Even in front of nature one must compose. ~ Edgar Degas

Composition and design are some of the most powerful tools that artists have to make compelling paintings. And isn’t that what most of us want? To make paintings that draw the viewer in and hold their attention? To make our paintings riveting? But all too often, what I see in workshops or when I’m judging competitions are compositions that at best don’t draw me in. At the worst, they fall flat and lifeless.

Usually it’s from one of these 5 design faux pas.
  1. Centralized focal point
  2. Dead space
  3. Absolute even proportions
  4. Lack of balance
  5. Too much clutter
 
Centralized focal point
Cropped like this the composition is centralized.

Cropped like this the composition is centralized.

Putting the focal point in the center is our default mode, but it’s the most potentially boring one and the most difficult place to pull it off well. Get that focal point out of the center. Think about using the rule of thirds to move the focal point to one of those intersection points.
 
Dead space
Dead space on the right hand side.

Dead space on the right hand side.

Dead space is any area of the picture plane that doesn’t attract your eye, that doesn’t draw you in. Not activating the whole picture plane means that you’re wasting all of that visual real estate that could be wowing the viewer with rich visual information. Think about using line, movement, and rhythm to activate all of the space in your design.
 
Absolute even proportions
Half sky and half land (and centralized).

Half sky and half land (and centralized).

Our visual perception is hard wired to look and search for difference. So when our eyes are presented with absolute even amounts of anything, we keep looking and searching for difference. So avoid 50:50 splits in anything – 50:50 light and dark, 50:50 figure to ground or positive to negative shapes. Think about using contrasting proportions to create luscious little areas of difference. As a bonus, these will help you create strong focal points.
 
Lack of balance
Balance leans to the left.

Balance leans to the left.

Some parts of our visual perception are so tied to us biologically that even those not trained in composition and design will immediately understand when things are “off”. Balance is one of those. If your composition is not balanced, it will create a profound sense of unease in the viewer. Now if you’re wanting to create visual tension, then have at it. This is a guarenteed way to do it.
But that’s usually not the goal. So think about making asymmetrical compositions that intrigue and engage the viewer without making them feel like they need to tilt their heads to the side.
 
Too much clutter

Ways too many disconnected shapes and areas - cluttered.

Ways too many disconnected shapes and areas – cluttered.

Including subordinate focal points in addition to your main focal point will help draw the viewer’s eye around your composition. But having too many points of interest and too many shapes and objects is visually distracting and runs the risk of overwhelming the viewer. Think about simplifying the number of shapes and objects. Limit your points of interest to the main focal point and two subordinate ones. If you use them consciously and intentionally, composition and design can help you make compelling paintings that draw your viewers in and keep them coming back for more.

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