Painting Composition | Creative Ways to Design Space

Compositional design is the foundation of any successful painting. What is spatially represented within the borders of a painting’s format communicates an artists’ intent.
Various components work in harmony to create a sound composition, such as line, shape, form, color, and texture. Line refers to the motion, direction and orientation of things represented within the composition. Form refers to the illusion of depth created by light and dark. Color refers to the hue and temperature. Texture refers to the surface quality, such as rough, smooth, or soft. Shape refers to form delineated by closed lines, most often indicated with contrasting value and color. As painters, we are in control of how these elements are arranged, unlike photographers who are limited by the scene in front of the lens.


In Brokentop Morning (pastel en plein air, 9×12), I allowed the top of the mountain to extend beyond the top of the painting and emphasized the colorful abstract shapes of the mountain next to the tree line which makes the negative spaces more interesting and heightens the importance of the textural quality of the forest.

Positive Space and Negative Space: Of these design components, the interaction between shapes and forms that unite to define space is one of the most important. Visual spaces are divided into two categories: positive space where shapes and forms exist to create the impression of things; and negative space that indicates the empty space between. A successful composition relies on a balance of both. Shapes and forms are perceivable by the human eye because of value, color and chroma (intensity) contrast. Consider what would be visible if the sky appeared to be the same value, color and chroma as the mountains and trees in a landscape: Nothing would be discernible. And this brings up a good point. It’s rare to see an object in total outline (silhouette) within its surroundings. In most situations, there are portions that stand out and other areas that nearly disappear, creating a lost and found appearance. When enough contrasting edges are recognized, an identity is associated with the object. This “identifying phenomenon” can lead a painter to over-define the shape of an object, believing they see it as a clear outline, when in fact it is the mind that has configured the visible contrasting shapes and identified them. These contrasting shapes are abstract when separated from the positive space of the object.

It’s human nature to want to contain major shapes within the confines of a painting’s borders. This tucking of positive object shapes into the confines of a painting’s surface can lead to a mundane presentation. A good challenge is to allow a portion of a major shape to extend beyond the painting’s border. By letting the top of a mountain, a section of a still life, or portion of a face extend beyond a paintings border, negative space will become more important, focusing the viewer’s eye on design elements beyond the positive space that identifies the subject matter. This can engage a viewer’s imagination and memory, often making a painting more intriguing.




Discover more Secrets for Understanding Color and Value in this DVD with pastel artist Colleen Howe

Subscribe to Pastel Journal magazine, and don’t miss a single issue!

Sign up for your Pastel Journal email newsletter & download a FREE issue of Pastel Journal magazine

Get unlimited access to more than 100 art instructional ebooks for only $19.99 a month!

Find pastel painting downloads, books, videos & more



You may also like these articles: