Composition Thumbnails

So following the previous post on composition, I’ve been trying an exercise designed to help you learn more about composition (although after trying it I think I picked up a lot more than just composition). The exercise involves you grabbing a master work that you want to learn from and painting a copy of it. The copy should be small and in black & white to reduce distractions allowing you to concentrate on observing the light values.

It’s amazing how much you can pick up when you’re working hard to replicate an effect as opposed to just admiring it. Also, because you’re replicating, you’re not nearly as distracted by your creative vision as you would be when doing an original work.

1_Boldini_RitrattoDiSuzy 1_Boldoni1_2

2_Sargent_EnglishGentleman 2_Sargent1_3

3_Vemeer_El_astrónomo 3_Vemeer_El_astrónomo_3

5_Sargent_DaughtersBW 4_Sargent_Daughters_3

Gegerfelt_VeniceInTwilight 6_Gegerfelt_VeniceInTwilight_1

7_Sargent_Rosina 7_Sargent_Rosina_1


Still got a long way to go but I’m already feeling the results in the way I approach things.

Notes on Composition

Personal notes after reflecting on lectures from (May add to this later):

Composition is all about creating focus.

Create focus by balancing emphasis & economy

  • What are your points of interest?
  • Points of interest should help the eye move around the canvas. (Feels dynamic, interesting and believable).
  • Levels of Emphasis – Primary, secondary, tertiary…
  • How to direct attention? The presence of contrast strengthens emphasis. Contrasting values, colours, directions, ideas/poses/actions.

If most of the picture is uniform and then you have even a small point of difference, that point of difference is very noticeable. Strong focus point.

Other things that pull emphasis:

  • Social proofing – People in the scene looking in a direction. Faces in general draw attention.
  • Amount of detail, soft and blurry backdrop
  • Front to back?



  • A loose pattern with some uniformity and some chaos. The human perception system is pretty geared towards recognising patterns, it really draws the attention.
  • There can be rhythm in many things: placement, colour, shape. (Think about gestalt principles).


  • Works with Rhythm and is a way to introduce more points of interest.


  • Increases organic feel of the scene. Believability.
  • Or it will feel stagnant, although it will feel stately, controlled and safe? Mechanical…? Or make things feel uncanny and creepy.

Continuity – Implied Lines

  • Draw the eye along implied lines. Diagonals look more dynamic. horizontals look safe.


  • Balance detail and calmness throughout the painting.
  • Weigh your visual weights. Is your emphasis heavy enough on your areas of interest?
  • If not careful, composition will feel heavy on one side. Or the hierarchy will feel off.
  • Opposing points of interest feels a connection. (could be diagonal, point symmetry).
  • Divide and conquer – Can divide into quadrants or thirds and analyse, is it balanced enough?