Composition Types
By Neil Blevins
Created On: May 1st 2023

In trying to find good compositions using all of the various techniques, like Compositional weight, Focal Points, Contrast, etc, you tend to come across the same general sorts of compositions again and again. And while we all want to make innovative stuff, there's nothing wrong with the foundation of our compositions to be based on tried and true formulas. After all, the reason they work is because the eye and brain process visuals in a specific way, and these sorts of rules have been proven to work well with the human brain for thousands of years.

So lets go through a bunch of the more common types of compositions, and hopefully these will help explain some of your own compositions, why they work or why they don't, and inspire you to try using them as the basis for new work.

Here's two great resources on this subject:

Here's the 18 Composition Types discussed in the video:
The Circle
Causes the eye to follow the curve, which keeps it from exiting the picture frame. Circles can be actual circles, or implied circles.

The Rectangle
Just like the canvas itself, a second rectangular shape is placed inside the painting, trapping the viewer’s eye inside. Feels more formal than the circle because it has hard edges. Rectangles can be actual rectangles, or implied rectangles.

The Pyramid
The pyramid has a big wide base vs a small thin top, and so it frequently used to show stability and balance, just like the Pyramids of Egypt that have stood up for thousands of years. Pyramids can be actual pyramids or implied.

In older paintings, a common technique was to place your subject near the center of the painting, and the subject would be entirely in the frame without going out of frame. This plus a predisposition for symmetry defines the iconic painting. Used commonly for formal or religious subjects. Someone you're supposed to look up to or idolize.

The Cross
The cross is two lines, one vertical, one horizontal, with a point in the center. It leads the eye along the horizontal line, and then along the vertical line, where the two cross creates a focal point. Also in the western world, the cross has a religious meaning, which can enhance or detract from your painting's meaning. Like Iconic, can also feel a little formal.

The Slide
The diagonal element in the painting causes the eye to travel along it, which gives the image a sense of speed, like gravity pulling you down a slide. The implied movement also makes the image more dynamic, and a touch uneasy. In film, tilting the camera to create this sort of slide is called a "dutch angle", and is used to give the audience the feeling that something is wrong.

Z Arrangement
Has the dynamic feeling of the slide, but then adds a bar at the top and bottom which helps keep the subject anchored.

L Arrangement
Makes an L shape. Similar to the Rectangle, except the rectangle is touching the side of the painting. Can feel a little unbalanced if you're not careful, since a lot of the detail is weighted to one side.

H Arrangement
A very stable arrangement, since you have straight vertical lines that are balanced on each side of the painting. Always reminds me a bit of a horse with a rider.

Y Arrangement
The top of the Y gives a sense of movement due to the diagonal nature of the lines, but then the V is stabilized with a pillar the the bottom.

C Arrangement
Similar to the L, but we add a roof. Can give an uneasy feeling because we have something looming at the top of the image when we should be seeing bright blue sky, like a large bird ready to swoop down and attack.

V Arrangement
This gives an uneasy feeling because it is an upside down pyramid. If the pyramid is stable, this is unstable, trying to stay upright on a tiny point with a big weight above it. Can also feel dangerous, like someone is stabbing downwards with a sharp knife.

X Arrangement
Half way between a slide and a cross. Very dynamic composition, implies movement, but also where the two lines cross creates an excellent focal point. The 2 diagonals trap the eye. X marks the spot.

Compound Curve
This is frequently used as a way to lead a viewer's eye into a painting. Like for example a river that swerves left and right and gets smaller as it goes into the distance, it brings the viewer's eye along with it to the focal point.

The Radii is where lines converge into a single dot. Can create a sense of movement, placing your focal point near where the lines cross will bring the eye right to where it's supposed to look. Also resembled a one point perspective grid, or an explosion.

Like Iconic, a lot of older religious paintings used symmetry heavily, and many old churches use symmetry in their architecture. So making your painting heavily symmetrical gives that sense of power and ancient majesty. Another good way to create symmetry: Use water reflections.

Rule Of Thirds
Split the canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Place elements along these lines and object focal points where the lines intersect. If you read books left to right, then placing objects at the right intersections helps the eye travel towards something when it enters the image on the left. Many paintings place one focal point at a top intersection, and then a second at the bottom intersection on the other side of the image. But make sure one of the focal points is dominant, or they will fight for the eye’s attention.

Golden Ratio
This is a container for a lot of similar ideas, The Golden Rectangle, The Golden Spiral, The Golden Rule, the Divine Proportions, etc. In short, the Golden Ratio is a concept created by the Ancient Greeks based on observing nature. Two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. Calculating this results in the number 1 to 1.618. Using this ratio, we can create any number of different grids, including rectangles, circles, and the spiral, which appears in a lot of nature such as seashells. It's thought that this is a sort of divine ratio that if you use it in your art, you're tapping into a godly number that will please the eye.

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