Some Rules of Design

Rules of Design matter and improve your composition

It is critical to follow some of the rules of design in creating a successful painting. A healthy mix of these guidelines needs to be in each appealing work.

Simple Rules (image courtesy of )

The painting below is a painting I did, trying to copy the style of Tom Thompson, who was informally a part of the Group of Seven in Canada in the early 1900s. I was in no way trying to reproduce for sale, only trying to paint like the master. That was a common teaching technique in the last two centuries. Artists often cluttered museums around the world, copying great works, to learn what went into the production of a masterpiece. One, I might add, I recommend highly.

These are the broad strokes of design, so to speak. Not all are readily applicable to some types of paintings, but know rules can help you understand what isn’t working.

The Big Ones

1 – Focus – Every piece demands a focal point or points. In larger pieces especially, there can be numerous points of interest. Your painting has to have a way to make your eye move from one point to another. I accidentally cut off the top of the painting when I cropped it, but trust me, there is some sky above the trees. LOL

The main focal point is the big trees, and then the smaller trees. The tops are not in a row, but at different heights, to allow the eye to move and not to settle in the middle.

2 – Creating movement with these leading lines creates interest and keeps the viewer engaged. The worst mistake is a painting where the main item is dead center and there is no way for the eye to be led elsewhere. This is called a static painting. The viewer is drawn into the center and stops. Taking photos is where most people learn to center everything. But it’s deadly in a painting.

The eye must be kept moving to give the viewer the chance to really enjoy the painting, usually on your terms. If your horizon is dead straight, it acts to bisect the painting. Instead, add interest by moving the horizon up and down. This can lead the eye to the next element. Above, the horizon leads you to the small hill in the foreground. The swooping trees lead you up and across the treetops.

3 – Rule of Thirds. Instinctively the eye will appreciate a scene broken into thirds, not two halves or into quarters. The scene above has the horizon below the one-third mark and the trees are above two thirds. In the original painting, one-third of the painting to the right has no trees, a rest area if you will.

Additionally, divide the canvas into three rows and three columns. Where the third lines intersect is where the focal points should be.

Secondary Considerations

4 – Creating scale and a hierarchy of objects gives the viewer much needed clues as to how large something is and which item is more important. For instance, the largest item could be the most important. Or the smaller, more-vivid-colored item could be the most important. Think of eyes in a portrait.

l in a painting. The human psyche demands some things like repetition and variety. Back to the trees above. They are large, but of different sizes, giving the movement we will discuss in a moment. In the lower part, the horizon reverse mimics the tree line. The lower trees are of different sizes as well. One mistake many artists make when painting without a reference photo is to make trees all the same shape and size, creating a boring picket fence.

5 – Negative Space or the space between the objects can play an important part of the painting. Old film cameras shot pictures onto a roll of film which was processed into a roll of “negative.” The darkest areas in the photograph were actually transparent in the film. You could see the shapes and not the items you intended to see. Negative spaces create more shapes. Make space between items to keep from suffocating the scene.

A good example is the trees. Many artists completely cover the background when putting in the leaves, ignoring the all-important sky holes. Otherwise, the leaves form a blanket and look artificial.

6 – Variety is the spice of life and it’s true in painting as well. You can have a perfectly fine landscape, but adding something like a person, boat, road, for instance, will add interest, story, and variety to an otherwise bland painting.

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