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  • Helen English Artist

Compose yourself!

Next in my list of things which draw you to an artwork is composition. Literally, how do you compose your paper, board or whatever your choice of ‘canvas’ is.


The task of a successful piece of artwork is to get the audience’s attention and keep it there. There are general rules which help this happen. The rules of engagement are based on colour, proportion, movement and focus. Composition is the way which these interact with each other through choice and placement.



Paintings should have a focal point – a place where the eye naturally rests. It can be in the foreground or the background. Making sure that your focal point is not central makes your art feel more comfortable unless that is your intention. For a beginner though, learning the usual rules means that you can figure out what works for you and then you can break the rules to greater effect if you choose to.


The movement, which I referred to, is created by the way that objects sit and the way that their shape and features push your eyes around an artwork. The movement can be created by curves, by angles and even by the direction of where someone is looking in an artwork. This movement should lead the viewer’s eye around the canvas, landing on the focus. The viewer can be purposefully led out of the canvas, which gives quite a different feeling and can be really effective

if it’s done deliberately and well!


Proportion and groupings are other techniques in composition. Our eyes and brains are very clever and subversive! They really want to pair things up where they are similar and compare them. Because of this, for a picture to be restful we need to randomize what we present. This means odd numbers and sizes of items, and spaces between them. This can drive you crazy! Our brains really want to learn and repeat as we create something which we like. There are ways of overcoming this and observation can help. Sometimes you may either omit or add something if it works for your art. I have moved trees in landscapes because someone had purposefully planted something which wasn’t working for me!


All of this leads back to colour, which I discussed last week. Colour has a direct effect, even without all of the other composition factors. It can be used to pull an object forward, push it back, bring focus directly on it or help it fade into the the objects surrounding it. As I also mentioned previously, it sets the tone of a painting and can either enhance or slow the movement of the viewer’s eyes. It really seems to be the centre of all other parts of an artwork.


There is a lot to think about when you create art, if you want to be aware of its effect on other people. At the same time, creativity should be done for enjoyment so be aware but don’t let all of these elements stop you from starting. They can often be useful to look back on when you look at your or other people’s art progression. Often, you’ll find that you naturally evolve and progress the more that you create. Next week I am going to talk about style. What styles have dominated the past 100 years and how can you define your artwork?

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