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Composition Cheat Sheet (DRAFT) by [deleted]

Stylesheet for art composition

This is a draft cheat sheet. It is a work in progress and is not finished yet.

Compos­itional Shape

Use revers­e-g­rad­ation to enhance form, which can be used with real background objects. Objects themselves can also create a revers­e-g­rad­ation.
Design your image in big, harmon­ious, /simpl­ified/ shapes (notan). Within the big shapes are small, simple, abstract shapes composed of c-curves, s-curves, and straights.
The compos­itional shape doesn't /have/ to be one, big shape.
Plan your compos­itional shape before drawing the object shapes.
The shape of the compos­itional shape depends on the feel you want to express: triangle for strength; horizontal box for stability; irregular shape for chaos, etc.
The subject should overlap the compos­itional shape.


Do thumbnail studies before starting the final piece. Place a border around them and the final piece.
Every object in an image has to work to serve a purpose, even if that purpose is just compos­ition.
Don't over-e­mph­asize the compos­ition.
For a quiet scene, put the horizon line close to the center and make it horizontal for stability. Other objects should also be horizo­ntal. Also increase the minima­lism. For chaotic or dangerous scenes, tilt the horizon.
A low horizon shows mostly sky, while a high horizon shows mostly land.
A landscape painting should have a landscape orient­ation.
Unify the objects by overla­pping their cast shadows or blurring the objects.
Always find a way to frame your canvas.
Jagged edges are the real details that attract the viewer's eye. Texture is the illusion of detail.
Avoid visual cliches; figure out fresh ways of presenting the subject.

Empty Space

Give the piece room to breathe by leaving enough simplified space around the edges.
More is not better; keep empty space in the image.
Do not crop to the edge of the image or at the joints of a character.

Lines and Forms of Action

The lines of action create forms of action, and they should all converge toward the subject.
Compos­ition is about shapes and their relati­ons­hips, not details.
Direct­ional strokes that flow with the object create motion.
Use body-p­osture and object shapes, locations, and orient­ations to lead the viewer's eye around an image, and ultima­tely, to the subject. This is rhythm.
Perspe­ctive creates motion.
Different people's eyes will work around an image in different ways.
Manipulate a reference image to guide the viewer's eye as you see fit.


Put cooler colors in the background and warmer colors in the foregr­ound.
Go all out with depth.
Hard edges could be in the bg and soft edges could be in the fg as long as the contrast is correct.
Blur and darken foreground objects.
Objects that are far away still have cast shadows that should be painted (if we can see them).
Between every depth level in the enviro­nment, there should be an atmosp­heric layer. For example, never show the bottom of a mountain.
Include a background to avoid a boring image, even an abstract backgr­ound. Another option is a simple gradient. The /best/ option, however, is to give the viewer a sense of location, which an abstract background will not give them.


Use an opposing object to the subject to balance the compos­ition, but it doesn't have to be equal in weight.
Balance the compos­ition by using common colors on different planes.
Use three points to balance the compos­ition.
Each quadrant of a compos­ition should have some interest, but they shouldn't all be equally intere­sting.

Focal Point

The focal point has the most detail, but not too much extraneous detail; the details need to serve a purpose. The detail is lower and softer in the shadows. Objects outside the focal point have a ghost-like quality.
What you look at first is not necess­arily the subject. The brightest object is also not necess­arily the subject.
The objects immedi­ately around the focal point inherits some of the sharpness of that focal point, even if they are at different depths.
To increase the scale of the enviro­nment, reduce the size of the subject.
Never place the focal point in the background or at the edge of the canvas.
Painting the light source in the scene will draw the viewer's attention.
Characters should either be in motion or look like they're about to be in motion.


Consider staging. Should the character be at a low angle or high angle?
The narrative should take up most of the compos­ition.
What we don't see can be more powerful than what we do see.