Today I want to explain about composing your painting using elements and principles. The following information is also available in a PDF that you can download below this article.

This is a very complex subject which would be virtually impossible to cover in this short workshop. But, I'm going to give you some brief pointers and hopefully, something new for you.

Now, one of the first things that I want to say is that when you approach a scene or a photograph, the focal point is up to you. That is your choice. Some scenes seem obvious, but in many scenes each artist will pick out a different focal point. What I getting at is that you can make anything a focal point. It's "how are you going to support that position?" That's where composition comes into play, directing the viewer to your focal point. You are the conductor.

Composition is the arrangement of elements to make a pleasing design. Some of the parts to work with within the arrangement are called elements.

  • values - lights & darks
  • line - a linear mark
  • texture - physical texture
  • color - value, hue, intensity
  • shape - defined, contained shape
  • direction - all lines have direction helping to create mood

Once you have the elements (the parts), then you need directions in their use. This is what is called principles.

  • balance - arrangement of elements to create feeling of stability
  • unity - relationship of elements creating oneness
  • movement - placement of elements to create movement
  • dominance - an area that garners attention
  • rhythm - repetition, cadence of elements
  • harmony - relationship comparing elements
  • contrast - differences between elements
  • gradation - gradual change in an element

As artists, we want to orchestrate the viewer through the painting. We use  each of the elements to help direct, compose.

We want a painting to have unity, "hanging together". You will know if something doesn't fit in.

The first thing you should identify it what you are painting is the focal point. A place that interests you. Where do you gravitate toward in the painting? That can be your focal point.

We want it to dominate. We will use all the elements and the directions we have in using the elements to make this happen.

Starting with some basics would be shapes. You will want to balance the shapes by possibly having one big shape on one side of the painting and many small shapes on the other side. Balance is a feeling, it's somewhat subjective. You will know that it is unbalanced if all the elements are on one side.

Unbalanced feels unsettled. You're mind tells you that something is needed on the left. Add something until it "feels" balanced.

Assymetrical                                                                           Symmetrical                                                                Unbalanced


Balanced has several things on the right balancing a large mass on the left

Symmetrical is balanced but can be boring or possibly calming.

Balance also comes into play with all the other elements.

In these shapes, we create harmony by having an interesting variety. We repeat the element of shape creating rhythm. There may be gradation through the gradual decreasing in size going back into space. One of the trees may dominate, which might be our focal point or just a tree dominating among all the rest so that their isn't a sameness making it boring. There can be contrast between the trees, a lot or little contrast. This makes the trees more interesting.

Let's move on to the element of color. Color needs harmony (the principle) helping to create unity in a painting. Harmony is broken down into several color schemes, but we won't get into that now. That's another lesson. Color can be used to lead the viewer to the focal point that you chose. We can manipulate the color to gradually increase in intensity toward the focal point and/or also use contrast, slowing increasing the contrast as we approach the focal point. Where we place bits of color could be the rhythm that we use with it. We would also want to make sure that the color looks balanced and is unified.  There may be a gradation of color, slowly getting grayer and cooler as the landscape recedes.

Are you getting the picture? Each of the elements in a painting are directed by each of the principles to some extent. Do you see how each element and principle overlaps and works together with other elements and principles? You are the conductor. Use the elements and principles to orchestrate.

Now you want to know, how can I use the elements and principles to create a focal point. There are certain things that the eye is drawn to. Knowing what the eye is drawn to will help us in orchestrating the elements and principles.

Click HERE to access Composition PDF