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5 composition mistakes to avoid

By Chris Tulloch McCabe

Web: http://christullochmccabe.22slides.com/ (will open in new window)

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Date Added: 29th January 2018

Concept artist Chris McCabe takes a look at 5 common composition mistakes, and how to avoid them...



Hi, my name is Chris Tulloch McCabe and I am a concept artist. I will be going through some common compositional killers. Five things I find myself having to avoid with every painting I ever do. Like most things in composition, they're simple rules that are easy to implement and equally easy to miss when distracted by design, perspective, narrative and so on.

Repeated shapes

Repeating shapes is a big one and I see it frequently. It makes a painting look still and lifeless and with the exception of possibly some man-made structural paintings (where the repetition can give a sense of authority or contrast to an organic element) the shapes will make your work look unrealistic. Even with a non-photorealistic style, contrast and variation is something interesting to look at. So be creative and think about the silhouettes of shapes as they recede into the background. Your eye and brain will thank you for it with endorphins.



Another common one here: bad tangents! They slip through the cracks regularly, tricky little things they are, and once you start noticing them, you will feel the need to eradicate them wherever you find them! The edge of one shape lining up with the edge of another. It looks bad. The odd thing is, unlike the repeated shapes, bad tangents occur all the time in real life, but in a painting or a shot? It makes us uncomfortable. There is a sense of expectation, like a sort of contract between the viewer and painter. 'If I look at this, everything is here for a reason right?'...'Yes'. So, anything that draws your eye is subconsciously interpreted as having importance, or at the very least pleasing to look at. Bad tangents not only look displeasing, it sends confusing information in terms of where the eye should go in the composition. Always make things intersect cleanly and with purpose, and it won't be long before you start moving your cup away from the outlining edge of the dinner table. That's when you know you understand... and gone too far.


Small, small & small

A composition needs variation and contrast of all kinds. Scale is possibly the most important. As you can see in 'A' and 'B' (below) the ‘A' composition is made entirely out of medium-size rocks is boring and dead. Scale variation can be used to sell relative scale, e.g. 'If this and that are the same thing and it's this big here and that big there, the distance between must be…' Or size variation helps, again to sell realism or that we are seeing a crop of a bigger environment beyond the frame. It allows the viewer to imagine more, as opposed to a collection of oddly similarly sized objects within a frame. It ends up looking almost like noise or a textile pattern, not fun for a painting or shot.


Division of space

Division of space is a basic one, but can also be flexible depending on the use. I have purposefully used such an example. In 'A' we see a horizon that's split the composition perfectly in half and the main focal point of the shot dead center. This can work and the success of space divided equally like this differs on the individual and context. I, for example, am drawn to space divided like this but it does give a graphic stillness which would work for a book cover possibly... maybe but for most uses like painting an environment, keyframe, characters and so on. You will need to use the rule of thirds along with the more desirable 1/3 division of space. The horizon line should be ideally roughly 1/3 of the composition or 2/3's for higher bird's eye view, but basically not half and this also goes for vertical division. Important elements along the action lines of your thirds grid will let the painting breathe, allow the eye to flow and not bounce back. Which brings me to my final part...


Let the eyes rest!

Okay, a slightly trickier one that will really help put your work on another level, restraint! Can you say 'No, that's enough, the eyes must rest!' As you can see in 'A', while the texture is nice and the shapes are interesting, I just need it to calm down. It's just too much. It is a must to have areas for your eyes to rest, and shows you have confidence in your work. It helps to make the detailed areas in your painting pop! In 'B' you can see there is only a tiny area of rest in the top-left – not enough. In 'C' there is an airiness and openness that invites the viewer in to take a look around with some lovely things to taste along the way. Which is the other aspect of rest; it can be yet another tool to guide the eye! In 'D' you can see the areas that are places of low noise and high rest highlighted white. You can use that to push the eye through the composition. Not using elements to force the eye through, moreover, the lack of elements. It creates a situation where the details are like a trail of sweets in an otherwise sweet-less wilderness.


Related links

7 New Year's Resolutions for the Artist
Building your portfolio
Check out more of Chris's work

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Readers Comments (Newest on Top)
Hubl on Wed, 21 February 2018 1:32pm
Hello the topic about the tangents and the open space is very intresting do you have more examples for this one?
Tiffani on Mon, 05 February 2018 4:46pm
Thank you so much! Very useful info we dont normally get with composition study. Will study this for my next concept art practice. Thanks!
Muthuraman on Tue, 30 January 2018 9:19am
This was very useful, to gain more knowledge not only about perspective and many more things. This will help when we worn on shot.
Thanks for the valuable information.

Thank you.
Muthu Raman
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