Composition in One Easy Lesson

Energize Your Art, Part One Chapter 2

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899
Paul Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899. Wikipedia Commons

A composition is an act of combining parts or elements to form a whole. An interesting metaphor is that it represents parts and elements of our lives integrated into a complete being. A good composition is not just a formal thing—it also projects a beautiful way of living.

There are unlimited possibilities for creating compositions, yet that causes a lot of problems for the painter. A composition is essentially the arrangement of objects, forms, positive and negative spaces, colors, and tones within the border of the canvas or paper. The aim of this tutorial is to show you that there is one fundamental element to a superb composition.

There are many compositional rules that guide you how to direct eye movement, group figures, create either dynamic or calm feelings, etc. Many rules are valid, but the mental weight of hundreds of them can easily overwhelm an artist and hold them back from starting an artwork.

I looked for a simpler way, so I asked the question: What is the common denominator between great artworks? My conclusion was: An excellent composition has interesting shapes, colors, or tones in all four corners.

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape 1, 1963. Wikipedia Commons. And my mark up.
Diebenkorn Demo

Richard Diebenkorn is a modernist landscape painter whose abstract style makes it easier for us to see his compositional arrangement. His corners contain unique shapes, they also have “weight.” A weight translates as substance versus a tiny sliver. There are many complex shapes inside the body of his composition, but by making the corners interesting he extends the composition outwards, giving the painting an expansive quality.

Vermeer demo
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Water Pitcher, 1665, Wikipedia Commons. And my mark up.
Vermeer demo

With Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Water Pitcher, I have drawn an oval on the image. What concerns us are the colors and shapes outside of the oval. In the four corners, we have: the motifs of a map; the carpet-covered table; abstract shapes of the window and light on the wall; and, in the bottom left, nuanced shadowing.

Velazquez Las Meninas
Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656. Wikipedia Commons. And my mark up.

The Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez is one of my favorite paintings. In its corners, we have: the shape of the canvas within the canvas; the group of children with a dog; the window niches and framed paintings; and, in the upper left corner, a pocket of light on the ceiling.

Vincent Van Gogh, Room at Arles, 1889. Wikipedia Commons. And my mark up.
Van Gogh, demo

A nice contrast to Las Meninas is this Van Gogh painting of his bedroom. Though Van Gogh’s style is less realistic, he just as carefully organized the composition as did Velazquez.

Pablo Picasso, La Famille de Saltimbanques, 1905. Wikipedia Commons. And my mark up.
Picasso demo

Picasso has a great arrangement of tones and objects in his corners. Of particular interest is how he shaped, weighted, and almost mirrored the clouds in the upper corners to complement the lower corners showing the man’s feet on the ground and the woman’s skirt.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat, 1665. Wikipedia Commons. And my mark up.
Vermeer Woman with a Red Hat

Another favorite painting of mine is this Vermeer. Normally, when I think of portraits, it seems they focus mostly on the face and leave the background vague. Vermeer carefully composed the whole painting, not leaving the corners to chance.

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

This Cezanne still-life painting is overloaded with ornate fabrics, ceramics, and about 30 fruits. His mastery of the corners gave him a sound foundation to pile on objects in the painting, and he succeeded in making one of the best compositions I have ever seen.

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!


This tutorial will be in my book, Energize Your Art.

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