Still life Compositional tweaks

Here is a great guide to avoiding compositional “no-no” s related to still life composition by YouTuber artist, Will Kemp.


Thanks Tom! I definitely want to give this a closer read. In scanning through initially there are some helpful points—but there is some “woo” thrown in as well. I’ll give this a more thorough treatment today or tomorrow.



Well, let us know what you think is ‘woo’. Would be interesting to know

1 Like

I haven’t had time to read it either, but I did see the words ‘Golden Ratio’.

You might have just triggered sensei…


Oh yes! Hahaha I’ll be expelled now for sure


LOL! I didn’t even get to that part yet. I am going through it now. (there is definitely some good stuff in there though!) :smiley:

1 Like

While there are some useful points communicated in this article, there are also some misunderstandings/misrepresentations that should be addressed. First it is important to understand that the issues addressed here are not compositional “no-no’s” and/or “mistakes.” Framing these issues in this way (in terms of right and wrong, or good and bad, etc., independent of context and intent), can significantly diminish an individual’s ability to grasp the dynamics of pictorial composition in any truly meaningful way.

Now this is not to say that shortcuts and heuristics that utilize this idea of good and bad cannot be useful in this context. In fact, I am a big fan of incorporating useful heuristics into complex tasks. I do it often (especially with color.) However, I would ditch the “right and wrong” filter here and encourage you to examine such concepts through the filter of tension and comfort.

I also wouldn’t fault the author for any use of flowery language in this article (e.g., “breathe life and energy into your compositions.") I believe that statements like this are meant meant to add some flare to the topic and are not intended to communicate any concrete concepts. I am indeed guilty of this from time to time.

Ok—on to some issue worth addressing:

Set up #1: A Too Tight Crop

“Beginners painters often focus too heavily on the object, even if it’s unintentional”

I’m not really sure what this means. I would be very curious to know what the ideal amount of focus is for any one aspect of something as varied and complex as a representational painting or drawing.

When you’re putting all your effort into the color mixing and drawing of your still life, it can be easy to super-size your main subject.

This is possible. However, I find that the most common path to “super-sizing” is shape/contour refinement. The vast majority of aspiring creatives in my classes and studios have a much stronger impulse to correct outward as opposed to inward—editing with the addition of foreground and not the background. This leads to objects increasing in size (sometimes quite significantly.)

This creates the illusion that the object is cramped onto the canvas and gives a claustrophobic feel. If you then have the addition of a thick frame, it can emphasize this problem even more.”

The “claustrophobic feel” descriptor here is definitely an acknowledgement of increased tension for the viewer. Many tight compositions like this affect what is known as affordances. Affordance spaces in regard to pictorial composition are the regions surrounding an object that could allow for object function or interaction. These regions seem to contribute to prediction tasks as well as recognition and categorizations tasks.


The greater affordance space on the right tends to lead most to a more “comfortable” response from a viewer as opposed to the tension of the lesser affordance space on the left. This does not mean that the left is “bad,” but that is will likely cause a response of greater tension from the average viewer. If your goal is to create such tension within a work–this is one effective way to do it.

The process Mr. Kemp recommends for a starting point (50% blank negative space) is fine. It is a nice starting point for those that may not be sure where they want to go with the composition.

“For more visual interest, extra objects can be introduced.

I tend to use things related to the subject matter in some way because it gives the painting a more natural story.”

I agree completely. Narrative is a great way to frame compositional growth. Kudos on this one.

Utensils, such as spoons or knives, add compositional elements to guide the viewers gaze.

Unfortunately many claims about “directing viewers gaze” is pure ” woo.” Our eyes do not inherently follow lines unless they are a part of some convention that we have associated with a particular attention shift. The Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus demonstrated our inability to follow lines with our eyes, even when instructed to do so, back in the 1960’s.

Diagonal angles in any scene increase visual eye movement.

I would ask to see evidence for this claim.

As many of you may suspect, I am not going to waste any time on the Golden Ratio.

Set up #2: Misdirecting the Viewer’s Eye

If you have too tight a crop combined with a strong downward directional angle, in this case, the stalk of the pear, it can guide the viewer’s eye off the bottom of the canvas rather than back into the centre of the scene.

Again, directed gaze does not really work like this. When is the last time you said “Oh ■■■■, my gaze flew off of the picture!”?

By twisting the pear, the stalk shape has a softer flow to it and the cast shadow has now been combined resulting in a more calming piece.

(I have no idea what a “softer flow” is.)

It is true that the inward “facing” pear leads to something that can be described (on average) as more calming. (Kudos again to Mr. Kemp for framing it this way.) However, this is not due to the alleviation of the threat of a gaze falling off of the canvas or a “softer flow” augment. This increase in “comfort response” is likely due to our inward bias and our tendency to anthropomorphize within such a context. Studies have demonstrated that when an object with a salient “front” is placed nearer the border of a frame than a center, observers tend to find the image more aesthetically pleasing (which I would interpret of more comfortable less tense) if the object faces inward (toward the center) than if it faces outward (away from the center) (Chen et al., 2014) . I believe that this may have much to do with the idea of understanding our brain as a “ prediction machine ”. Again, “A still photograph of an object in motion may convey dynamic information about the position of the object immediately before and after the photograph was taken (implied motion)” -(Kourtzi and Kanwisher, 2000). If we can see more of where an object may be “headed”, we can make a better prediction about a future state of the objects being observed.

Set up #3: Too Many Even Shapes Creating a Solid Shape

This entire section can be summed up as “complexity may increase visual interest." (which is indeed true.) However, there is nothing inherently bad (independent of context and intent) regarding simplicity, nor the use of “solid” shapes, nor repetition.

I won’t really go further here as the remainder of the article deals more with common drawing problems connected to representations of geometric solids as opposed to issues with pictorial composition.

Hopefully readers will find my addressing of some of the issues helpful.