top of page
Painting Menu


Spacing and Variation in Painting


One of the most important, but not at first obvious, considerations when composing a painting is the correct placement, spacing and variation of repeating elements.
The simplest example of this can be seen when placing a fence in a painting. At first glance we understand a fence to be a long repeating series of posts planted in the ground. These are then strung with several strands of wire and that’s it. If we were to paint a fence like that it would look like the one below. Not very interesting and , because of its lack of variation, awkwardly distracting when placed in a painting.

Painting of a fence without attention to Placement, spacing and variation

If we were to take a little more time and examine the fence we might notice not all the posts are the same - some have been replaced, some are thin steel some are timber and some are not vertical. We would also notice that grass has gathered against parts of the fence and weeds are growing randomly along the fence line. If we paint the fence taking into account all this subtle variation suddenly the fence develops it’s own character.

Painting of a fence with attention to Placement, spacing and variation

The exact nature and location of these variations are not as important as simply noticing they exist. Once noticed, we can then place these variations in our painting randomly as would happen in nature. In other words, what we are looking for are the type of variations that exist in a fence.


Once armed with this knowledge we can then place the variations, not only to make the fence convincing but also, if necessary, to draw attention to a certain part of the fence. In the fence above attention is drawn to the dominating strainer post. This could be used to encourage the eye back to a focal point.

A similar approach can be taken with the repeating masts on these boats. If we look at the photograph we notice that the masts vary in spacing, height, thickness, angle, and tone. We will also notice many small, contrasting, horizontal and diagonal marks that make up the labyrinth of masts and rigging.


To reproduce the impression of this confusion of masts and rigging we don’t have to carefully copy what is there, we just need to understand all that variation then recreate it.

Painting of boats showing random placement, spacing and variation of masts, hulls and details

By varying the height, thickness, tone, spacing and color of the masts, then adding some fine diagonals and a few small, varied, horizontal marks, a convincing impression of the confusion in the photograph is recreated.

The difference is we can arrange this confusion to be concentrated above our focal point of the red boat. Taller, thicker, darker and more interesting masts in this focal area hold attention here.


The variation in the size, shape, color, tone and texture of the repeating rectangles in this painting are the elements that create interest. By putting more tonal contrast into the larger shapes on the left a focal area is established. This is reinforced by the dark, contrasting organic shape behind and the suggested fence line that leads up through the simple foreground.

Interest is created by pushing the subject into the top third of the painting and placing the strongest tonal contrast around a third of the way along the ridge line.
The posts, small rectangles, dots and marks surrounding the major building shapes were carefully placed to appear random and naturally occurring.

Painting of cottage showing random spacing, placement and variation of various elements

This painting also relies on carefully placing a variety of related geometric shapes. Although cues were taken from the subject, final placement of the punctuating doors and windows was done to achieve variation in their spacing, size, color, tone and shape rather than attempting to be faithful to what was in front of me.

Watercolor Painting of buildings showing the importance of carefully placing each element

Placing the dominant vertical tree above half way and well right of the center establishes a focal point that is reinforced by the converging lines of the river bank. The unevenly spaced tree and twig shapes appear believable due to their varied tone, shape and size.

Small spots of paint and ink placed along the river edge and horizon line appear natural because of the variation in size and shape and the consciously random spacing.
Small marks of Ultramarine gouche were put into the dark shadows of the focal area to bring them to life. A loose splash of pale Ultramarine watercolor in the lower foreground tie these spots of gouache into the painting.

By carefully splashing the blue watercolor into the foreground, a random placement and variety of size is guaranteed.

Landscape watercolor demonstrating the placement, spacing and variation of important elements

Strangely, to randomly place elements in our paintings in a convincing way takes careful consideration. We have a hard wired expectation for random placement. We see it all the time in nature and in the unconscious distribution of objects around us. When we see a contrived order to what should appear random it just doesn’t look right.

Keep a conscious eye on the placement of every element of your paintings. It will soon become second nature to get that placement, spacing and variation to look just right.

Author: John Lovett

bottom of page