top of page

Painting Composition



Rarely are the subjects we choose to paint perfectly arranged. Shuffling, emphasising and deleting elements to create a better painting composition is a major part of the painting process.


Our initial attraction to a subject is just the starting point. Our job as an artist is to do more with the subject than simply copying it.

The two examples I have chosen here are busy, complicated looking subjects. Without some sort of simplification they would result in a confusing painting with conflicting points of interest randomly scattered across the surface.


By selecting one area to act as a focal point and balancing that with other minor points of interest, the painting becomes more unified. The busy atmosphere of the subject is maintained, but the visual path around the painting stops the eye jumping from one point to another in an uncontrolled manner.


This is an interesting subject, but without a dominant focal point, it is difficult to look at and make sense of.

How to rearrange a subject to improve the painting composition



Rearranging the Painting Composition


By shifting the striped awning close to the washing and including a round terracotta pot in the upper region, a strong focal point is established. The arc of the lemon tree leads the eye up to the dark line on the left of the arch. This dark line acts as a visual bridge up into the focal point. Detail has been completely left out where it wasn't necessary and exaggerated where attention was required.

Watercolor with modified painting composition




This spectacular panorama from a French hilltop village makes a fantastic subject, but where do you start? By making the road junctions and distant village the focal point, the confusion of foreground olive groves and cypress trees can be simplified to an understated lead in to the focal point.

Photograph with notes for improved painting composition
Thumbnail composition sketch

A quick, rough charcoal sketch helps to plan out the composition before we start making marks on our watercolor paper.


I like the way distant horizontal marks contrast with the diagonals of the foreground. A 1/2 inch bristle brush was used here to make some simple preliminary marks and establish the focal point.

Step one to improving the composition



A strong mixture of Cobalt Blue and Permanent Rose contrast with the warm foreground colors and push the mountains way off into the distance.

Step 2 to improving the painting composition



Foreground detail is dropped loosely into wet washes. I want the foreground to drag the eye into the painting without demanding too much attention.

Step 3 Understanding painting composition



Adding more detail and stronger tonal contrast to the focal point encourages the eye up to that region of the painting. The suggestion of vertical cypress trees in the foreground draw the eye in via the lower right, up to the dark mass of trees on the  left, then on to the main focal point. Splashing some of the purple background color into the foreground and washing it down each side of the painting ties the two areas together and emphasises the warmth of the focal point.

Finished watercolor showing improved painting composition

Simplifying complicated subjects by establishing a focal point then leading the eye to this point via secondary elements gives a painting unity.  The complex atmosphere of the subject is maintained but the initial visual confusion is controlled.

Next time you are faced with a complicated subject, try this simplified approach rather than becoming overwhelmed by the subjects complexity. Remember,  painting composition plays a vital role in the success of any painting.

See Also:

Focal Point

Make Shapes Work

Author: John Lovett

bottom of page