Composition tricks from the Old Masters

If you’ve ever looked at the works of the Old Masters (Da Vinci, Velazquez, Titian, Vermeer…etc!), then like me you’ve probably had a sneaking suspicion that they knew something that we don’t.  And it’s true.  Long before they put their own brush to canvas, the Old Masters spent years copying other masters’ paintings, learning to flawlessly execute techniques, and : sharing their established tricks!

While there’s no substitute for years of practice, some of their methods can be learned and implemented overnight.

Here’s one of my favourites: The Diamond Guide (or Armature of the Rectangle) for composition.

The Diamond Guide is a “perfect composition” – in other words, making your composition reflect it as much as possible will keep people interested in your painting, and keep their eyes moving around your canvas.

Here’s how to use it:

1) Create the diamond guide on a blank piece of paper following these steps. Start with a rectangle that reflects the aspect ratio you want to use in your canvas.



2) Roughly draw your composition onto the diamond guide.  In our class example, I had a photo I took in Cambodia.  The trees offer a great opportunity to angle the branches to parallel the “perfect” lines of the guide.  Note that they don’t have to be directly on top; the idea is to reflect it as much as possible.



In the Featured Image above, I’ve also laid white lines over the tree branches so you can see how they parallel the blue lines of the guide.

3) Consider the Rule of Thirds

Also above, I’ve overlaid yellow lines that cross through the nodes found for us by the Diamond Guide at the thirds points on the canvas.  It’s important to have some sort of vertical and horizontal elements moving along these lines to keep the eye moving, and to make the composition feel whole.

I’ve used tree branches in the verticals obviously – although note that they don’t have to be perfectly straight!

In the horizontals, I’ve used the strong horizon line at the bottom third, and at the top third have a repeating pattern of branch forks that will allow the viewer’s eye to traverse the canvas.

That’s it!

Try this out on any old master work involving more than just a simple headshot, and you’ll see these principles in work.  Try it out on a contemporary painting you love and you’ll likely find the same thing.

Try it out on one of your own paintings that you’ve done intuitively, and you may just be blown away!  You’ll see how naturally we gravitate to this layout – and you may even find a way to improve an old composition!

Post images of where you’ve used it; I’d love to see!


Feature Image: Monet by John Singer Sargent, Master copy by Christy, 11″x14″ Oil on Linen Panel, 2018



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