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Why is Composition in Landscape Painting Important?

Composition is a very important aspect of landscape painting but one that is surprisingly overlooked. I have visited many art galleries where there are landscape paintings for sale, some with very high price tags that have terrible compositions. Some of the compositions I’ve seen are so bad that it’s at that point I think to myself am I missing something here? Did I miss a meeting? It’s a shame because I have seen many a potentially good painting that has been ruined by a bad composition.

So why is composition so important? It’s important because the scene you are painting ideally should be balanced, harmonious and pleasing to the viewer. A pleasing design and a balanced pictorial plan is an essential element of a fine work of art.

Now I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t always been good at designing engaging compositions and even now I don’t get it right. I am still learning. In fact in the first few years I was painting I did no compositional planning, I copied photographs exactly as they were and didn’t do any prior sketches. As a result many of my compositions were terrible. Add to the the amount of times I was half way through a painting and had to stop because it wasn’t working due to a bad composition, it was very frustrating.

In the end I was very fortunate to meet an artist who mentored me and emphasised the importance of composition for improving my paintings. When I realised I had never done any planning for my paintings it suddenly dawned on me that I could have saved myself a load of time and work. From that day on I have always planned my paintings in my sketchbook first.

Plan and Design Your Paintings in a Sketchbook First

Port Soif - Pencil Sketch - Samuel Earp.jpg

Before you start a painting, design it in your sketchbook first. This will not only save you hours of time in potentially running into trouble with a painting due to a bad composition, but it’s also fun as well. I love seeing what my potential paintings could look like in a sketchbook.

Start with some quick thumbnail sketches first and then when you are happy do a final sketch.

Five Composition Ideas to Improve Your Landscape Painting

There are many ways to create engaging compositions in paintings and I find that it’s best not to overcomplicate your scene. So when composing a painting I find it easiest to stick to more simple compositional designs.

A few years ago I read Edgar Payne’s ‘Composition of Outdoor Painting’ and it’s a book I refer to all the time. It helped me to remember some basic compositional designs that I can use especially when I’m painting outdoors en plein air.

With this in mind here are five compositional designs based on what I have learned from Edgar Payne’s book, that you can incorporate in your own painting design. These are the compositions I most commonly use in my paintings as they are some of the simplest. I am using my own paintings as examples of compositions in this blog post.

1: Steelyard Composition

The steelyard composition, it’s one of the simplest compositions and is particularly good if you are painting outdoors en plein air. The artist Edgar Payne frequently used this style of composition in his paintings.

The steelyard composition is formed of a large mass that is counterbalanced on a theoretical fulcrum by a smaller mass further away from the centre.

Steelyard Composition

The area of interest would be near the fulcrum or main weight but sometimes the main weight itself could be the main point of interest, for example a group of trees. However there should be a connection between the main weight and the lesser one.

Overall the steelyard composition provides a sense of balance in the painting.

Now let’s look at some examples.

Willow Trees and Light - Samuel Earp - oil painting 1.jpg

Here the group of trees on the left is the main focal area of the painting with the main weight being the willow tree on the right.

Steelyard composition - Lombardy poplar - plein air painting - Samuel Earp copy.jpg

In this painting which I painted outdoors en plein air, the trunk of the Lombardy poplar is not only the largest weight but is the main area of interest in the painting. The painting is counterbalanced by the three Lombardy poplars in the mid ground.

Steelyard composition - Coronet Peak - Autumn - Queenstown - landscapes - oil painting - Samuel Earp copy.jpg

In this painting the silver birch tree on the left is the main weight and is counterbalanced by the Lombardy poplar on the right. The shape of the mountain adds further balance to the composition.


2: ‘O’ or Circle Composition

The ‘O’ or circle is an easy composition to incorporate into a painting and it is a useful composition as it often produces unity and a solid design. The ‘O’ composition is characterised by a dominant opening or space that is formed by masses, lines or edges. 

O or Circular Composition

The circular composition maybe be shown as an oblong space or oval when perspective is applied to this composition and the main area of interest is the circle itself or something within it. Often the circle will allow the eye to travel around the canvas but never off it.

Let’s see some examples.

Circle composition.jpeg

The O or circle is the mountain flood plain and the trees, meadows and the mountains form the circle. The mountains themselves and another dimension to the painting help to anchor and solidify the composition.

Circle or O composition - Sunset Guernsey - oil painting - seascape - Samuel Earp copy.jpg

In this painting the rocks in the seashore form an opening and the circular arrangement in the foreground.

Bay of Islands - Circle composition - Samuel Earp - Oil Painting.jpg

The circular composition is within the body of water in the coastal scene. The rocks, islands, cliff and trees are arranged to form the opening in the composition.

3: ‘S’ or Compound Curve Composition

This is another useful composition especially if you are painting rivers, pathways, roads as the composition is more defined by lines and edges rather than a mass. However if there is a specific focal area or point of interest it should be at the near or on the converging ends of the main lines.

S or Compound Curve Composition

The ‘S’ or compound curve is a good failsafe composition to incorporate into a landscape painting especially if it features a river for example. The compound curve implies motion and rhythm in the painting and especially good when there are some interceptions of straight verticals such as trees or horizontal lines such as land masses.

Let’s look at some examples.

Kinloch S composition.jpg

This painting is a simple design and incorporates a compound curve in the form of the stream which leads the eye towards the mountain.

Thailand Rocky Shore - Samuel  Earp - oil painting copy.jpg

In this painting I have positioned the rocks to lead the eye through the foreshore where the focal point, the island is at the end of the compound curve.

Compound Curve - View From Opua - Bay of Islands - plein air painting - Samuel Earp copy.jpeg

In this painting the land masses help to form the compound curve which intercepts the hills in the distance.

4: Group Mass Composition

This is another relatively simple composition and one that I am fond of. The group mass is achieved by placing several masses into a large group.

Group Mass Composition

Unity within the group mass composition can be achieved by making the area of interest be of considerable size with a variety of forms, values and colours within its boundaries. The group mass composition works especially well with trees.

Some examples.

Pine Trees - Tobins Track - Samuel Earp - plein air copy.jpg

The stand of pine trees forms the group mass within the composition and is the dominant area of interest within the painting.

Rolling Hills Northland - New Zealand - Plein Air - Samuel Earp copy.jpeg

The trees in this group are of varying sizes and forms which adds interest to the composition.

Poplar Trees and the Remarkables Mountains - oil painting - landscape - Samuel Earp - New Zealand landscape artist copy.jpg

Again this group mass has a variety of sizes and forms within the composition.

5: Diagonal Line Composition

This composition is a bit more tricky but it is one I have used a few times when painting mountains outdoors en plein air.

Diagonal Line Composition

In general the diagonal line composition incorporates a main line or series of lines than runs form the upper left corner to the lower right or vice versa. The main line is the intercepted by other opposing lines with the composition itself being handled in a similar manner to the steelyard composition.

Owing to the eye-carrying power of the strong diagonal line you have to be careful that it’s not so dominant that it leads your eye off the painting. This can be eliminated by adding in an area of interest below the lower end of the diagonal line, for example a group of trees.

Let’s see a couple of examples.

Autumn Trees Diagonal line- The Gorge - plein air - Samuel Earp copy.jpg

In this painting the mountain slope forms the main diagonal line and is a dominant mass within the painting. It is counterbalanced by the mountain on the right in the distance.

Diagonal Line Composition - Paradise New Zealand - oil painting - Samuel Earp copy.jpg

Again the main mountain on the left forms the diagonal line. The trees below the diagonal line near to where it terminates helps to provide balance within the composition.

Things to Be Avoided in Composition

Before I finish this blog post I’ll show you a few examples of things to be avoided in composition. The examples I am about to show you are art works I painted around ten years ago before I learned anything about composition. I was making some pretty basic errors in my compositions!

Centred Horizon

This is a bad composition, the painting is halved and as a result forms a displeasing static within the painting.

P8080216 copy.JPG

In this painting the horizon line is centred resulting in equal areas of sea and sky and a displeasing composition. When painting landscapes and seascapes either have a low or high horizon.

Centred Objects

Areas of interest in the centre of your painting is a massive no no, it destroys any kind of rhythm and harmony within the composition.

Motuotamatea Island - seascape painting - oil painting copy.JPG

In this painting the island is in the middle of the painting and is causing the composition to be uninteresting and distracting. The island perhaps should have been made smaller and either placed to the left or right of the centre.

Too Many Parallel Lines

This can be a problem especially in seascape paintings. Too many parallel lines can cause the eye to be led off the painting and it’s also distracting as it causes disharmony in the composition.

Too many parallel lines.JPG

In this painting it’s clear to see all the parallel lines of the waves, horizon line and the gradient of the land in the background. This has resulted in a disharmonious painting and the eye being led off the canvas.

Equal Masses and Repetitive Shapes

This is a problem in composition as often you can create repetitive shapes and forms in your painting without realising it. It again leads to disharmony within the composition.

P5181137 copy.JPG

In this painting many of the rocks are of equal mass which again is forming a distraction in the painting. Worse still most of the rocks are in a parallel line that is destroying any kind of rhythm in the painting.

Further Reading

If you would like to learn more about composition I would strongly recommend the following books:


Edgar Payne, 1941. Composition of Outdoor Painting. DeRu’s Fine Arts.

Ted Kautzky, 1979. The Ted Kautzky Pencil Book. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Thanks for reading 😊