Create a Strong Painting Composition | Repeat Shapes

Repeated triangular shapes unify the composition in Art Students (oil, 38×60) by Jerry N. Weiss.

Over the course of my professional life, perhaps the only thing I’ve enjoyed more than painting the individual figure has been painting figures in pairs. Depicting two people together creates opportunities for compositional and psychological complexity. There are formal challenges—the organization of two figures in a shared environment, the juxtaposition of heads and the rhythmical arrangement of arms and legs—as well as a chance to study the dynamics of human relationships. The expressive range of the subject allows for works as diverse as affectionate mother-and-child scenes, depictions of friends or couples, and enigmatic views of estranged pairs.

Given the potential for complexity, maintaining compositional unity is a major concern. It is possible for a painter to observe the figures as independent portraits while connecting them through formal design. My priority is to seek an interesting arrangement of shapes throughout the picture; considering the space between and around the figures without compromising their primacy is essential. Furniture, walls and backdrops function as abstract forms connecting the human subjects—as broad areas juxtaposed with areas of greater elaboration in the portraits. Every element has a compositional rationale.

Compositional unity is achieved by the application of design principles (such as perspective), the massing of forms, the repetition of colors and shapes, and the consistent use of light.

Repeated Shapes:

Repetition of shapes is another convention that unifies a composition. Art Students (above), a friezelike design parallel to the picture plane, is built upon a series of triangles.

  • Two prominent pyramidal forms are represented, the first created by the union of the seated figure and her friend’s skirt.
  • The second is an adjacent, inverted triangle with the women’s heads forming the outermost corners and the reclining figure’s elbow marking the lowest point.
  • Within these two pyramids reside numerous smaller triangular shapes, the most important being the red pillow—a rather obvious arrow connecting the two portraits.
  • The parallel cast shadows thrown on the upright plane of the sofa create yet another series of repeated shapes. These shadows indicate the direction of the light source, from above left.

Book and Magazine Resources:

Check out A Painter’s Guide To Design And Composition by Margot Schulzke.

Learn about Mastering Composition by Ian Roberts.

Check out the table of contents for the September issue of The Artist’s Magazine here.

Jerry N. Weiss has taught figure drawing and painting, as well as landscape painting, for more than 15 years at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and will be teaching a figure painting workshop the fall of 2010 at the Art Students League of New York. He’s had museum and gallery exhibitions along the East Coast from Maine to Florida, and his work appears in public, private and corporate collections, including the New Britain Museum of American Art and the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Weiss is represented by the Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme and by Portraits Inc. in New York City. Visit his website at


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