Design a Spectacular Composition with These Steps and Painting Tools


Whether he’s painting outside or in the studio, design is a top priority for artist Troy Kilgore. Follow along as he shares his strategic approach for creating and painting an eye-catching composition.
Ultrecht Artists’ Oil Colors and Utrecht NOOD™ Odorless Paint Thinner

[Sponsored] The design of a painting plays a significant role in capturing—and holding—a viewer’s attention, so it must be considered from the very beginning of the creative process. I take a targeted approach—literally. Let’s walk through it at a high level, then I’ll show you my toolkit and a step-by-step demo using one of my paintings.

Define a Target Area

I aim for a design that keeps the greatest contrasts, the warmest colors, and highest intensities concentrated in a “target” area—an area of the painting where I want to direct more attention—and I don’t hesitate to make any necessary alterations to the subject to make that happen. Typically, these alterations are just simple adjustments in contrast and consolidation or a lost edge here and there, but sometimes I might move a whole house or some trees to the left or right—or even out of the picture entirely—if it serves the composition.

Begin Building

Once I have a rough plan for the composition, I begin by laying in the big shapes. I build patterns of major masses from “families” of light and shadow and try to connect these families where I can in order to form a contiguous flow that enters one edge of the canvas and exits another. It’s a push-and-pull process in the foreground, middle ground, and background, using lighter or darker tones, higher or lower intensities, more or less contrast, and harder or softer edges to capture an illusion of depth.

Invite the Viewer In

Lastly, I make sure there’s a distinct entry point to the scene that pulls in the viewer. Values, color, harmony, intensity, contrasts, edges and drawing—they all work together to construct an engaging design that invites a viewer on a guided tour through the painting.

Artist Toolkit


Utrecht Artists’ Oil Colors: titanium white, and (from warm to cool) cadmium lemon yellow pure, cadmium yellow light pure, cadmium orange pure, cadmium red medium pure, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, phthalo green blue shade


A standard board with two sanded coats of Utrecht Artists’ Professional Acrylic Gesso


Blick MasterStroke Interlocking Bristle Brushes, Nos. 4, 6, 8 and 10 flats Medium

Utrecht NOOD™ Odorless Paint Thinner

 NOOD™ (short for “no odor”) is a pure, odorless, slow evaporating thinner that can be used with Artists’ Oil Colors as an alternative to turpentine and other conventional solvents. Evaporation is very slow, allowing for longer periods of paint manipulation. NOOD™ can be used in combination with linseed, safflower, walnut and poppy oil mediums, and is also excellent for use as a brush cleaner.

Step-by-Step Demo

Step 1: Select a Reference Photo

Design Composition Steps: Choose a Reference Photo

I selected this image I took of a barn and outbuildings in Michigan as the reference photo for my painting. I liked how the buildings are situated on a slight hill and how they’re bathed in warm morning sunlight and yet set apart by the cool shadows of the tree line in the background. I knew right away that I’d want to remove a portion of the foreground fence from the design.

Step 2: Plan for Design

Design Composition Steps: Plan for Design

As I plan, I make sure to (1) determine a lead-in, (2) devote one area to highest contrasts, richest color, etc., as a focus area, (3) consolidate the values and colors in areas that appear busy, (4) remove unnecessary obstacles such as fences or roads that block the viewer’s path through the painting, and (5) address areas of reflected light and other details.

Watch my Blick Studio Live video on reflected light to learn more.

Step 3: Blocking In

Design Composition Steps: Blocking In

Starting with big shapes and moving to smaller, I fill in as much of the painting as I can before starting the details. I’m careful to take my time and mix my colors thoughtfully because this is the stage that really determines whether the painting will succeed.

Step 4: The Finish

Design Composition Steps: The Finish

I added more variety to the foreground grasses—creating areas of both warm color and less-warm color. Next, I painted a few limbs and tree trunks in the background, being careful not to overdo it. I worked carefully up to this point so as not to upset any of the established relationships. After I had created clean color changes among the masses all around the picture, I added some tiny areas of exaggerated temperature and color shifts to areas of the painting that I wanted to “pop.” Often, I’ll do this in and around the focal area to add some boldness that sets it apart.

Meet the Artist

This article was sponsored by Blick.


Related Articles

Painting in Layers for a Complex Scene

For Abandoned Row Houses, Richmond, Virginia, I started in the top corner of the central roof, with the green “trash” trees and vines, the delicate Prussian blue sky, and the rich brick-red of the buildings. This trio established the whole key of the painting. The tops of the buildings have an ornamental entablature that has this wonderfully elusive, faded gray-green-silver note, a ghostly patina difficult to capture.

Harmonic Armatures Applied to Still Life Paintings

A harmonic armature is a grid of lines, the intersections of which identify key areas around which a pleasing composition can be built. Learn how to use this compositional tool for setting up your still life paintings.

Join the Conversation!

Become a member today!

Choose an option below to join now.


Join Now


Free Gift Included


Join Now


  • Stream over 850 videos anytime, anywhere.
  • Enjoy exclusive events with live discussions from today’s top artists!
  • Get access to the Artists Magazine archives and save 30% on additional magazines.

View All Benefits

*Membership cannot be purchased with Gift Cards.