciting enough, try tipping the camera angle.

Even the slightest tip to the horizon line can turn a mundane scene into a cool action shot. Experiment with the psychological impressions that different camera angles create.

Straight, this painting lacks real excitement. The bricks, rain and hair all create simple vertical lines, and don't do much to enhance the drama of the piece. Tipping the image gives it a whole new feel.

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

Suddenly it appears like the woman is being thrust against the wall. There's also more of a sense of weight to their poses

12. Putting it all together

A good composition is one where the artist controls the movement of the viewer's eye to a beneficial result.

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

We can do this by a number of means, such as reinforcing the focal point with the Rule of Thirds, implied lines, contrast of value and selective colour saturation.

The 12 ultimate tips for composition in art

Putting all of these tools into action in a single piece, Jean-Léon Gérôme's Duel After a Masquerade Ball is the perfect example of using all compositional devices to your advantage.

Words: Dan dos Santos

Dan's work spans a variety of genres including novels, comics and film. He has worked for Disney, Universal Studios, Wizards of the Coast, Dark Horse Comics and DC Comics, as well as running the art website Muddy Colors.

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