Picture design – Elements of composition

In this blog post I want to talk about the concept of picture design. And give basic guidelines for the composition of a painting.

By composition, I understand the arrangement of all major elements. The major elements are shapes, value, edges and texture.  What I usualy start with, is the placement of the horizon line. The horizon line is my eye hight, from the position  I´m observing a scene. The horizon line determines the angles of the perspective lines or radiating lines. The radiating line is one of the elements (edges), to lead the viewers eye around the painting. Because they conviene in one point and create interest. Many Artists in the present and the past have researched and recorded this priciples. So, I´ve created a list of design guidlines to make it easer for me to remeber. Because I mostly paint landscape en plein air, my choice is more obvious for lanscape but the principles are valid for any kind of figurative art.

Basic Composition guidlines

  • Radial lines or central prospective
  • S-line or curved line
  • M,W or V, line
  • Slanted lines or diagonales
  • High or low Horizon

Radial lines or central prospective

Radial lines or central prospective is a very effective way to use a river, road or path to lead to the focal point in a painting. To have an eye-line chosen early on is crucial for a believable prospective. I personally work with observed angels and shapes but some basic knowledge is helpful. https://www.prolificpainter.com/education/learn-to-see-learn-to-paint-book/visual-language/shape/


S line or partial S line

s line or curved lines are great tools in the landscape for softer changes of direction. Countryside rivers or roads, are a good example. Looking trough my paintings I found many examples for S lines. And as in this painting usualy several design features are used in a single picture. Like slanted lines or diagonales and vertikal elements to create variation and interest.

S line or half S

W, M or V line

These lines refer mor likely to the separating edges of sky and ground or between light and dark values. The pleinair artist Edgar Payne called this kind of compositon Steelyard. https://pin.it/6ILLgf8

Slanted line or diagonal 

Slanted lines or diagonal are aswell a great way to bring interest in a painting. And it is a good practice to avoid to many paralell lines or edges anyway. So is a good variety of horizontal, slanted and vertical elements.

High/low horizon


To express the subject of the painting. High mountains or big skies for example. For reflections a central horizon might work best. Because it shows both the subject and its reflection. Otherwise a central horizon shoud be avoided.