Composition for Artists | Paul O'Neill | Skillshare

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Composition for Artists

teacher avatar Paul O'Neill

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (43m)
    • 1. 1 Introduction

    • 2. 2 Centre of interest

    • 3. 3 Balance

    • 4. 4 Lanscape composition

    • 5. 5 Rhythm and motion

    • 6. 6 Unity and harmony

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About This Class

This class will introduce ideas such as rhythm, harmony and balance. These ideas can help take your art to the next level. The class was created with painters in mind but the ideas may be of use to photographers as well. In terms of level the class is best suited to beginner and intermediate level students. The class encourages you as the artist to move beyond just copying and start planning your compositions to create amazing artwork.

Meet Your Teacher

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Paul O'Neill


Hello, I'm Paul. I am an artist, cartoonist, teacher and data analyst. I live in Ireland but I've also lived in Japan for a significant portion of my adult life.

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1. 1 Introduction: I welcome this course on composition. My name's Paul, so this course is primarily end at Pinter's but may be of some use to photographers as well . The course itself, I hope, will be a practical course. We're looking at some ideas in composition ideas that being used by famous artists to create great works of art. And I hope that we can look at those and use them in a practical way to improve our own artwork. So perhaps the first question we can ask is, What is composition now? Some people route will reduce composition to ideas like that, the position off elements within an image and what of positioning of elements is an important part of compensation. It is not the be all and end all of composition, Um, in this course, rather than rehashing ideas like the rule of thirds that focus very much on position on position only we're going to look at much more powerful ideas like rhythm, harmony, balance and unity, ideas that we can actually used to improve our own artwork. 2. 2 Centre of interest: Okay, so we're going to start with the idea of a center of interest. So what is a center of interest? So it it's an element within European thing that you want the viewer to notice, and you probably want them to notice it first before they noticed anything else within depending. So, for example, we have this painting by Vermeer, the Dutch painter. Um, we have two characters on. There is a kind of a story unfolding within the depending. So the character on the right we noticed her probably first, because she has these bright yellow robes or dress. She's very pale skin. Overall, the values I used to paint her are much lighter than the very dark background. And then the other character. She's not as noticeable. Her clothes are more plan, and they merge more into the background. But we do notice a few things about her. We notice her fierce her arm and hand, and, of course, the letter that she's holding. So there is some sort of story happening here. The the servant has received a letter from someone. She's bringing it to the against the lady of the house, and then he might start to wonder what's in the letter? Who wrote the letter. But anyway, we have this story. We have these three centers of interest, the true figures on the hand with the letter. If any one of those three elements, um, was not a center of interest at the whole story off the, uh the painting, I would start to fall apart quite quickly. So another question we can ask is, is a center of interest necessary? Well, in the previous example, I would say Yes, it is. So if you're painting has some sort of meaning or message or story that you want to convey to the viewer, then you do probably need at least one center of interest in your painting. There are also some genres where it's difficult to imagine a painting without a center of interest, so two genres in particular on the last we have portrait and on the right. Still life well, it's hard to imagine a portrait painting without a center of interest, so kind of the whole idea of the portrait is you're you're painting the sitter, so therefore, the sitter is the center of interest, often specifically, the person's fierce, maybe even more specifically their eyes. That tends to be the thing that we noticed first. If the viewer noticed the background before they noticed the sitter. Maybe the background has some very, um, garish wallpaper or something. If we noticed the wallpaper before we notice the sitter for the portrait, then maybe we can say that portrait painting is a failure because, really, we want the viewer to notice the sitter. The person first, um, in the same way. Still life, Really, The object off the still life is the center of interest. So and, for example, van Gogh's sunflowers, the sunflowers themselves are really the center of interest. Maybe they're sitting on top of a yellow tabletop, but maybe has a some sort of yellowish background. So those things are really only there for some sort of context. Um, if they weren't, it might appear the thief here's with sunflowers is floating in space, which would look a bit weird, so we need some sort of tabletop or something, and we need a background, but they're only there for context. But then there are other genres. For example, here we have to landscape paintings by money. So what the landscape. A center of interest is not always necessary. So maybe with the landscape there is no, um, message are meaning our story behind the painting. It's just simply a decorative piece of art. But critter a sense or a murder or a feeling in the viewer? Maybe one, maybe a feeling off. Relax, ation or maybe it up, unless the viewer. But there's no message. Therefore, there's no real need for a center of interest. Sometimes. So then, if we want a center of interest, or if we need a center of interest in our panting, how can we actually create Hook me, actually create the center of interest? So I'm depending by Premier uh, He uses contrast to establish the centers of interest. So contrast, for example, that the bright yellow guns, as opposed to the overall dark theme with the painting the faces, hands, the letter, these Airil lighter values compared to the very dark background so value, color and generally contrast are good ways of creating centers of interest. I know there way of creating contrast is by size, so if you have a number of figures and depending one of those figures, he's maybe closer to us on appears larger. That contrast is enough to make that one figure standard from the other figures in the painting so size complaint part in contrast and also lines. So, for example, in this painting by a constable center of interest is the reinsure, the rain coming dog, and he achieves this through a contrast. But this time it's contrast of lines rather than the colors or values er or size. So if you look at the foreground, everything is very horizontal and also the cloud mass in the sky, at least on the left hand side. It's quite horizontal, but the re incoming done is very vertical or diagonal. So this changed and lying and lying patterns draws attention to the re incoming dine and creates a center of interest for us so that one more thing that we can look at and techniques for creating centers of interest is the position of elements within the painting . Okay, so now we come on to part of composition, where my ideas maybe slightly controversial and not agree with what other people will maybe told you about composition. So some people will fix it on the idea off position and there will sometimes reduce composition, dying to just, um, the position off your elements. Of course, position is important. It seems like a logical thing to say that it is important, and it is. But it is certainly not the most important thing in composition. So with positioning, people will often divide their picture area or the image area into sections using imaginary grids. And one very common example that you'll find over the place on the Internet is this idea off the rule of thirds. So the rule of thirds is very simple for a ground title for a very simplistic idea. Basically, you draw to vertical lines into horizontal lines that divide sure picture area into nine. All the three by three grid nine individual rectangles on this rule of thirds says that to get a good composition, you should always place your center of interest, your man element, where the vertical and horizontal lines meet. So the problem with this idea, this simplification of composition into just position of elements. Um, so if you look at the image on the screen, we have our triangle. What's our center of interest? It's placed on one of the vertical lines. But what about the left hand side of the painting? What's happening there? But absolutely nothing. We just have empty space. Do we want this empty space? Why is it there? What does it contribute to the overall image? These are all questions that the rule of thirds doesn't answer, because the rule of thirds is just fixating on the idea, the position off the element. Later in the course, we're going to look at more sophisticated ways of thinking about composition. We have things like balance on rhythm. On Indies. The position of the element is important, but it's important from the point of view of balance since important from the point of view of the rhythm with the elements within your your image. So I understand many people like the idea of the rule of thirds. It's simple, but one of the key ideas in this course that I want to get across is that the rule of thirds is maybe too simple on it. Fix its just on the idea of the position of the elements, and there's much more to composition than just where you put elements within the image 3. 3 Balance: Okay, so now we're going to look at the subject of balance. We're going to look at a symmetrical and also asymmetrical examples of balance within paintings. So balance is basically harder. Your elements arranged within the image on How are you using empty spits or negative space within the image. So, for example, in this image, we have just one element. The triangle. It's very much on the right hand side, and then we have always empty space or negative spirits on the left hand side. We could say that this is not a well balanced composition, because the empty space on the left hand side is not doing anything. It's not contributing to the image. It's just wasted area. Now it is possible tohave this sort of a symmetrical composition but have something, uh, in the empty space. Or perhaps if this is a figure looking into the empty space that can work so empty space by itself is not wrong. But if it's just there because of bad planning, then it's probably not going to work. Another special cases, this sort of symmetrical balance. We're going to see an example where this can work. It's quite common in a course portrait and still life because very often the had parson being panted with Still life is centred within the image for him or close to the center. But outside of portrait painting on Still life, this type of conversation is maybe not as common. Okay, so no one actually look at some examples. So the painting on the left is called the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, and this is almost exactly the composition we just saw. It has this triangular composition on its symmetrical. It's the man figure is centered it within the image. Of course, this is not an accident. The artist planned this composition, but really, the artist goal was for us to focus on the figure of San Sebastian, perhaps especially on his fists. So all of the people who were taking him at the man figure they're all looking up at him. So again, this redirects us back up towards the man figure. So in this case, the composition works very well. But like I said, it's kind of a special kiss, a special composition, but probably best be used sparingly. It's not always going to work, so that's an example of symmetrical balance. Next, we're going to look at a symmetry. Asymmetrical balance on this is a wood block print or Yukio print by a Japanese orders called Hawks. I These Japanese, Yukio or Ukyo paintings rarely used symmetrical compositions. They prepared a symmetrical compositions, but the Lord's asymmetrical it is balanced. So we have mind Fuji again very much on the right hand side of the composition. But we don't just have empty space on the left hand side, we have this cloud pattern in the sky and also these dark green trees and the bottom left. These two things helped balance Mount Fuji on the right. If the cloud pattern where the trees did not exist, um, maybe the overall composition would not be as successful. So another couple of examples thes air two paintings by the artist money. So the one on the right hand side again, this is a symmetrical and then the one on the left hand side is more symmetrical. So, first of all, the asymmetrical one, um, money has painted the sitter very much on the right hand side of the composition. When we have a lot of empty space on the left hand side, but it's not completely empty space. We have his hand, the cigar smoke coming up from the cigar. I also noticed that the sitter is sort of gazing darn towards the left, so these things help to balance art, your oral composition and, in this case, again, a lot's asymmetrical. There's enough balance overall for the compensation to work, depending on the left. When you have two figures, of course, it's easier to create a more symmetrical composition. You can put one of the figures on the last time, one of the figures on the right. In this case, you'll notice the right hand figured the man has very dark is a dark beard on a dark jacket . Dark values have a kind of visual wit, which can create an imbalance that if you like the darker values, the darker colors are heavier, visually heavier compared to the light bluish color off the woman's dress. But we do still have balance because weaken Seymour off the woman and she has her skirt. I tripped out across the bench, so overall the female figure is larger than the male figure. So this sort of balances, I think, in general, human beings we prefer images that are more balanced. Um, but also, if you have an imbalanced composition, it's possible that you have a lot of empty space within your image. And you have to ask, Is the empty space contributing anything to the overall image? Or are you just wasting some of your image area? Okay, so in this part of the course, we looked at balance. So as you're designing your image as you're creating your image, you can be asking yourself, Is this balanced? Is this image balanced? Um, if it isn't, is there empty space within the image that's really not contributing to the overall image in any way? It's just empty space. I think that's something that we want to try and avoid as much as we can. Sometimes you can use empty space in a positive way in a constructive way. So we saw with the portrait by money the man smoking the cigar. He was very much over to one side to the right hand side of the painting, but there were some elements on the left hand side that give the painting and overall balance. In other cases, we may want empty space on one side. But we have a character looking into that space because maybe there's something there. Maybe we can't say something. We have to use some imagination. So this comes back to the idea of storytelling within images. So overall, we can say that in general we like balance. We like balance in our life. Generally, we like balance within images. It's something about the human condition. We prepare something that's balanced, but we can also create on balanced images. Sometimes if the empty space or the imbalance helps to tell some sort of story, for example, or is one of your goals with the image. 4. 4 Lanscape composition: Okay, So when you're going to pant ah, landscape, there's some decisions you need to make before you can put any paint onto paper. So the first decision is what orientation are you goingto have? The paper. Assuming that it's a rectangle, will you have it in landscape or in portrait format? So the top three images are all landscape, and then the bottom three are portrait. Another decision we need to make is what sort of you to be have off this landscape. So the 1st 2 on the left hand side and landscape on in Portrait This is the normal view. Imagine you're standing in a field. You're looking towards the horizon. This is the sort of year that you would normally pent in that situation. You might lower the horizon a little bit, but it's going to be at least 50% up from the bottom of your paper or canvas, and then in the kiss off the middle to this is more off. You have developed superpowers or something in your knife flying in this guy or floating in this guy, and it's more like a bird's eye view. So the land the horizon is much lower and you're going to see more of the sky. And then the third example is the opposite. If you like, this is more like a worm's eye view. No, you're lying face down on the ground on. You can only see a little bit of this guy on. Most of what you see is the landscape in message with. This is not a common choice for landscapes, but if you did do this one, everything in the foreground is going to be very large. You're going to see every single blade of grass on any wild Flores. You're going to see every single petal on the wild floor. The opposite would be true for the bird's eye view, and that's situation. Everything in the landscape is going to be quite small because you're you're raised up above the land looking done now with landscapes. Um, you can either go for a sort of realistic interpretation of the landscape or um, or kind of graphic design interpretation. The graphic design interpretation would be more two dimensional. That would be a flat image. A more realistic approach would be to try and indicate that your landscape is three dimensional and it has depth, so some ways in which you can create a sense of depth within the landscape. So first, what you can divide your landscape into three parts. They're not necessarily equal parts, but you'll have a foreground. So in this case, the foreground is the bottom part of the image. You then have a middle ground, and then your background and the background may well include whatever part of the sky you've included in your image. Now, in this kiss with trying to create a sense of depth, linear perspective is important. I know linear perspective can sometimes seem like a complicated idea, but it is very basic level. Things that are closers closer to you are larger on things that are further away or smaller . So in this example, in the foreground we have blades of grass. The blades of grass are almost the same size as the hedgerow, or trees in the middle ground on our larger thin the hedgerow in trees in the background. So we know that hedgerow is probably at least one or two meters told so at least five or six feet tall. Where is the blades of grass? Are only a small fraction of that. So, using linear perspective, having thing is larger in the foreground. That, in the middle ground in the background creates a feeling that it's closer to you, which helps to create this feeling of depth within the image now, as well as linear perspective. There's also a thing called aerial perspective. So this is a painting by Mona, and it's a good example off aerial perspective. So we have two versions off the painting. One is the color version on the 2nd 1 is just the same version, but with the colors removed, so removing the colors makes it easier to see the values on by values. I just mean, Is it dark? Is that light? Is it somewhere in between? That's all that values means. So this painting we can see in the foreground in the part that's closest to us. There's lots of variation in the values, so we have some of the darkest darks in the painting, right next to some of the brightest whites in depending, whereas if you go to the background, you can see that horizon line the sky on the sea, merge into each other. It's hard to see where one starts and one stops begin Just about make out this sort of headland here, stretching across the bending. But again, the value difference between that and the sky is they're almost the same. So that is aerial perspective. As things move away from you, uh, the values 10 towards the middle of the value range. So rather than having dark darks beside bright whites, everything moves there sort of Ah, middle gray Tom or middle gray value in terms of the colors. As you move away, things tend towards the bluer end of the spectrum. So forgettable green as in grass, will start to become a bluer color. So this pastel painting, the Four brand, we can see different values brighter and darker beside each other, the middle ground of rank danced, emerged towards closer value range, smaller value range, and then in the distance, the distant hill becomes bluish. You can see this effect happening in the real world, especially where sheer standing say on top of the hill, you can see for a long distance, distant grass starts to appear slightly bluish. Andi, the Grand and the sky. The tonal values will get very close to each other. So eventually on the horizon, the sky, the land can almost merge into one. Okay, so in this part of the class, we looked at some ideas on call positions specifically for landscape pending. So one of the decisions you need to make right from the beginning is, are you going to have a landscape format or a portrait format? So portrayed formats Very good for giving you a tighter composition, focusing in on one bit of the landscape. On the other hand, if you want to do a sweeping landscape, will in that kiss a portrait four months not really going toe work. So then another thing you need to consider his style of painting that you want to produce. If it's something that's more towards realism, then you're going to have to think about depth within your panting on. There are a few ways in which you can create depth. So you remember. If you think about foreground middle ground on background and then hard, you divide your painting into those three parts. Linear perspective comes into it because in your foreground things are going to appear larger. Then she moved into the middle ground and then the background. Everything reduces in size, then you also have aerial perspective. So as things move away in the background, values are everything merges towards sort of smaller value range somewhere in the middle. So you don't get the darkest darks or the brightest whites. Usually in the background. Everything merges more towards ah, middle gray value. 5. 5 Rhythm and motion: Okay, so the next thing we're going to look at is the ideas of rhythm and motion. No emotion is not something that maybe is associated with paintings and drawings or photographs, because these are very static forms of art. But it is possible, through the use of line on ships, to create a feeling of motion within paintings. We're gonna look at some examples some painters who created paintings that have this feeling of motion rhythm again. Rhythm may not often be associated with visual artists more associated with music, but we can have a sense of rhythm within at P endings, drawings and photographs. So we're going to start off by looking at rhythm. Now they're two images on the screen. Both of these have sense of rhythm created by the lines. Both of them are, I guess, a particular genre of art, all part or optical illusion. But other forms of art other genres can also have this sense of rhythm often introduced through ships and lines. So in this, these two examples these air two paintings by money, the impression of spent er on both of them. We have trees against a sky, a blue sky on both these eat are good examples of how you can use rhythm within your paintings. So on the pending on the left, you can see the trees are not equally spaced. This gives a rhythm at the vertical lines are something that are eye is drawn to, but you'll see they're not all regular, and that creates a more interesting rhythm. If the trees were all equally spaced, well, first of all, it wouldn't look as natural, but also it would be less interesting to us. And similarly, on the right hand side, right hand side is slightly different because of the way we're looking at it. We also have linear perspective coming in. The trees were getting smaller as they get further away. Linear perspective would also caused the trees to move closer together as they move away. But again you can see, especially on the right hand side with the trees that are closer to us. There's a different rhythm. The tree trunks are not equally spaced. So when you're creating, especially with landscapes or if you're creating, say, a city, skip with people with figures, think about the spacing and the grouping of those figures or the trees in your landscape. You don't have to put them all equally spaced. And the fact that's probably better in many cases, to Group three elements a little bit on have wider spaces between other elements to create that more interesting rhythm. So this is another great example off rhythm and a sense of movement within a painting. Eso There's depending by Matisse. I think it's just called the dance or the dancers, but you can see his use of those ships the way they flow together. It creates this wonderful sense of movement and rhythm. And again, the dancers are not all equally spaced, which is more interesting patterns, more interesting rhythm to the image. So again, with figure work with landscapes, think about the rhythm. Think about motion. How can you incorporate these ideas into your paintings? Because if you can, it will give a much better composition of much more engaging image for the viewer. Okay, so no, the example again, this one by van Gogh. So we have some of the same ideas. The trees. They're not equally spaced. Some of that is true to linear perspective, but even the foreground trees are the distances between them is more interesting, more varied. And Van Gough was well known for his brushwork is very obvious brushwork on the linear lines that he created for grasses and hedges and things like this. But if you look the way he's, he's drawn or painted these, it really suggests motion. You can almost imagine the grass moving in the breeze. So this is one technique you can use similar to van Gogh's when you're creating grasses and bushes and things using strokes of pin rather than just areas of flat pin, Um, it can help you to create a sense of rhythm and movement in your images. Okay, so in this lesson we looked at two ideas that are often closely related rhythm and motion. We saw heart rhythm basically creates interest. It's more interesting to look at a painting that has an interesting rhythm. Uh, if you heard, for example, with the money trees, if they were all equally spaced against the flat background, it actually creates a very on interesting or slightly boring composition. So remember to vary the rhythm if you have things like trees. If you have figures in your artwork like them, a taste panting, create interesting rhythm by varying the distance between the elements. Motion is also important. We saw again with the Matisse painting with Van Gogh's paintings. Uh, adding in that motion or feeling of motion really adds an extra level of interest for the viewer on make your artwork standard much more so the next painting that you're creating, or if you want to try and recreate a painting that you've already done, I think is it possible toe? Add in these ideas of rhythm and motion. 6. 6 Unity and harmony: Okay, so the next idea we're going to look at but two ideas. We're going to look at our unity on harmony. Start off with an idea off thematic unity. Um, an example here on the right hand side on the screen. In this painting, there are two basic elements. There are lines repeating lines, and they're also circles. So the line's study different direction with different wit. Circles are different colors, etcetera, but repeating the circles on repeating the lines creates a unity on the harmony, uh, within the image. And again, as with them we saw with balance earlier. The ideas of unity and harmony are something that in general as human beings, we we like harmony or least many of us like harmony. Most of the time paintings, images that lack harmony, immunity can beam or they can be difficult to look at. That could be more challenging. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, course that's exactly what you want. You want to challenges the viewer, um, again, with all of these composition ideas, if you want to challenge viewer, if you want a lack of unity and harmony, that is fine as long as you're approaching that in a methodical and a preplanned way. If your artwork lacks unity and harmony just because, well, that's just how you painted it without any forethought, that's not as good an approach. So I think one of the overall ideas and this course was approach your images with some planning. But some thought, What is your goal with a message, or is there a story behind the image? How do you want the viewer to feel about your image? Do you want them to notice something specifically? Okay, so we have two more examples again. Unity and harmony. The painting on the left is by money, depending on the right by Picasso. Both of them have, ah, harmonious feeling. So Manet's painting on the left, the harmony the unity is created by the colors, the French flags. The buildings are all very similar. Color. The ship's There's a repetitions of ships, and then in Picasso's drawing, he's different colors. But the lying work on the overall sense of movement. Andi, those ships that he's using our harmonious. There's a sense of unity, so none of the figures standard is being very different. They all have a certain degree of similarity. So another example again Monday painting. So in this case, he's creating a sense of unity through mainly through the use of color. So in the examples we have seen, perhaps there's a couple of men ideas. Um, unity and harmony can be achieved through the color that you're using and also through ships and lines. Okay, it's another example, this one quite different. This is a Kalash rather than painting and you can see within the clash. The artists has used many different objects. Different sizes, different ships. But there is an overall unity and harmony in the color scheme to choose. So to sum up with unity and harmony, um, these are important things be aware of while it's not always necessary, you should only have a lack of unity and harmony if that was your intention. Okay, so in this part of the course, then we looked at unity and harmony. Um, unity and harmony in general, are good things toe have within your image. Human beings were prepared to see harmony if you prefer harmonious and unified images, but it's not always necessary. There may be some cases where you intentionally decide to introduce some disharmony into your image. It depends really on the cool that you're trying to achieve. I think the mid thing is, if you're painting, lacks harmony. If it's not unified, that's fine as long as you're intentionally doing that. So unity and harmony is not something that you should threat over, or I get worried about too much. Basically, as we saw in examples, for example, the Monday painting, The Harmony was created by the use of the flags on the colors to repeating colors and ships on again with the castle drawing the line ships, um, created a harmonious image. So think about the colors or using the overall color scheme. I think about the style in which you're creating the image. As long as these things are the CME across the entire image, you will create a unified, harmonious image