6 Composition Styles To Know

Composition is a significant part of any artwork. The definition of composition is the way in which elements in an art piece are arranged. The way those elements are arranged usually create an emphaisis, or focal point in an art piece, which is the area where the artist is trying to bring your attention. Therefore, composition is a fundamental part of design that must be considered when creating serious art.

Focal Point/Emphasis

Focal point goes hand-in-hand with composition. The focal point is where the viewer’s eye goes first in an artwork. An artist creates a focal point through putting emphasis on a certain part or parts of the art piece. This can be done in many ways: by making a subject/object large, bright, saturated in color, sharp, light, and so on. In the image below, your eye probably goes first to the black form in the top right. That’s because it’s one of the largest and darkest forms in the painting, and it’s placed in the Rule of Thirds focal area. What is the Rule of Thirds composition type? Read on!


Iron Oxide II, 36” x 36”, Acyrlic & Gold Leaf on Canvas. $2800

Different Types of Composition

There are many different types of composition, and this article will cover the ones I like and use the most. Usually, it’s a good idea to have a sense of your composition when you start your painting, however, if you are an intuitive abstract painter you might discover your composition later (as in my case sometimes). Regardless, in the end, your painting will have more impact if composition was considered at some point.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a composition style in which you divide the canvas into thirds with lines. The lines and where they intersect are all strong focal points. See diagram below:


Image from photoshopsupply.com

Central Composition

Central composition is when the focal point is placed in the center of the art piece. This is probably the most recognized and common composition type, and is effective because our eye likes seeing things front and center.


Serenity, Acrylic on Canvas, 48” x 48”, $4750. Click on image to view more of my paintings.

Golden Rectangle

The Golden Mean/Ratio/Rectangle are all mathematical phenomenons that are mind-blowing to me. According to Wikipedia,

“In geometry, a golden rectangle is a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio, which is the Greek letter “phi,” approximately 1.618. Golden rectangles exhibit a special form of self-similarity: All rectangles created by adding or removing a square from an end are golden rectangles as well.”

Greek temples, proportions of the human face, and the way the middle of a sunflower spirals are all examples of the Golden Mean. I recommend researching this topic more because all the examples of the 1.618 ratio in life are surprising! As you can see in the image below from Gray’s Art School, Greek Temples were built with the Golden Ratio in mind.

Image Credit: Gray’s School of Art

I often use the Golden Rectangle to determine placement for the horizon line in my abstract landscapes. I do this by taking the measurement of the height of the painting and dividing it by 1.618. For example, for a painting with a height of 36”:

36/1.618=22

36-22=14

Therefore, if I want the land to be bigger than the sky, I would put the horizon line at 14” from the top, and the ground would be 22” in height.

Here’s a painting in which I used the Golden Ratio to determine my vertical line placement.


Ash, Acrylic & Ash on Canvas, 40” x 40”, $3800. Click image to view more of my paintings.

This is a 40” x 40” painting.

40/1.618=25

40-25=15

The vertical line is 15” from the left side of the painting, and 25” from the right side. The golden rectangle can be a lot more complicated, but this is a good place to start if you want to give this composition type a try.

Low Horizon Line

In this composition style, you would put your horizon line low, resulting in a what I call a “big sky” landscape or abstract landscape painting. If you would like to paint a dramatic sky, then this would be a good composition style to choose. To place your horizon line, either use the Golden Ratio calculation (height of painting/1.618), or paint the line so you have about 2/3 of the piece as sky, and 1/3 as ground. Don’t worry about being too exact with any of these measurements, rather, use them as a guideline. Here is an example of one of my low horizon/big sky paintings.


Black Mesa, Acrylic on Canvas, SOLD. Click on image to view more of my paintings.

High Horizon

Another strong composition type is High Horizon Line. In this composition, you would place your horizon line high in the art piece. To determine where to put horizon line, use the Golden Ratio or make the sky about 1/3 of the piece and the land 2/3. In this composition type, your sky might take a back seat to the development of detail in the land. Here is one of my paintings using a High Horizon line.


The Waters Beneath us are Deep. Acrylic on Canvas. SOLD. Click on image to view more of my paintings.

Winding River

In the Winding River composition style, you would use a high horizon line and have a form or line (such as a river) that winds to the back of the picture plane. Make sure that the river or form is bigger on the bottom and thinner as it winds up so that you create a sense of depth. See example in handout below.

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Planning your composition will not only make painting easier because it gives you a rough plan, but your piece will look better too. I encourage you to try each of these composition types and discover your personal favorites. After you do that, you can mix and match the composition styles. For example, the first image above is both rule of thirds and low horzion line. Most importantly, even though you have a plan, be willing to change it as needed.

I teach painting workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico in my professional art studio. Beginners and advanced students alike learn how to paint better in less time. Come and take a two-hour class or 3-day Painting Retreat workshops with me!

Do you know I teach painting classes and 3-day artist retreats at my professional studio in Santa Fe, NM? I teach people how to paint using a step-by-step method that I developed from 28 years of painting experience. I make learning how to paint approachable, relaxed and fun, while at the same time teaching students the fundamental principles of good design so they develop the confidence to continue art-making at home. Book a class today!

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