From Frederic Whitaker’s Book Whitaker on watercolor


It is often pointed out that a work of art must be a successful composition.  But what is composition?  Isn’t any picture a composition?  The answer is no. For example, a photograph is just a record of a scene unless the photographer is extraordinarily skillful artistically.  A mere representation of a scene or a number of objects, whether by camera, pencil, or brush, is not a composition.  A composition must be calculated.  It does not come about by chance.  A perfect composition is a complete, self-sufficient entity.  Within its borders is found everything required and nothing that would fail to help it.  The slightest addition or subtraction would sully its perfection.

A composition must hold the viewer’s attention, leading his eye from point to point without his knowing that he is being led.  It must have a center of interest, and one only.  All other features should be secondary to the main feature.  It must have “repose,” which means that every element should stay in its own place and not vie with others.  The focal point should not be so insistent that one’s eyes become glued to it.  It should be so designed that the eye instinctively, or unconsciously, sees the focal point, then meanders about through various interesting areas, eventually coming back to the focal point to start out again on another similar journey.  The eye should never be allowed to leave the picture completely.  A composition that holds and controls the viewer’s attention this way is never accidental.  As Robert Henri said: “The picture that looks as if it were done without effort may have been a perfect battleground in its making.”


A complete discussion of composition could fill a book.  It has, in fact, filled many,  For the present, however, the student need only understand certain essentials.  He can return to the subject later and pursue it more fully. 

Composition, one of the main attributes of a picture, is the technical arrangement of parts. Clever drawing, interesting brushwork, and attractive color can’t add up to a good picture unless the composition is sound.  Good composition is achieved by a tactful disposition of lines, masses, colors, values, and directions.  The qualities most necessary in a good composition are harmony and coherence.

Harmony is achieved when all elements in a picture fit together in a pleasing way with no jarring discords.  It is sometimes easier to recognize that something is wrong or out of key than it is to put it right.  Experience alone can tell the artist how to correct it.  Harmony is largely a matter of balance – balance of color, of values, of bulk, and of directions, and this balance must be visually satisfying.  Coherence means that a picture holds together.  A picture may be harmonious, or well balanced, and still appear somewhat disjointed if individual parts are more satisfactory than the whole.  Once the fault is recognized, however, it is not usually difficult to pull a picture together.


In developing a composition there are several things to aim for: 

1. An interesting division of space.

2. A predominant center of interest and other secondary areas of interest.

3. An entrance and an exit for the observer’s eye and easy passage from interest to interest, always within the picture’s borders. 

4. Variety

5. an original or personal presentation


If you analyzed many pictures, you will see that almost all compositions are based on geometrical divisions of space.  The best-known formuals for picture composition are based on one or another of the following arrangements:

1. The Triangle or Pyramid.

2. Radiation or Convergence.

3. The Circle.

4. The Serpentine Line.

5. The Cross.

6. The Rectangle

7. Enclosure

8. Balance

Figures 8 through 15 indicate the basic idea of each of these formulas.


Other elements to consider in composing a picture are repetition, opposition, transition, subordination, and proportion.

Repetition is the reiteration of an object, motif, line, cure, shape, or color to establish a rhythm or mood. Too much repetition can be monotonous but the use of opposing factors can balance the repetition. See Figure 16.


 pg58 of Whitaker on Watercolorforweb    pg. 59 Whitaker on Watercolor

When a line, a direction, a gradation of value, or any element that suggests motion is crossed or stopped by another factor, the point of opposition becomes a center of attention, as shown in Figure 17.  The eye can follow a line indefinitely.  However, if that line is crossed by another line, the eye stops at the crossing point.  An area of interest, either principal or subordinate, can be constructed around it.  The eye should move about the picture from main to subordinate points of interest.  The elements that lead the eye in its travels are transitional.  In Figure 18, the trees form a transition between the houses.  Such elements are also useful in counteracting masses that are too obtrusive.  Squares, for example, are usually more striking than circles but, when overemphasized, they can become offensive.  Transitional lines can be used to de-accentuate the angles.  

One element in a picture can be made relatively important by minimizing others.  Secondary factors can be subordinated in many ways.  They can be made smaller than the major one to be emphasized; they can be placed on a lower level; they can be painted in a more neutral tone.  In Figure 19, emphasis is on the central figure which stands alone.  If you space five dots evenly in a line and then allow a double space and add another dot, the last will be most noticeable because each of the first five amounts to only one-fifth of the group and the last stands alone.  Or if you scatter a dozen cubes and one triangle on a table, the triangle will stand out because it is unique among a large group of similar items.  

Harmonious proportion is essential to the success of a painting.  The focus of interest should usually be placed above or below the center of the paper and somewhat to the right or left.  In landscapes, for instance, the horizon should not divide the picture in half.  Either the land or the sky area should be greater than the other.  Nor should the picture be divided in the middle vertically.

Size can be shown only through proportion.  A tree standing alone in a picture could be any height, but if a person is placed beside it, the tree is seen in its proper scale.  Another example is shown in Figure 20.

Through the ages artists have made and studied rules of proportion for use in planning pictures.  Probably the oldest is the geometric formula known as the “Golden Section” which has been regarded as a universal law governing the harmony of proportions, both in art and in nature.  The prescription is “To cut a line so that the shorter part is to the longer part as the longer part is to the whole.”  The method may be found in your geometry book, but you will be almost exactly right if you simply divide the line so that there is 38% on one side and 62% on the other, as shown in Figure 21.

In practice, the rule can sometimes be used to determine the level of a horizon line or, by crossing the horizontal and vertical measurements, the point at which to establish the center of interest. 

 Pg.61 Whitaker on Watercolor

 Pg. 62 Whitaker on Watercolor Pg. 63 Whitaker on Watercolors



The emotional effect of a painting can be affected by compositional factors.  Often the artist will intuitively choose certain arrangements to establish certain moods.  In general, it is felt that a composition dominated by vertical lines will carry a suggestion of dignity and stateliness; an essentially horizontal composition may suggest quietude.  Angular lines usually represent strength and power. Lines bent all in one direction indicate force and motion.  A low horizon line will often suggest a feeling of majesty.  Examples are shown in 22 through 26.


The feature that you wish to make the center of interest can be emphasized by color, value, shape, size, contrast, gradation of color, or by some geometric arrangement which influences the eye.  Lines of direction and framing can often be used effectively. 

In establishing your center of interest you must be careful to avoid making it so strong that it “hogs” the picture and prevents the observer’s eye from moving freely about the composition.


The eye enters most pictures from the bottom, where the foreground is shown.  The entrance should seem inviting.  Cross bars, stone walls or other impediments can act as barriers unless a way through or around them is arranged.

The exit should usually be n the distance, over the horizon, or down a road or a round a corner to the land of the unknown.  If the subject is the face of a building and the picture has no distance, the visual  exit might be into an open door.

The path for the eye from entrance to exit should not be direct.  Between the two, a number of visual passages should be constructed so the eye can be entertained on the way.


The eye tends to follow a straight line , or any other directional device, wherever it may lead so be careful that it leads where you want it to.  Directional devices take many forms.  A series of objects (seagulls, for instance) arranged in the semblance of a line can indicate a definite direction.  A gradation of color from one hue or value to another can also provide a direction, for the eye will follow that gradation.  A direction leading to the upper corner of a picture, let us say, will conduct one’s interest completely outside the rectangle.  It should be restrained with a transverse line or direction or some other form of stopper.


“Stoppers” are compositional devices used to limit over-strong directional thrusts.  Sometimes a plain sky or a simply colored foreground seems to run out of the corner of the picture, perhaps because it is the lightest area in the composition .  (The strongest lights and darks should not be placed near the edges.)  This can be stopped by putting a line, stroke, or object across the eye’s outward path , as shown in Figure 27.  Another method would be to darken the area somewhat at the picture’s border and grade it toward light near the center.  The eye will seldom notice the difference, but it will stay within the picture.

 Pg. 65 Whitaker on Watercolor    Pg. 66 Witaker on Watercolor



Sometimes one part of a painting is too assertive.  It can be repressed by subduing the brightness of color or by reducing the value contrast.  Another solution is to establish a counter attraction by using additional elements that are similar but less important.  Suppose a rosebush near the center of the picture is too demanding of attention, for example. One or more less important rosebushes placed near the side will effectively reduce its prominence.  The same principle can be applied to values, masses, colors, and other compositional factors.  If the eye is riveted to a bright yellow spot, a few other small yellow spots placed at some distance from the first will start the eye to roving.


A tree or other object standing exactly in the middle of a picture may be disturbing because it gives equal emphasis to both sides.  By adding more trees to the left or right, the trees appear as a unit, the center of which is left or right of the picture’s center.  This gives the design a more satisfying balance.  See Figure 28.


Don’t have two themes in your picture, two centers of interest, or two large masses of similar strength, as shown in Figure 29.  An interesting foreground should be complemented by a simple background, and vice versa.  The two should not compete.

Don’t have important fighures looking out of the picture.  The observer’s eye will follow the direction of the subject’s gaze.  It will also anticipate the direction in which a movable object, such as a horse or train, is likely to go.  It is usually better to aim such objects inward.  If the picture is of two persons, don’t have them looking out of the picture in opposite directions.

When the observer’s eye enters the picture, don’t give it a forked path to follow.  Group the most interesting things in the picture, near each other.  Make everything else subordinate. Objects isolated near the edges assume an undue importance.


Variety creates interest. It counteracts monotony.  It can be achieved thorough color, form, or any of a picture’s components.  Variety is relative. A quiet picture such as a fog scene, may need only a slight change in color to give it variety.  This is illustrated in Figure 30.  On the other hand, a picture filled with gay colors may need the addition of black and white or somberly colored area.  Beware of too much variety, however.  It can become confusing or annoying. 


Originality, discussed more thoroughly further on, reveals itself primarily in the artist’s personal approach to his subject.  It may show itself in the over-all concept of the picture, in the use of color, the design of the composition, or in some other way.  A picture often tells as much about the artist as about the scene he has reproduced.  It shows his way of seeing things and it may till a great del about the way e thinks.  Don’t be afraid to let your own personal reactions show even in your early work.  They may be much more interesting than the successful formulas you try to copy.

Pg. 68 Whitaker on Watercolor