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Articles by L. Diane Johnson

The Basics of Landscape Composition

Composition is one of the most challenging yet powerful and exciting aspects of painting. It is the technical foundation of your painting. Without it, paintings visually fall apart. Careful consideration of the composition before putting paint to surface will make your session more enjoyable, and contribute to the success of your painting.

Work out your composition early, moving yourself or elements around until the arrangement is pleasing to you. Making major changes and adjustments later in the painting process is much more difficult. All of the elements found in your painting (sky, land, water, buildings, etc.) should be in balanced relationship of scale, shapes, rhythm, pattern, etc. In a landscape painting, you'll look for a foreground, middle ground and background (see my lesson on "Building Your Plein air Painting" for more on this.)

Balancing Your Painting:

You should have a strong center of interest, or focal point. This is the element to which all other elements will direct the viewer. You may have secondary elements, but attempt to have just one center of interest. Use the other features in your painting, sky, trees, and flowers, to lead and keep the viewer coming back to the focal point. Doing this will also create a sense of depth and space in your painting.

Technically, there are two kinds of balance in a composition. Symmetrical balance (also referred to as "formal"), and asymmetrical balance (also called "informal balance"). Symmetrical balance produces paintings that are restful, calming, and visually stable. Asymmetrical balance is characterized by arranging related or unrelated objects of differing visual weights counterbalancing one another. This can heighten interest, bring informality, or even produce tension in a painting. While both are ways correct, yet each offers different advantages and purpose.

How to Compose:

Using a viewfinder

Once you've selected your subject, how do you compose your painting? There are several approaches. One simple way is to use a viewfinder. An empty 35mm slide holder will do nicely, or simply cut two right angle corners, or fixed rectangle out of a piece of cardboard. If you have a prepared size canvas, board, or paper, first look through the viewfinder to capture the proportion of your painting surface. Then look through the viewfinder with one eye while squinting with the other, to view the scene you wish to paint. Move the viewfinder toward and away from your eye fine-tuning the composition by deciding whether you prefer an symmetrical or asymmetrical, vertical or horizontal composition, and so on. Don't be limited by the shape of the viewfinder (unless the surface you are using is a fixed shape.) Physically move around until you see exactly what you want, then set up your equipment.

Rule of Thirds

Another guide in composing is the "rule of thirds". Used more in photography than in art, the concept still applies. Simply put, look for naturally occurring in divisions of thirds in a scene. Try to avoid splitting your painting top to bottom, or side to side in half. It is more interesting to have a low or high horizon for instance, with one third at the top, two thirds at the bottom (or visa-versa) than splitting a painting right down the middle. Of course, many more variations are possible.

The Law of the Golden Section

A classic mathematical formula for distributing weight in a painting. Portrait painters since the Renaissance have adopted the use of this formula which is also applicable to any other subject as well. The law established by the ancient architect called Vitruvius, states:

"For a space divided into equal parts to be agreeable and aesthetic, between the smallest and largest parts there must be the same relationship as between this larger part and the whole space."

You can find more in-depth explanations about this law in the book, The Big Book of Oil Painting, by José M. Parramón.

The Key

The idea is to become familiar with the principles above as a guide in training your eyes to naturally create interesting and powerful compositions. In so doing, work to simplify, reducing all elements in the painting to only the information you need to express your subject or idea. In time, the very deliberate process of developing a composition will give way to a more natural, intuitive, interesting, and automatic activity, resulting in more original arrangements. You will also be better able to control your visual statement by expressing what you wish.

Composition Design Checklist:

Here are just a few things to keep in mind and check while composing:


balance, of elements & color


proper rendering of light using value


center of interest




space division










direction of line(s)


positive/negative shapes


balance of patterns






overall design quality & visual strength

T I P :

To check your composition while painting, view through a mirror turning your back toward the scene & easel. Shift your eyes back & forth between the painting and scene. Check for skewed elements, alignment, color, etc. Turn back to the painting to make your changes.

Just a few of many compositional possibilities:

L. Diane Johnson is an award winning graphic designer, illustrator and fine artist with over 26 years experience. Diane is represented by galleries nationwide. Visit her site for more information at Diane is a contributing editor to WetCanvas! and can be reached via email at

©1996-2000 L. Diane Johnson, PSA

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