“Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.”

Henri Matisse

I have a theory that we all have a natural ability to create compositions that work when we follow our intuition. However, that isn’t always necessarily easy, especially if you’re not feeling particularly confident, are out of practice, or just starting out.

That’s why it can be helpful to know some of the widely used and effective compositional styles, so you have a reference or springboard. I shared three in this post, but there are many more.

I don’t recommend rigidly deciding on a composition before you begin and trying to make your painting squeeze into it. ;) It’s not something to set in stone, nor do you have to use only one per painting! But you can take note of the paintings that activate a response in you, and notice how they are arranged and what impact that has. Then you can try using those in your own work, while allowing them to evolve where necessary.

A strong composition grabs the eye and guides it confidently around the painting. It makes the focal point clear, while offering an interesting and satisfying experience wherever the eye lands.

So here are three more compositional styles to add to the ones I shared before.

L Shape

The beauty of the L shape composition is that you can use it any way up. In my painting below, the L has been turned so it goes down the left hand side of the canvas and across the top. The L shape allows for plenty of open space, which is why I love it, as that’s something I try to create in my work.

You can see then how composition can support what the painting is saying. It can contain or suggest space, give direction and move the eye.

In the painting below by Richard Diebenkorn, the L shape is created by the windows. If you flatten the image in your mind’s eye, you can also see a grid composition, which is when the canvas is divided up into {often irregular} squares, like a patchwork.

Triangle

The triangle composition can be used and interpreted in various ways, I’ve found. The shape itself creates a solid and stable base, making it effective for portraits, as seen in this one by Rembrandt, onto which someone has kindly popped a shape to illustrate. {And notice it doesn’t have to be an equilateral triangle!}

Rembrandt

In the painting below by Cezanne, the triangle composition created by the trees echoes the diagonals of several of the figures, and creates a kind of frame within the painting, revealing the distant landscape but bringing our eyes back to the figures in the foreground where most of the action is happening.

Cruciform

Cruciform – meaning cross shaped – lends itself well to landscapes, figurative, abstract, and still life paintings, in particular vases of flowers. This painting by Sheila Marlborough is a great example, and shows too that the cross doesn’t need to be centralised. In fact it often works better if at least one element is off centre in the painting.

{See how it works as an L shape too. Lots of mix and match!}

Below is a cruciform composition by abstract artist Lola Donohue. Notice how, like the L shape, it offers an opportunity for leaving some ‘white space’ in the painting {literally in this case}. That allows the eye to rest and the focal area to stand out more.

Do you have a favourite composition? When you look at your work overall does a particular approach keep showing up? Or is there one you’d like to experiment with? Let me know in the comments!

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