Compose Yourself

Here is a look at five composition tools to have in your picture making toolbelt. It's great to have guidelines to take hold of when approaching a new painting or photograph.


In Muriel Spark's 1961 novel, teacher Miss Jean Brody is called out of her classroom. Before she goes, she orders her pupils, "You will sit quietly in your seats and remain composed... like the Mona Lisa."

She refers to Da Vinci's well known oil portrait, often used as a high example of strong picture composition. This painting of a seated woman commands our eye to look at it. She is placed solidly in the picture, a pyramid of form, with lights and darks in perfect balance. This pyramidal form is a prime feature of much of High Rennaissance painting. It is a powerful tool to be aware of in composing any picture.

Waiting for Warmth Bread of Life Mission

Robin Weiss

Robin Weiss composed this painting of a Seattle cityscape using the triangle as well as the rule of thirds (which is next on this list of guidelines).


To use the rule of thirds, divide your composition into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Place key elements of the image either along these lines or at their junctions. That's how I composed this photograph of two gladiola blossoms.


Dianne Davis


American Gothic

Grant Wood



When Steven Spielberg was starting out as a film director, he requested and got a short interview with classic film director John Ford. After being asked by Spielberg for directing tips, Ford told him to look at the pictures hanging on his office walls. He then told him to note where the horizon line was positioned in each picture. Spielberg commented that one was toward the top or one was at the bottom of the picture. Another was more toward the middle and, in one, a horizon line wasn't there at all. John Ford then said, "You now know everything you need to know about moving picture making."

In a sequence from John Ford's The Quiet Man, a man has returned to his childhood home in Ireland. While riding back to see his old home place again, he spies a red haired young woman, Kate, herding sheep. It's a normal point of view with the horizon line positioned about a quarter of the way down from the top of the picture. But where is the horizon in the next shot? Completely gone. She is far above it, taking up the whole frame, silhouetted against the sky like an idol, above everything else. In the next two shots she recedes further and lower, until she is again placed in her surroundings. In the last shot, the horizon line is above the frame and again out of the picture making Kate a part of the Irish landscape.


Dianne Davis


The placement of the horizon in the far left photo tells a different story about the sailboat in the distance than that on the right.

Wildflowers Hill

Erin Hanson

Whitenoise no. 4


Christopher Saunders


Another tip for dynamic composition is remembering that the eye will group a cluster of evenly numbered elements into static arrangements. The result can be a flat composition that doesn't hold interest. So, instead of framing four flowers in a picture, which the eye sorts in a static and uninteresting group, arrange three or five.

Boots with Laces

Vincent Van Gogh

Part of Rhode Island School of Design's admission application is submitting a drawing of a pair of boots. With one shoe being nothing more than a mirror image of the other, how do you get the eye engaged? In the Van Gogh painting Boots with Laces, Van Gogh creates a third element with the shoe lace on the right. Also, the darks and lights have been arranged into a definite group of five: the two dark boots, the shadow on their left, the light field on which they sit and the dark horizontal band going across the top of the picture.


Tangents occur when two objects in a composition touch or are placed in a way to be bothersome or confusing as the eye reads the picture. Carefully check for and try to avoid these. There are a number of ways that they happen. Making a study of tangents is well worthwhile. Here are illustrations of just five common tangents:

Fused edges, shapes

Edge fused to frame

Hidden edge

Stolen edge

Closed corner

These five guidelines will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls in picture making. Remember that your goal is to draw the viewer's eye into and through your composition. Examine and arrange your subject matter with that in mind.

Still Life with Pitcher and Apples


Pablo Picasso

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