Composition Made Easy

Until-Day-BreaksLaureen Marchand, “Until Day Breaks”, (oil/board)

Can composition be easy? I’m not sure, but I know one thing it doesn’t have to be: Bound by Rules.

When people are talking about composition they love to hand out rules. The Rule of the Focal Point. The Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Odds. The Rule of Overlapping. The Rule of Leading Lines.

So many rules. You might feel like quitting before you start.

Lucky for me, the fashion when I went to art school was for concept and idea, not for rules of composition. So I never learned them and I get to keep making up things as I go along. What follows is a description of each rule, and a painting that breaks it. If I can do it, you can too.

Rule of the Focal Point: The focal point is the main subject of a painting. Paintings need a focal point or the viewer, who is easily distracted, becomes confused.

Breaking the rule

Marchand-A-Lady-of-the-House AvailableLaureen Marchand, “A Lady of the House” (oil/board)

Rule of Thirds: You must divide your canvas into thirds vertically and horizontal and place your focal point at the intersection of one of the thirds. Otherwise the viewer’s eye is drawn straight into the centre of the image and ignores the rest of the picture.

Breaking the rule


Laureen Marchand, “Immaculate”, oil/board

Rule of Odds: A composition isn’t dynamic unless there’s odd number of elements in it.

Breaking the rule


Laureen Marchand, “Frailest” (oil/board)

Rule of Overlapping: Elements in a painting must either be definitely apart or definitely overlapped. Anything else creates a weak, connected shape which will distract the viewer’s eye. Those easily distracted viewers again.


Laureen Marchand, “September Song” (oil/board)

Rule of Leading Lines: Always lead the viewer’s eyes into the centre of your painting or they will wander off the edge and the viewer will go buy something else.

Breaking the rule


Laureen Marchand, “Curtsey” (oil/board)

There. Rules are made to be broken. What to do in place of them? Use both light and dark colours. Remember that the edges of your painting are as important as your subject. Avoid the middle distance unless you’re really sure of yourself – sticking to a foreground and a background is a lot easier. Take more out than you put in. Don’t assume the first way you see something is the only way you can see it. Move things around until they seem most interesting.

Make it fun.

For more posts on the process of painting, go here and here and here and here.

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4 Responses to Composition Made Easy

  1. pam April 20, 2016 at 9:20 am #

    Oh. I learned something!

    • Laureen April 21, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

      That’s great – so pleased to know!

  2. Craig Cossey April 20, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    when I paint , I ask myself “do I like it ” that is all. I never ask why.

    Early in the post you mention Concept and Idea, I must have been living under a rock for the last 67 yrs. because I never heard of them until the last couple of years.
    As far as I can tell concept and idea refer to political and social comment and technique has become a dirty word. A few comments on ‘concept and idea’ please, thank you.

    p.s. I like it under my rock.

    • Laureen April 21, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

      Craig, I;m sure you can’t mean that you never heard of art coming from ideas! Art has always been about something. From prehistoric cave paintings which may have had religious or ceremonial purposes, to the great medieval European cathedrals built to glorify God, to Goya’s Disasters of War series made as a visual protest against the violence of the wars of the early 1800s, to contemporary artists such as Ann Gale or Philip Govedare or Cindy Wright, art has intended to communicate. As far as social or political comment replacing technique goes, I consider myself privileged to have associated with many artists over the years. All of them have made the creation of this odd thing we call art their life’s work, never forgetting that without skill, the language of art is only noise.