Use a Viewfinder for Great Compostion

The easiest way to find a pleasing arrangement of abstract shapes is with a viewfinder.

A viewfinder is a simple device that allows you to isolate or “crop” a scene within a rectangular area. You can adjust the viewfinder back and forth, left and right, and up and down, looking for the most dramatic and engaging composition. Use it to find big, simple shapes against small ones and light ones against dark ones. As you locate these shapes and value masses, you start the process of translating the three-dimensional world into two dimensions.

You can also adjust the proportions of height to width. Would your composition be better in a square, a horizontal or vertical format? The viewfinder allows you to quickly play with dozens of options.

Some viewfinders divide the area of the rectangle into thirds. You can place major masses along those lines. They create pleasing visual divisions and will help you immeasurably in drawing accurately. Without the thirds-indicators to help us, we inevitably tend to let things drift toward the middle into very static and conventional placement. That wonderful dark shape you saw way over on the left side, dividing the left third of the composition in half, somehow ends up occupying more than a quarter of the space instead of only one-sixth, and the whole dynamic of your composition is lost.

Types of Viewfinders

Commercially made and homemade viewfinders come in many variations. I think the three types pictured above are the most useful. I like the sturdy palatic one on the left (Viewcatcher, available at www. because it’s easy to carry in a pocket or pack without bending or crushing it. You can slide the inner piece back and forth to create any varation of height or width.

The middle viewfinder is homemade. I like square compostions, so I made a viewfinder with a square and with a 3:4 rectangle (9:12, 12:16). I glued two pieces of card together, inserting a sheet of acetate marked in thirds with a permanent marker between the pieces of card. The size of the square is 2-1/4″ (6cm).

The third viewfinder (available at has three rectangles with 1:2, 3:4 and 4:5 ratios divided into thirds. It also has red acetate, which is useful for determining value masses. Sometimes when students first use a viewfinder, they feel limited by how much they can get into the frame. It doesn’t take much practice before they realize they can control how much to include or exclude by adjusting the distance from the viewfinder to the eye.

If You’ve Nothing Else

When you’re just walking around looking for something to paint, you can get a feeling for a composition and shapes by simply using your fingers as a viewfinder.
This article is an excerpt from the book Mastering Composition (2008, North Light Books) by Ian Roberts.
For additional information about the importance of design and compostion in a painting, see Ian Robert’s article
Design Rules! in the September 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, available at


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