Painting Composition Tips for Better Paintings

Want to create better paintings? Well as artist Patti Mollica says, “A strong composition is the foundation of a successful painting.” And whether you’re a beginner or a more experienced artist, knowing how to create a successful composition takes practice and requires mastering a few key techniques.

But don’t worry, artists, Mollica has you covered. Below, she shares essential painting composition tips and techniques — with a few quick and easy mini demos along the way — all pulled from her book, How to Paint, Fast, Loose and Bold.

Burano Fisherman by Patti Mollica, acrylic on panel, 12 x 12; private collection

Get ready to enhance your skills and create more successful artworks with these painting composition tips. Enjoy!

Creating a Value Sketch

Creating a preliminary three-value sketch before you start painting will help you see the overall light, middle and dark patterns so you can make decisions about design and composition — the foundation of any painting. It only makes sense to plan ahead before you spend hours, days, weeks or even months working on a painting.

Mass Shapes

Create one or even several value sketches of your subject matter and try to simplify your composition into a few recognizable shapes and values. Be willing to veer away from what you actually see and change shapes, modify values and anything else you deem necessary in the interest of creating order and organization out of visual chaos.

Use Artistic License

Keep your eraser handy because you will try out ideas and change your mind often. This is part of the design process. Remember, you are not working with numbers; you are working with visual information that is being filtered through your personal sense of aesthetics.

What do you think looks good? Does it convey your subject clearly? Will it be readable from a distance when you squint at it? These are all questions you will need to ask yourself.

Color Won’t Save You

Many artists do not plan ahead and just start painting what they see in the hopes that color will save the day. I do not recommend this. In fact, there is a popular saying, “Color gets all the credit, but value does all the work.”

If you work out your composition as you paint, making changes and revisions with hues, values, shapes and placement, your colors will become overworked and muddy.

Muddy colors are the result of changing your mind so many times that the colors all start to blend into gray-brown. Having a game plan for value organization is not only the key to strong compositions, it’s also one of the keys to cleaner colors.

Creating a Value Sketch, Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Organize and simplify: There is a fair amount of complexity in the scene, but a quick value sketch shows you everything you need to organize and simplify.

Follow Your Plan

When you have completed one or more sketches, decide which composition you like best and move forward with the painting. Keep your value sketch in plain view while painting so you can refer to it and ensure you are following your plan and sticking with the decisions you made earlier.

When mixing your colors, make certain they correspond to your value plan. Having a value “map” in front of you will allow you to loosen up and paint with more confidence because you will have laid the groundwork for a strong foundation upon which the painting will rest.

It does take some time and effort to compose these value sketches, depending on how complex your scene is, but if you can’t simplify the composition in black and white, it will be far more difficult to do it in color.

A value sketch should not be large or overly time-consuming. Fifteen minutes for a 4- by 5-inch sketch is all you need. Don’t make the mistake of doing a large, elaborate rendering. That defeats the point of learning to simplify. A quick visual guideline is all that is necessary to keep you on track. Keep it simple!

Creating a Value Sketch, Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

This landscape has been translated and simplified down to a handful of values. In the value sketch, you can see that significant changes were made to the overall composition and its elements. These decisions were made according to my artistic license; what I thought the painting needed.

Composing Your Composition

Consider the following basic guidelines to strengthen your design and overall composition.

Dominant Values

Make an effort to design your value sketch (and thus painting composition) so that one of your values will take up most of the picture area. The boldest compositions have a dominant value. Try to avoid having equal amounts of each value in your composition.

Decide on a Dominant Value

In Blue Building on Tenth Ave., there is a dominance of middle value and dark value, with very little light value. The large light shape of the awning hemmed in by dark shapes above and below leads the eye to the figures.

Blue Building on Tenth Ave. by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Blue Building on Tenth Ave. by Patti Mollica, acrylic on panel, 16 x 16; private collection

The strong directional lines of the windows also lead the eye downward. The large middle value shape of the road frames in and provides a contrast for the light-value streak of sidewalk, again bringing the eye to the figures.

Focal Point

Decide where you want the viewer’s eye to land — that will be the primary area of interest in the painting known as the focal point. A properly designed composition will lead the viewer’s eye right to it.

Although this is more relevant in landscapes than still life paintings, your focal point should be supported by your design and the value patterns that lead up to it. Elements of color, value and directional shapes should be employed and emphasized so that there is a pathway leading around your painting to the focal point.

The eye will automatically be attracted to the area of the painting where the lightest and darkest values are in closest proximity to each other. If the values are scattered and don’t offer any type of path toward the focal point, the viewer won’t know where to engage with the painting.

Flower Dude by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Flower Dude by Patti Mollica, acrylic on panel, 16 x 12; private collection

Lead the Viewer’s Eye

Notice how the perspective lines of the fruit, flowers and sidewalk in Flower Dude (above) lead the eye directly to the figure, which is the lightest value surrounded by the darkest value. The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the strongest areas of contrast in the painting. Use this strategy when establishing your focal point

Cropping

Example of poor cropping in a painting by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Poor cropping example; cropping the painting with the fruit positioned exactly in the middle has created awkward tension in the composition.

Many beginner painters make the common mistake of positioning the entire subject smack in the middle of the canvas, floating in space.

Example of good cropping in a painting by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Cross wisely to keep things interesting.

Cropping some elements slightly off the picture area is much more interesting and creates more variety in the negative space.

Try Variations

Note how the top of the orange and the cast shadow get cropped off the picture area in the sketch below. This is more compelling than having every element centered within the picture boundary.

Example of value sketch by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Try cropping your sketch so that the space around your subject (i.e., negative space) has interesting and unequal-sized shapes. Decide in your sketch how to crop your subject to see where it should be positioned on the canvas.

Pink on Orange by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Pink on Orange by Patti Mollica, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 9; collection of Mark Hagan

My initial idea was to position the orange and slices on a horizontal format. But after looking at my sketch, I decided it might be more interesting in a vertical format. Try different variations; change your mind. Just be sure you do it all before you start painting!

Good Crop vs. Bad Crop

With a square formatting (below) the space around the apples is equal. A = B and C = D.

Bad crop composition example by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

In the next example (below), the shapes are unequal and therefore more interesting.

Good crop composition example by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Also notice that although the apple sits in the exact middle of the canvas, the cast shadow and the background apple are cropped so that they go beyond the borders. This diagonal movement offsets the static quality of an object placed in the middle of the canvas.

Good crop composition example by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Here is another example of interesting cropping and placement of a subject.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds states that an image is most pleasing when the subject or focal point is placed along an intersection of imaginary lines that divide the image into thirds — both vertically and horizontally.

Rule of Thirds example by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Horizon and Focal Point Placement is Key

Try to avoid splitting the composition of your painting in half, vertically or horizontally. It is more interesting to place your horizon line either high or low on the canvas. Your focal point is best positioned anywhere but directly in the middle of the canvas.

Zig Zag Through Midtown by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips | Artists Network

Zig Zag Through Midtown by Patti Mollica, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 18; private collection

Overlapping Objects

When composing your setup, try overlapping some elements to create a more dynamic sense of space and better relationships between the elements.

Strap Happy by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips for Beginners | Artists Network

Strap Happy by Patti Mollica, acrylic on panel, 12 x 12; collection of Ute Spatz

When objects are placed evenly apart with no overlapping, the resulting composition can be boring and flat.

Poor composition example using shoes by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips | Artists Network

Variety

The eye loves variety. It is intrigued by unequal divisions of space and alignment, and differences in shapes, edges, textures, directional lines and size.

Try to create compositions that are dynamic by the conscious inclusion and arrangement of pictorial elements that play off each other. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make the divisions of space around and between objects unequal and uneven.
  • Avoid aligning objects on a horizontal or vertical axis.
  • Include a variety of shapes, sizes and proportions in your painting. If the composition feels overly geometric, consider adding or emphasizing an organic shape for visual contrast. Alternate your brushwork edges. Contrast hard, sharp edges near the focal point with soft, feathery edges in the subordinate areas.
  • Enhance smooth or solid color passages with busy, tactile areas.
  • Contrast a dominant horizontal composition such as a flat landscape with strong vertical or diagonal elements like a telephone pole or tree.
Chickadeaux by Patti Mollica | Painting Composition Tips | Artists Network

Chickadeaux by Patti Mollica, acrylic on panel, 8 x 8; collection of Susan Martin

Keep Practicing

By practicing these painting composition tips and techniques, you will be well on your way to creating better and bolder paintings. Be sure to check out the rest of the simple painting techniques demonstrated in Patti Mollica’s book, How to Paint Fast, Loose and Bold, and discover how to achieve a powerful composition, every time you paint.