A strong composition is an important part of a successful artwork. Composition is an art term that describes how an artist fills space in their artwork. An artist creates a composition using the elements and principles of art.


Hi my name is Carrie and here on Artist Strong I help artists like you build your skills and develop your unique artist voice. Today we uncover seven steps to a stronger composition in your art.


Use a grid – rule of thirds

Our phones have made the rule of thirds a near daily occurrence in many people’s lives. Have you ever used the camera on your phone or tablet? They have an option to have a grid show up on the screen as you take photographs. I’ve taken a screenshot from my camera to show you. What it looks like and I’ve highlighted the grid. This grid shows points of intersection where you can line up your photograph to get a good shot.

This is also known as the rule of thirds. You can use this same approach in any artwork you create. Imagine this hashtag like mark on top of your surface, or even draw it lightly. Where do the lines intersect? These are good places for focal points in your art.

Tangents and moving off the edges of the canvas or paper

Something you can also look for is a term called tangents. A tangent is when you draw or paint something and it lines up exactly with the edge of the frame. I have an image on the screen for you here.

Tangents are very distracting to the eye and hinder a composition. It’s much better to commit to having objects in your composition that completely go off the edge of your surface (and to typically do this in more than one location – an odd number even – to create balance).

This article talks a bit more about tangents.

Odd numbers rule

So let’s talk about the odd numbers I just mentioned. If you look at artwork across history, there is a regular use of odd numbers in arrangements of still lifes and stories with multiple people painted like the Biblical and mythological stories depicted during the Renaissance. The example I have for you here is by female Dutch artist Clara Peeters, where you can clearly see 3 strong vertical elements in this painting.

For whatever reason, having a composition with an odd number of elements can enhance the overall finished work. I’ll admit, I don’t have a good reason for you, but I encourage you to dig deeper and let me know if you can find research that justifies this. My only justification is art history and my own experience with student work.

Triangles are tops

Speaking of the Renaissance, you’ll observe in works they often arrange the composition in a triangle. This was regularly used as a tool to help create the compositions in their artwork.

You can see this in the two works I share here by Artemisia Gentileschi: the Birth of St. John the Baptist and Judith Beheading Holofernes. 

Model historical artwork

And the Renaissance is a time period that just keeps giving. I found many, many artists across time who would find a painting by a master they admire and use the exact composition but in their artwork.

Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass or Dejeuner Sur l’herbe  is a good example. You can see the work up close through the Google Art project and I have the image for you here. Take note of the seating arrangement.

Now look at a print designed by Renaissance master Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi. Observe the seating arrangement of the figures in the bottom right corner of the print.

Now go find yourself a composition to model your work after!

How a little frame tool helps

Some people subconsciously think using tools is a kind of cheat. But I’m here to tell you that’s silly. Artists from all time periods found ways to make making art easier for themselves. Van Gogh was known to use a frame tool like this viewfinder to help him decide on compositions.

I’ve made one here to show you as well.

When you are outside looking at objects or landscapes OR if you have an image reference that you want to use a smaller part of in your art, a frame like this actively blocks out areas from your vision so you can focus solely on the composition you’ve chosen.

Draw a map of how your eye travels through the work

This last one I don’t usually actively draw out, but I take some time looking at my art and observe how my viewing experience leads me through the artwork. This can help you see if your eyes travel to your desired focal point and help emphasize your theme or message in the work.

I share an example of how my eyes travel through the artwork The Absinthe Drinkers by Edgar Degas.

Now, per usual, I want to remind you: remember my dear rebel artists, rules are always made to be broken. My experience, however, is that artists who break these rules and create successful art have educated themselves in rules of composition. They learned how to use them before they deviate from them.

I hope these 7 steps to a strong composition help you! Do you have another piece of advice or tool you use to create a successful composition? What about something like the Golden Ratio? I’d love to hear about it. Share it with us in the comments below. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time here on Artist Strong.

art education, free art resources, art tools, composition in art


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