One of the key elements of composition is format (the space in which we decide to place our painting). These outer shapes are akin to windows in which we compose the elements of our paintings. Basically there are four: horizontal-rectangle, vertical-rectangle, square, and oblong. These formats (shapes) communicate in different ways and, when chosen wisely, can help to strengthen the overall presentation and better communicate our concept to the audience.
In landscape painting, the horizontal-rectangle is associated with the earth and the way humans see. When we look at something, our vision is focused on a single space but due to the lateral placement of the eyes, we experience peripheral vision (perception). This creates a natural horizontal format. For this reason, the horizontal-rectangle format is the most common and is considered to have a calming, grounded effect. The vertical-rectangle format is traditional to portraiture, because it replicates the human face, creating a narrow upright view. When applied to the landscape, this format forces the viewer to span up and down, producing a tension (uneasiness) within the scene. The square format forms a natural bulls-eye and creates tension as well. Finally, the oblong format exaggerates the horizontal and grounds the viewer, allowing for a panoramic scale.
When deciding on a format, I remind myself of my initial concept: what was it that interested me and what do I want the viewer to feel about the scene? After pondering this for a while, I draw a few thumbnail sketches in a variety of formats to help solidify the idea. As these quick sketches evolve, it becomes clear which format best facilitates the concept, often leading to a different format than first considered.
Another way of utilizing format is to reinterpret a successful composition from a previous painting into a different format. Don’t approach this as one being better than the other—just different. By challenging yourself to produce within the new format, you will gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of what each has to offer and better your intuitive skills when choosing your next composition.
My pastel Morning Light, shown here, I painted in both a 12×24 horizontal-rectangle format and as a 15×15 square.