Techniques and Tips

5 Art Composition Tips: How to Simplify a Busy Painting

5 Art Composition Tips: How to Simplify a Busy Painting

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Editor’s Note: Join Johannes for a free 90-minute painting demo on January 6, 2016 at 1:00 pm EST. For more info:

“Simplify.” We hear this all the time. This is easier said than done. We artists are always concerned that if we leave out too much, the painting doesn’t have enough visual information. If we put too much in, then we give the viewer a mental overload. Think of your viewer’s brain as if it’s a document scanner. When you clutter the painting, his brain will need to process all the pixels, leaving little room for him to daydream. I believe the term “daydream” is an excellent way to convey what is expected by you, the artist, to stimulate your viewer’s participation with his imagination.

The idea is to create a metaphor of a scene and allow the viewer to add her own experience. The worst compliment I can get for a painting is when someone asks if it’s a photograph. On the other hand, the best compliment I can get is when someone says something like, “I see myself sitting on that dock looking into that sunset, having a cool drink with my grandchild next to me.” If you can pretend you’re a children’s movie animator, all the better. Children don’t need detail to enjoy a cartoon because they’re filling in all the left out information with their vivid imagination.

Here are some recommendations to help you simplify your art composition. Take this as good news: You don’t have to work so hard to end up with a winning painting.

5 Art Composition Pointers

1. Leave the very bottom of your foreground alone and just use it to draw in the viewer. This is the most common area to originate a visual path. On the other hand, feel free to add detail to the middle ground. This is the area where the viewer will normally be looking with his head straight. The background should just be a support and mostly can be done with soft edges.

2. Respect the periphery of the eye by subduing anything that can be distracting at the left and right borders. The human eye cannot see detail unless it’s staring directly at a certain point.

3. A painting is never finished, but you can sure stop working on it in time. In your final assessment, ask yourself what you can remove rather than add. If the object you depict doesn’t serve a compositional justification, and it’s present for the sheer fact of documenting, out it goes. Consider cropping to zero in.

4. A golden rule of thumb is that the smaller the painting, the more poetic it should be. As the painting gets larger, you can add more and more detail in proportion to the size. If you have a tendency to depict lots of detail, consider working on an 18×24-inch or larger painting. The reason for this is that the eye can’t take in all the visual data in one glimpse, as it does with a smaller painting such as a 9×12. Because a viewer can only see one section at a time, a good portion of visual information is lost in the periphery. If you naturally tend to simplify, then work on small formats because that same painting can look oversimplified if it’s large.

5. One neat way to simplify a painting is by scumbling to produce fog or use a toothbrush (flicking the paint with the bristles) to make it snow.

“Landscape Painting Essentials” and other video courses are available at North Light has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes titled Landscape Painting Essentials. Join his online art classes at

Watch the video: How to Simplify Values - The Most important Thing I know About Oil Painting with Alex Tzavaras (August 2022).