How to Improve Composition in Watercolor

Apr 15, 2024

Have you ever completed a painting and felt disappointed? 

Maybe something just feels off, but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. Consider that there might be something wrong with the composition of your watercolor painting

Good composition can be tricky to pull off, but I have some advice for you as you go forward on your watercolor journey. Keep reading to learn three tips that will help you create visual interest with your watercolor compositions.

3 Watercolor Composition Tips for Artists

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Balanced composition in art is essential, and when the arrangement of your scene isn’t quite right, it can throw everything off. So let’s explore three ways you can more intentionally layout your scene for a solid watercolor painting.

1. Ask yourself: What is Most Important in My Scene?

The decisions you make as you paint should all support the larger vision you have for the particular painting you’re working on. With this in mind, your composition should highlight what you consider most important in your painting

Here are a couple questions to help determine which composition will best fit your vision:

  • Do You Want to Favor the Sky or the Land?

    When you’re painting a landscape, ask yourself: which is more awe-inspiring - the colors, light, and shapes on the land - or the ones in the sky?

    If you want to feature the sky, draw your horizon line on the bottom third of your painting. If you would rather feature the land or a body of water, place your horizon line on the top third of your painting. 


    As a rule, do not draw your horizon right in the middle of your painting. While there may be exceptions to this rule, this generally does not lead to a great compositional arrangement.

  • Choose Your Orientation: Landscape or Portrait?

    The other decision to make while deciding what’s most important in your scene is how to orientate your paper. Landscape orientation allows for a wider watercolor scene, and portrait orientation gives you more vertical space. 

    You can paint most scenes in either orientation - vertically or horizontally. The decision is up to you and what you think will highlight the elements you want featured in your scene. 

    Choose a landscape orientation if you have a watercolor scene that is spread out and needs width to convey its beauty. But if you have a scene with a lot of vertical lines, choose portrait orientation.

2. Apply the Rule of Thirds in Watercolor Art Composition

One of the main composition tools available to you as a watercolor artist is the rule of thirds

Before you begin the drawing of your scene, first draw your thirds. Lightly, draw a lower horizontal line in the lower third, and an upper horizontal line in the upper third of your scene. Then do the same with vertical lines. When you divide your paper into three parts like this, horizontally and vertically, you create an outline for yourself.

Where the lines intersect are important areas in your composition. Use these lines when placing important elements of your painting. These are the best places for strong areas of contrast, intriguing areas of light and shadow, and important lines of the painting. Generally speaking, these are the places in your painting where you want the action to be.

3. Slightly Darken the Foreground and Top of Painting

This last tip for composition is one that I haven't heard a lot of people discuss. But it's something that I have noticed in cinematography, photography, and paintings alike, and I think it’s important to note when we’re discussing composition. 

The tip is this - slightly darken both the foreground of your painting and the top part of your painting

In nature, you’ll notice that, when the sun is out, the sky is blue, and it's a deeper, richer blue at the top of the sky.

When we mimic this in our paintings (as well as darken the foreground slightly) it creates a nice vignette. This pushes the viewer's focus into the painting, which is our goal, always. We want to lead the viewer's eye into the scene and to guide them around the painting. 

This is the power of composition. When we create a balanced painting with nicely arranged focal points, we invite viewers in and they stay a while. Our painting keeps their eyes in the scene and it guides them around. It draws their focus to the center of interest we worked so hard to convey.

Learn these Compositional Tools for Stronger Paintings 

By using these compositional tools we communicate to our viewers what is important in our painting. We draw them into the scene, and we show them around. When you practice good composition, you have stronger paintings with a stronger message. 

Use these compositional guidelines to get closer to the vision that you have for your work!

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