One of the first rules of art is “there are no rules”. And it’s true, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ art is totally subjective, and you should simply do whatever works best for you! So then why even attempt to learn all the “art rules” and guidelines we all hear about in the first place?
I believe there is something really valuable in the mere attempt to rationalize what is inherently an irrational craft. By analyzing things, and trying to make sense of them, no matter how ethereal those ideas may be, we discover patterns. We discover pictorial solutions, and methods of creation that repeatedly tend to reap better results than other solutions. But most importantly, by discovering those patterns we thereby can work to improve on, or diverge from, those typical patterns… and therein lies creative growth.
I mention this because whenever I’m stumped on a composition (which is pretty much EVERY painting I ever do), and things just don’t seem to be working right, I stop and analyze things. I ask myself, “What do I keep doing?”, “What have I NOT done?”, and then force myself to try alternate solutions, even if I think they are bad ideas. But part of being able to try new solutions is to know there are untried solutions out there in the first place!
Which brings us to the real point of this article…
80 years ago, and Artist named Edgar Payne wrote a book called ‘Composition of Outdoor Painting‘. It is still regarded as one of the most important books on composition out there. Unfortunately, because of it’s landscape-centric title, I never discovered what a gem this book is until much later in life. In this book, Payne expounds on a LOT of compositional theory, and surmises that most compositions can be categorized into one of 15 compositional archetypes. Even though these compositions are landscape focused, the principles still apply well to all types art.
Here are his 15 archetypes, and abbreviated comments on them:
The most popular form of compositional balance used. A scale with two unequal sized masses, the fulcrum placed toward the larger one. The focal point should be on or near the fulcrum or main weight. There is usually a vertical visual connection between the main and lesser weights. When placing the weights, consider all three dimensions, one can be farther back in perspective; utilize the foreground, middle ground, and background when placing masses.
B. The Balance Scale
Most used for mountain compositions where the peak reaches near the top center. Also useful in the decorative style: for wall decorations, or murals.
Akin to the steelyard in popularity, the circle or O composition. It should be roughly indicated, not obvious; as such, it can be a rough circle, also taking on the appearance of a rectangular or irregular opening. The U shape is also a visible influence; suggested by a lateral ground plane and two vertical planes.
D. S or Compound Curve
Typically suggested by a line or edge, rather than a mass; for example a river or road. It can also be seen when a general curved suggestion is formed, in both positive and negative spaces, anywhere in the composition. If a POI (point of interest) exists, it should be placed on or near the converging end of the main lines.
The structure of the pyramid or triangle composition aids in stability and permanence. This can be created by a line, a mass, or sprinklings of various interests.
F. The Cross
Not as useful for outdoor compositions, the cross is better used in works with architecture, boats, or leafless trees. The POI should be placed near the crossing of main lines.
G. The Radiating Line
This composition draws attention to the POI, which should be placed at or near the converging line. Be aware that if the lines are not unbroken it forces the eye to travel too fast (as in an obvious spoke like design); to solve this issue make sure all lines are broken, irregular, or intercepted.
H. Ell or Rectangular
This L shaped composition is similar to, and compatible with, the steelyard. It is not very common as it is tough to balance a large vertical mass with one horizontal line.
I. Suspended Steelyard
An upside down version of the steelyard, where masses are placed high on the canvas and the foreground is simple. The same principals of unequal measures and focal point as in the steelyard composition can be applied here.
J. Three Spot
This can be it’s own composition or it can work within other types of compositions, such as the steelyard or pyramid. Two masses don’t create unity as well as three do. Three is only the minimum, you can add more spots to aid in balance and unification.
K. Grouped Mass
Unity is achieved here by placing several masses into a group. This is the most widely used in painting the still life. It is easily and best combined with pattern and silhouette compositions.
L. Diagonal Line
Once creating a considerable slant in the main line (either from top left to bottom right or reversed), the next important factor is to oppose or intercept these by other lines or masses. The are below the main line is generally either painted in a unification of dark values only or light values only, and the opposite value above the main line.
M. The Tunnel
Similar to the circle, the tunnel differs in that it is dependent on the third dimension in perspective lines and planes. There is generally seen in an opening with depth, as seen under a bridge or through a break in trees.
N. The Silhouette
This reduced interest and contrast to one mass where contour is more prominent. Interchange, the placement of dark on light values or vice verse to create a contrasting edge, adds interest here. The masses should have their values simplified or brought close together to indicate a strong silhouette.
O. The Pattern
The most abstract principal, which depends entirely on a feeling for unity. It is beneficial for experimentation and study because it discourages reliance on principals and tests one’s natural compositional abilities. “It’s dependence is mainly on imagination or ingenuity or an instinctive feeling for harmony when it appears in nature.” Here the patterns may be arranged with or without a POI.
There are of course infinite variations and combinations of these archetypes, and Payne cites many, many others not listed here (like alphabet based compositions). But these 15 archetypes cover a lot of ground, and are definitely worth memorizing. You’ll find that most pleasing compositions contains some aspect of one or more of these.
So the next time you are struggling with a composition and find yourself re-drawing the same ineffective solution over and over, ask yourself “Have I tried these other compositions?”. And then DO IT. Try them all! Even if your solution doesn’t lie in one them, I guarantee that simply trying out all the options will force you out of your typical, unfruitful, train of thought and eventually set you on the path to the perfect solution!
Given it’s age, I’m sure there are lots of PDFs out there you can download. Or, you can buy a physical copy on Amazon right here:
Dan, what an informative post. Thanks. Composition is always a struggle for me and these options will be great to explore. I saw you at the last Fantastic Arts Conference. You always have great instruction to share. Thanks for a super post.
Thanks, Tom! That’s nice to hear!
😎 bro nice comment/answers/talk
Thanks Dan! This is golden! Robert Watts also has an amazing gouache painting course on this topic. Certainly complements what you’ve just shared.
Thank you Dan for a great post, it’s amazing to think how many of these are used inherently and without much thought, it definitely opens up more depth for analysis as well as application.
That’s the part that intrigues me the most… the fact that so many of us gravitate toward these compositions naturally. It speaks to shared innate sense of design.
I keep a copy of those exact pages next to my drafting table and easel. They serve as a great little reminder to keep working to simplify my work. I look at them constantly while I thumbnail.
I really appreciate this article. I am struggling to understand composition in abstract art, and now I have some structure to start off with. After reading this, I was able to identify the compositions in my favorite paintings, and to recognize how some artists combine the compositions as well. Thank you!
Thank you for sharing this amazing content with us,
I will constantly visit your site in the hope of finding useful content,
Stay with love
I’m about halfway through the book right now, and one thing I am really loving is how he describes pitfalls common to certain subjects, and how to fix them. For example, he mentions trees can often be rendered as all having the same density of foliage, when this happens he suggests rendering some trees with spotty foliage, thereby introducing variety and tension to the composition.
I find myself drawing tiny rectangles in the margins to try to represent what I think he’s saying, and it really helps drive the point home.
Dan, this was such a helpful post. Thanks. I often struggle with composition, so it will be interesting to explore these choices. At the last Fantastic Arts Conference, Regards for a fantastic post.
Thanks for sharing this article, It was quite insightful.
Hoping to see more articles with useful information.
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