Just like using color harmonies, planning compositions can be a complex issue. And if anyone knew how to plan out composition, it was Vermeer…

One of the reasons we like to look at paintings is that reality is filtered through someone else’s vision. Painters select the important elements out of all the infinite detail that meets our eyes. That means composition is king when it comes to an interesting painting. No matter how a painting is presented, good placement of all the elements in a painting is important. This means the background is never secondary to the focus of a work, rather, it is an integral part of it. A painting is an entire puzzle of shapes and relationships. 

You may have heard of the term “armatures” in regards to how some artists plan out their compositions. I can’t get into the entire explanation on how armatures work, there are so many systems and beliefs, but I can show you how one mentoree started to use diagonals to design a sound composition.

The painting above is the famous oil painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Vermeer. Notice something? The diagonal I added to the painting runs right through her eye and the earring – the important elements of the painting to the artist. This placement was not accidental, and if you get a chance, look up how Vermeer used diagonals to construct all of his images. It is quite fascinating.

This mentoree started to design a painting of a little child on the beach. This is the beginning drawing. He carefully thought about the placement of the boy while positioning him on the “intersect” of some diagonals. These intersections are called “harmonics” or the “sweet spots” of the painting. The diagonals serve as “supports” by leading the viewer from the outside edges of the work to the main focus areas.

Original reference…

The intersections are shown below in the pink spots. These are important areas to put the main focus areas of a painting. Things that are important to the artist. Here, the activity of the child and especially the hands and head. So this artist was able to locate the child ON these sweet spots.

Then the diagonals go to work to help support those spots. For example, the “lean” of the bucket can help to point to the hands. The diagonal from the bottom left to the top right can help “point” to the child’s head like below.

And if the background (water area) were adjusted just a tiny bit to add “support” to those lines, (I added tan shapes to run along the pink arrows) then the composition could be strengthened just a bit more like below…

Now there is no question of what is important. (Like in an opera on stage, the fat lady is singing and she stands out from all the rest while the rest of the singers nod and look to her.) So the water, the grasses and the bucket all play their part. Cool huh?

Try it! Even if you can find one or two diagonals and use them to “lead” to the main character in your painting, you are off to a stronger composition.