Focus on Composition

I will use my recent painting "Evening" to illustrate initial concept and design stages.   This piece was about a careful composition.  There is not much color – except for the blue of the dress and purples of the pillows, there is really just neutral burned sienna that dominating the piece.  Even the reds of the carpet are muted so they don’t distract from the main figure.  Discussing composition will be the main topic for this blog.  I will start with the overall concept, as composition supports the idea of the piece.

 NOTE to BEGINNER: While I am using a figurative painting, the concepts of composition apply to any painting or drawing.  If you are a beginner artist, please refer to the "Azbuka" section (Russian word for ABCs) at the end of this blog.


The concept first developed when I was visiting Europe back in October and finding myself taking pictures of folds of every sculpture I saw.  And just weeks before then I was looking at Zec’s folds of fabric on the chair (love his work).  I thought that folds and just drapery in general is something I never explored outside of still lifes.  Whereas there are so many great sculptures and paintings where the fabric envelopes the figure and responds to the body underneath it, creating really beautiful lines.  The best works I saw were the simple ones.  No shouting, no screaming colors, no sharp edges – just soft flowing shapes.  With undeniable body elements coming through the fabric just in the right places. 

So I positioned my model (Ania) very simply, to create a nymph-like feel to the piece and to create a solid shape with just the right fold movement.


 The figure forms a diamond.  The diagonals are repeated as shown here to support the diagonals of the diamond.  The piece had to be well balanced – so the diagonals were repeated on both sides.   The figure is slightly off center, otherwise I would’ve had a bit too much symmetry.   And while diagonals repeat on each side, they are not parallel to each other – the distance becomes smaller at the top, and this gives a receding feeling.  The carpet also serves the same purpose – it’s there solely to create more diagonals around the figure.

All these diagonals contrast with very strong horizontals of the bench, and a strong vertical of the leg (or, rather, the main fold of the fabric from her navel down to the foot). 

I feel like if you get the composition right, everything else starts to take shape, even if you make mistakes in other areas. 


The purpose of  a small color sketch was to just determine the color palette and relative values.  I also played with composing in it.  There is not much space on the sketch below the model’s feet.  I decided to elongate the canvas and give it more floor space.  I thought that it would give her more of an elevated feel – since I was still toying with the “nymph” concept.  It’s much easier to make these decisions early on, rather than half way through the painting.


In this blog, I concentrated primarily on composition and the design decisions that I needed to make to support my concept.  I may have another blog that discusses the subsequent painting stages and includes progress shots.  



AZBUKA for Beginner Student

"Azbuka" (emphasis on the first A, pronounced as long AAA) refers to Russian "ABC's", or, if literally, that first book with fundamentals on reading.  Since I am Russian, and since my original art studies were in Russia (see the About Blog page), I thought it would be an appropriate name for the Beginner section.  I will try to incorporate Azbuka  in my blogs, to illustrate beginner's view of fundamentals, the same way they were taught to me in the Russian Art School.

Back to Diagonals in your Composition

The concepts of using strong diagonals in the composition are not meant  for a Figurative painting alone.  They are fundamental to any work.  I will illustrate this briefly on one of my still life sketches "Arrangement with Gzhel Shot Glass".  This concept can be applied to any positioning of objects on your paper or canvas. 

Imagine it's a blank canvas.  I first sketch out the diagonal from top left down to the right side, that goes over the grapes mass, through the highlight on the bowl, down to the shot glass, and through it ends up on the table top.   And believe me, if any of the arranged still life pieces didn't align the way I needed for this to happen, then I would either move them, or take a mental note to make changes on the canvas as I went, regardless of what I was seeing.  Because you are the artist (beginner or not is irrelevant).  You decide what goes and what doesn't.  Nobody would ever see this arrangement live, other than on your canvas.  So before you do ANYTHING, before you jump to paint that apple in the middle (no matter how tempting) - work on your arrangement first!  You can do any diagonals or any lines, for that matter, that you want, they will be painted over, do not worry.  Oil is very forgiving!  This is not watercolor!  So use that to your advantage.  

Got on a tangent.  So yes, that first diagonal line.  Another thing I am doing here is I am essentially determining transition from dark (upper left) all the way to my culminating light (where that diagonal ends).  

Then the table top.  Exactly where my diagonal ends on the shot glass, I then know how low I want the table to be.  And there are 2 things that come from that.  One - I have too strong of a diagonal, I now need to balance it out by another one in an opposite direction.  Without being too obvious.  So for one, I absolutely need those folds on whatever that is that I sketched out to go to the top right. It is there to BALANCE my composition, to zero out the effect of my first diagonal.  And if that's not enough, I will also have another one (very subtle) going from that shot glass/table top back to the left and down.  Do you see it?  Very slight.  Literally some brush strokes.  

What I am doing here is I am setting the tone for my composition, and I AM DETERMINING how the viewer's eye is going to move.  Very important.  You control it.   There is nowhere else it can go.  And by adding that last subtle diagonal, I am changing the course of the viewer's eye movement and keeping it all in the painting.  

In summary - beginner or not, think first what your movement within the canvas will be.  And two, this illustrates that the concept of designing this way is universal - drawing or painting, still life or figurative, it's all about exciting the viewer and controlling his or her experience.