Thursday, February 27, 2014

Tools of the Trade #8: Using a Composing Frame

Com•po•si•tion -- the placement or arrangement of the component parts of an image in harmonious relationship to one another; the placement of those parts relative to the format or frame of the image.

composing frames come in a wide range of sizes and materials

Composing frames -- Albrect Dürer used a large one (with an aiming device) in his studio; Vincent Van Gogh had one that could be anchored to the ground when he was painting plein air. Today's models are more compact, and far more portable. They not only aid the artist in composing his or her image, they also allow us to test several compositional options quickly and effortlessly before we decide on the final arrangement of format and subject before we commit our image to paper, panel or canvas. And yet, today most artists make little or no use of this handy tool... if they even know about it in the first place.

Why use a composing frame? For most of us, our subjects are part of something else. The head and shoulders you wish to portray are attached to a body. And that breath-taking landscape you want to capture is attached to, well, everything else! So, you find yourself asking, "Where to begin?" and "Where to leave off?" Or you just start along one edge of your sheet of paper and hope that you've included all the important bits by the time you reach the opposite edge.

But, by taking just a few seconds to use this simple device, you can take all the guess-work out of the creative process, while assuring yourself that all the time and effort you invest in creating your drawing or painting will produce the exact composition you had hoped for.

match the comp frame to the proportions of your paper

Matching the format -- make certain the proportions of your paper/canvas/panel are the same as your composing frame. Using a 2x3 composing frame to find the composition for a 3x4 panel will likely result in a great deal of distortion or an equal amount of guess work.

holding the compositional frame farther away produces a tighter cropping

bending the arm slightly produces a more inclusive composition

and holding the frame close to the eye produces the most panoramic composition

Too much, too little, just right -- look at your subject through the CF. Slowly moving the frame toward the subject will produce a "tighter crop." Slowly moving the frame toward your eye will show more of the subject and its surroundings. Experiment with both until you find the cropping that is most satisfying to you.

notice how the shrimp boat's window is intersected by the horizontal and vertical centerlines

with the shrimp boat now moved to the left, the background trees are at the centerline 
intersection and the boats face that point
(and notice that both images are divided by an implied diagonal running from upper left to lower right -- 
with  the lower left predominantly dark, while the upper right is predominantly light)

Left, right, up, down -- slowly move the frame side to side and up & down while noting what details are included or excluded in each position. Repeat the process as many times as necessary to find the composition you feel is "just right."

a compositional sketch on gridded paper (15x21 squares)

an oil sketch done on the same spot (5x7 panel)

Compositional sketch -- consider carrying a pocket-sized notebook in which you can produce a line drawing of your final composition before beginning your final drawing or painting. This can further clarify the compositional arrangement in your mind, and help "sharpen your eye" for future compositions. (I use a small pad of gridded paper so that I can quickly draw in the specific format I'm using. Alternately, you can use the CF itself and trace the inside edge of the window.)


4 compositional format options (clockwise from upper left): 3x2, 3x3, 4x3, 16x9

Using your digital camera/smart phone as a composing frame -- my digital camera allows me to choose from 4 different format shapes and even offers a grid on the viewing screen to make composing easier. This can be a very handy tool and, of course, you can also opt to photograph your subject for reference later.

The View Catcher goes digital -- The Color Wheel Company, the company that markets artist Patti André's original View Catcher, now offers a View Catcher app for smart phones. This gives you all the features of the original, plus allows you to take gridded photos of your subject (reference images for use in the studio), black and white images for tonal references, and even rudimentary "line drawings" of your subject for shape references.

focal point centered (rising sun dominates)              and moved to the lower left (sky dominates)

Being a bit eccentric -- most people place their subjects (particularly when creating portraits) along the vertical center of the format. And why not? It's the most "stable" composition option. However, that also makes it the most commonly used and, therefore, the least creative. So, consider exploring eccentric (i.e., "off center") options for a bit more originality. (It certainly worked for Degas.)

Thinking "outside the box" -- certain subjects bring to mind certain format arrangements; portraits most often utilize slightly vertical formats, while landscape formats are most often horizontals. Why not explore the opposite from time to time? You may find that it breathes a bit of fresh air into your creative options.

Don't settle for always seeing the world horizontally -- children not only see the world as a more magical place than most adults, they also frequently see it with more varied perspective; they spend a great deal of time looking up at the "adult" world, or looking down at the world from their perch in a tree. (When is the last time you climbed a tree? Or laid in the grass?) Don't forget to look up. And don't forget to look down.

one subject - four (or more) compositional options

And, if you want to strengthen your compositional skills try this little exercise: select a single subject that you find interesting. Now see how many different good compositions you can come up with. You can use your format horizontally or vertically (or, better still, use it both ways); move it up or down; move it side-to-side; turn it at an angle (this is called a "Dutch oblique" in filmmaking); use different rectangles; use non-rectangles (very popular in the 70s), circles (sometimes called "tondos"), or ovals; or even change your vantage point. But, to get the most out of this creative exercise, keep the subject, and your lighting on the subject, constant. (Like doing push-ups, at first you may find it a strain to do six. But, with practice, you may eventually be able to do dozens without breaking a sweat.)

Watch your borders -- we generally focus most of our attention on the bigger things near the center of the composition. But don't forget to consciously observe the little things around the periphery; what you choose to include (or exclude) at the edges can have a profound effect on the final image


scraps of watercolor paper and a few simple tools are all that are required to make your own

Making your own -- If you don't want to purchase a commercial compositional frame, consider making your own in your favorite proportions. (If you make more than one be sure to mark the window size on each for quick and easy reference.)


  1. Lots of great information here. Adjusting the way we look at subjects does add such interest. I like the example of the sailboats, they illustrate your point perfectly.

  2. Thanks Mosaic. It was fun collecting the images (I love traveling!) and, best of all, the act of viewing the world through my view catcher heightens my awareness of my surroundings (which, in turn, produces richer memories of time and place.)

    Cheers! :-D

  3. Thanks for the app tip & good post