128 – Composing in the Middle

One of the most common compositional mistakes I see students make is dividing an image in half, either horizontally or vertically and sometimes both! This is easy to do especially when working with photos. When we take a picture of something, our tendency is to center it in the viewfinder. Students often paint their photos without editing the composition and this is a mistake. Remember that croppers are your friend! Putting elements dead center in a painting can be effective, but it needs to be very intentionally to work. You need to say it like you mean it if you do it! In this lesson, I’ll show some examples of how to use some established compositional models to help you create balanced compositions that aren’t centered, I’ll give some examples of student compositions with suggestions on how to improve and finally I’ll show you some artworks that have centered the focal point effectively and suggest why this works in these cases.

The Rule of Thirds

Composing using the rule of thirds is a good way to avoid putting your focal point in the center. Place your focal point or area of interest on one of the four points.
This piece by Claude Monet is a good example of placing the center of interest roughly near one of the spots near the thirds.
The Magpie by Claude Monet

Balance Scale

You can also think of creating a good composition with a balance scale model.
Edgar Payne’s piece Riders in Canyon de Chelly could be thought of as both the balance scale and the rule of thirds and other established models making it a powerful example of great composition.
Riders in Canyon de Chelly by Edgar Alwin Payne

The Golden Mean

You can also use the Golden Mean to help you place the primary elements.
This famous piece is a wonderful example of employing the Golden Mean.
The Great Wave by Hokusai

Unequal Division of Space

Another way to think about composition is to create an unequal division of space.
This piece by Courbet Is a fantastic example of this.
The Calm Sea by Gustave Courbet

What Not to Do

Now let’s look at a few student compositions that are centered with a suggestion on how to improve. Usually this involves taking a bit of artistic license and moving elements around a bit and some creative cropping. In the image below, the lone tree creates tension and an unbalanced feel. Moving it to a spot that corresponds to the rule of thirds resolves this as does a bit of adjustment of the clouds shapes.

In the next piece, the large island shapes blocks the viewers access to the image and is not inviting. The mountain shape peaks at the center of the horizon serving to accentuate the center of the piece even more. Changing the placement of the island to open access to the image and changing the angle of the mountain makes for a more pleasing view into the scene.

Finally, in this third piece the small structure is placed right where the river and the mountain shapes meet, setting up an uncomfortable tension. Zooming in on the scene and setting the structure off-center creates a more intimate and interesting view.

How to Compose in the Middle and Make it work

Now lets take a look at a few pieces where artists have centered elements in a composition effectively. First is this self portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn. A portrait is front and center! It’s appropriate for it to be so. There are portraits of people, animals, trees, flowers, plants, special objects, just about anything can be presented as a portrait.
Self Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn
Here is another painting by Claude Monet that is a tunnel or archway composition. This is a classic way to center the elements of a picture. We are led to the horizon by the rescission with both linear and aerial perspective.
The Avenue by Claude Monet
Now lets take a look at this piece by NC Wyeth! Those cows are right in the center! Why do they work? This piece is a strong “L” composition with a soft shadow in the middle distance. The two central cows are contrasting values which draws our attention. The gesture of the fallen tree branch frames the cows without blocking the viewers entry.
Untitled by NC Wyeth
Edgar Paynes dynamic painting of the Sierra Mountains is a strong pyramid framed by the dark tree line, the lake and the rocky sunlit foreground.
Shadowed Peaks by Edgar Alwin Payne
And finally this piece by Frederick Remington. I don’t think I could find a piece that is more centered than this one! Why does this one work and not just work, but captivate? It’s a strong “T” or “X” composition. The silhouetted figure with his back to us, frames light and helps to tell the narrative by closing off the cowboy. We are told the story with the visual elements and the characters in the scene. There is a strong, unequal division of space with the high horizon and an unequal division of color and value with the bright red and the darks against the light of the fire.
Shotgun Hospitality by Fredrick Remington
Remember that croppers are your friend and you shouldn’t be married to your reference photos. Good composition is an art that requires us to make paintings from our references and observations, not be subservient to them!
For a wealth of compositional models, check out Edgar Payne’s classic book, Composition of Outdoor Painting.


As Always, Happy Painting and Drawing!


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