A basic understanding of composition is one of the most important things when it comes to creating any kind of artwork. Without a sense of composition, eye-flow, and hierarchy, your work will suffer and may have an amateurish look to it. One of the best ways to learn about composition is to actually look through other artwork and photography and study the way your eye moves across images. Also, take note of size, shape, value and color and how these elements play a part in creating the overall composition.

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a simple guideline to follow for any piece of art and also the main foundation for composition. Start off by dividing an image into thirds by drawing lines – vertically and horizontally. Now, there should be two lines going in each direction. Where these lines intersect are “points of interest” – generally showing where the focal point should be located in your piece. This is not always the case – keep in mind, these are just guidelines, not strict rules. But, you must learn the rules before you can effectively break them.

Here are two of my paintings showing the rule of thirds and points of interest. Notice that the focal points aren’t always directly on the intersections but are somewhat close to them:

Using Shapes and Value

Now here are some paintings done by great artists of the past. The images on the right show the rule of thirds and points of interest – the images on the left show different kinds of compositions and shapes made when following eye-flow:

Below is a masterful painting by Edgar Payne titled “The Rendezvous”. He uses the form of the rock as well as the shape of shadows and light to direct your attention right where he wants you to look, while also keeping your eye moving around the painting.


Study other famous works and figure out how they used light, color, contrast and other design elements to create interesting compositions in their paintings. Try to understand what makes their paintings look so good – and then incorporate those things into your own work. By practicing this and drawing thumbnail sketches of different compositions, you will soon understand what makes an image appealing to the eye. Look back at your older works and determine what your work is lacking in terms of composition – this is a good exercise which will help you make better compositions for your future work.

Below are examples of how I used the Rule of Thirds and other compositional elements in my own paintings. Be sure to check out the Further Reading below the photos.

Further Reading and Learning

My YouTube videos on the subject of composition: http://www.youtube.com/user/SchaeferArt/search?query=composition
Edgar Payne’s exceptional book, one of the best on this subject: Composition of Outdoor Painting
Another great book on composition: Mastering Composition
Great tool to use while painting outdoors or in the studio: Compositional Tools – the ViewCatcher

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