Composition in One Easy Lesson

Great Tips How to Design Your Image

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

There are unlimited possibilities for what one can do with a composition; the combinations are countless. A composition is essentially the arrangement of objects/forms within the border of the canvas or paper. The aim of this tutorial is to illustrate that there is one essential ingredient to a superb composition.

There are quite a few compositional theories about how to direct the eye movement, how to tier figures, how to create either dynamic or calm feelings, etc. Virtually all of these theories are valid but the sheer weight of all the different rules can easily overwhelm an artist with a pencil in hand and a pristine white page in front of him or the spectator trying to grasp the quality of a composition.

Since I was a kid I studied artists and one particular approach I had was to look for the common denominator between artists. For example, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Picasso (in specific periods) use an egg shape for their heads. Another example is how great artists have similarly arranged compositions and I discovered the following:

An excellent composition has interesting shapes in all four corners.

The operative word is interesting. And I cannot stress that aspect enough. Artists too easily fluff the corners with gray emptiness or boring, generic shapes. The pro-active way is to accent and look for the shapes and colors that excite you.

Vermeer demo

Ok, let’s start. Here is Vermeer’s Girl with a Water Pitcher, 1665. I have drawn an oval on the image. What concerns us here are the colors and shapes outside of the oval, the areas of the four corners. We have the motifs of a map and the carpet table cover on the right. There are beautiful abstract shapes of the window, corner of the wall, and light in the upper left. And in the bottom left there is nuanced shadowing of the corner walls.

Vermeer demo

Diebenkorn, Cityscape 1 (Landscape No. 1), 1963
Diebenkorn, Cityscape 1 (Landscape No. 1), 1963

Diebenkorn obviously is not a realist like Vermeer and yet, like Vermeer, he has interesting shapes in the corners.

Diebenkorn Demo
Velazquez Las Meninas

Las Meninas, 1656, by Velazquez is one of my favorite paintings. In 3 of the corners, we have wonderful shapes of the canvas, the group of the dog and the children, and window niches and framed paintings. The upper left corner is essentially all ceiling, but you can see how Velazquez created a pocket of light there.


Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, 1889

A nice contrast to Las Meninas is this Van Gogh painting of his bedroom. Notice that there is little in the bottom center, rather all the objects are pushed out towards the corners.

Van Gogh, demo

Picasso, La famille de saltimbanques, 1905
Picasso, La famille de saltimbanques, 1905

In three of the corners of this painting, Picasso uses changeable stuff of clouds and light to create interest.

Picasso demo

Vermeer Woman with a Red Hat
Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat, 1665

Vermeer Woman with a Red Hat

Another favorite painting of mine is this Vermeer. I think by now you can easily see that these artists create very interesting shapes, colors and light in their corners.

You might want to have a good look at the stunning Cezanne composition.

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

I hope you enjoyed seeing composition in a fresh way. I guarantee that you will feel a great deal of satisfaction when you take a little extra time and effort in the corners of your paintings and make them interesting!

Michael Newberry
New York, June ’06

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