Before artists pick up their paintbrushes, they must create a composition (an arrangement or an organization) in two dimensions for their painting.  To do so, they look for shapes, values, edges, and color changes instead of things or objects like “a tree,” “a table,” or “shadows.”  Design and composition provide the framework for any painting.  By using the following guidelines and formats for placing elements in a painting, you will become a better painter.

Rather than letting a complex scene overwhelm you, use one of the following formats to help you to arrange elements in your picture (or even eliminate unnecessary elements) and to create a more strong, effective, successful painting.  Decide which of these organizational formats best suits your purpose.  Choose the format that is the closest to your inspiration; then rearrange and modify elements as necessary to make the format work.  For instance, depending on your choice of format, you can confidently move a tree or change its shape, adjust a horizon, or move furniture around in your picture.

In designing a composition, pick a format that helps create a path to move the viewer’s eye toward your center of interest.  Try to keep this focal point away from dead center or the corners or edges of your picture space.  Avoid having major shapes or lines that run parallel to the edge of the paper (with the exception of the level surface of a body of water).

One format to use in designing a painting is the RULE OF THIRDS or TIC-TAC-TOE plan.  Dividing the picture plane into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, creates intersections of these lines; those intersections are good spots for effective focal points.

Rule of Thirds format:





The PYRAMID or TRIANGLE composition will give your painting a feeling of strength and stability.  The center of interest, perhaps a building or evergreen tree, should fall within the triangle or near its top.  This triangular shape moves the viewer’s eye around the composition.  It is possible to combine this format with a THREE SPOT or CIRCLE composition.

A THREE SPOT composition is useful when you need to organize repeating shapes of differing sizes, such as rocks, trees, or buildings of diminishing sizes.  Repetition and continuity are a major part of the THREE SPOT format.

In a CIRCLE or “O” format, a circle surrounds or frames the center of interest (for instance, overhanging trees surrounding a path).  The focal point will be located on or inside the circle but NOT in the circle’s center.  Framing the main subject keeps the viewer’s eye in the picture.  This format can work well with the RULE OF THIRDS or TRIANGLE composition.

Circle Format:



The CROSS format can help you solve the problem of having mostly horizontal lines in a painting.  By adding a vertical tree, you can effectively break up an overemphasis on horizontals (for example, in a painting of a sunset).

Cross format:


Use an “L” format to organize a strong vertical dark mass on the side of a painting by incorporating a similar dark mass or shadow pattern across the bottom of a painting (for example, a large tree casting shade along the shore of a brightly lit pond).

The “U” or BRIDGE format is useful when a picture includes two different-sized sides that are reaching out to each other, with the focal point located somewhere in between.  The eye is kept busy moving back and forth between the two sides.  You might us this format when you have trees or buildings (or two shores on a lake) that frame your center of interest.

Bridge format:


To be continued as 11/6/18 post titled “Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II).


  1. This is so informative Lee and a topic I’ve never heard discussed before, but so useful. I struggle with composition. Sometimes I finish a painting and think “it doesn’t look finished” so I might add in a background, as an afterthought. Really great instruction. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Your work is so easy on the eye. It flows, no matter what your subject. Love the piggies. 🙂 and that moth…wow. Bark is one of my areas of interest but I have not been as successful at it. Yours is perfect.


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