Jahn Atelier Timothy Jahn


Timothy Jahn
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Timothy Jahn Great Expectations


Composition is the arrangement of elements within a work of art. It is the cornerstone of the greatest images we enjoy. There are many different theories as to what makes a good composition.  In this article, I am going to share with you some concepts and strategies that you can use to begin your lifelong study of great compositions. 

Before gathering your reference for a picture to make a successful composition there are several things to consider. 


The concept of your picture is paramount. What is the story you are telling? The objects, setting, lighting, and all other supporting information should enhance the concept. Each element will deserve its own study time to gain mastery, but the better you understand the underlying concept the easier the other choices you need to make will be. If you know what you want to express the other components are built on technical concepts. 


The concept of genres in art is historically connected to specific ways of organizing and classifying art. The genres could be but are not limited to:






William-Adolphe Bouguereau


Sci-Fi Fantasy  

If you understand what is traditionally considered, correct in your genre you can bend the rules and begin to develop unique compositions. To gain a deeper understanding of your preferred genre you can attempt some compositional breakdowns studies. 

If you understand what is traditionally considered, correct in your genre you can bend the rules and begin to develop unique compositions. To gain a deeper understanding of your preferred genre you can attempt some compositional breakdowns studies. 


Themes in the art are often messages about life, society, or human nature, and are usually implied rather than explicitly stated. Thematic content is not required in visual work. But your outlook on life will tend to come through your work subconsciously as well as the larger zeitgeist of your era. 


The Arrangement or distribution of space and objects within the picture frame will help you create a successful image. By learning how to control the following items your compositions will have a greater impact. 

  1. Focal Point 

  2. Lighting 

  3. Mood

  4. And the general design principles  

Some artists use the rule of thirds as a starting point for their compositions. Divide your picture frame into thirds both vertically and horizontally. You can use one of the intersections as a general area to place a primary focal point. 

Focal Point

Focal points refer to the areas of the artwork that demand the viewer’s attention. As an artist, you have the opportunity to control where the viewers look. Detail, edges, placement, lighting, contrast, and color can help support the focal point. 

You can have more than one focal point. You can consider the primary focal point your start and ancillary focal points the supporting cast. 

We can see with the below composition that the poses of the primary figure help gain attention to her. The lady peering over the wall at an unseen person or object allows the viewer’s imagination to finish this image. Her compatriot is looking up at her helping to direct the viewer’s eye to the important action. 

This symmetrical composition is using an inverted “T” with a slight variation in the interaction of the vertical and horizontal angles. With the thrust of the composition leading to this interaction, Euan Uglow uses detail and brighter colors to enhance the head of the duck as the clear focal point. 


Without light, there is nothing to see in your images. The way you light your pictures is so important. It tends to really add to the style and look of the artist’s work. Before gathering references determine the light direction. Think through what you want your image to feel like and allow that to be the basis for your choices. With just a little research you will find tremendous tutorials on lighting from many top photographers. While painting and photography are separate disciplines painters can learn a tremendous amount from photographers on how light operates in a still image.  


Different types of lighting 

Side or Low Lighting 

Back Lighting 

Top Lighting 

Front Lighting 

Diffused or Over Cast 

Values as arrangement

With your added understanding of different lighting options, you can now consider how to artists take that into finished images. Artists have devised different value strategies to help unify their images.  The most common you will come across are – High Key, Mid Key, and Low Key and full-value range.  

High Key

With the High Key values, your image would consist of values in the upper part of the value range.


With the Mid-Key images, your values would be selected from the middle of the value range. and you would exclude the lightest light and darkest darks. Nondramatic outdoor scenes are often in this lighting. 

Low Key  

Low-Key paintings give you an option to shift the value range down to the low end on the value chart. This can be used for moody images or images that are taken place at night. Many dark or horror images are set in this range. 

  Full range 

Images can also be created with the fullest range of values that your paint or pencils can make. This will give you the most dynamic range and allow for the greatest adaptability. 


The mood of an image can be affected by color and value. A happy piece will have a different overall value than a scary image. Learning to see value and lighting in moves in relation to the overall feel of the movie will help you gain a greater understanding of this concept.


Here we see Laura Alma-Tadama “Sunshine”. The subject fits perfectly with the light peaceful arrangement she choice for the image. 

In this image, our Pirate captain is set in a dark foreboding lighting scenario which added to his forboding stature. Also notice that the low horizon line allows us too we looking up at the figure. This adds to his dominance in the image.  

Here we have an image with great use of diffused edges and well-used atmospheric perspective. The combination of a low chroma image and mid-key value range really pushes the sensation of the war drama being illustrated. 


Design Principles 

Foreground, Middleground, and Background

The illusion of depth in an image is very powerful. When appropriate it is useful to build your image with a Foreground, Midground, and Background. 

This simple concept is often overlooked and underutilized. 


A balanced composition feels right. It feels stable and aesthetically pleasing.

Balancing a composition involves arranging both positive elements and negative space in such a way that no one area of the design overpowers other areas. Everything works together and fits together in a seamless whole. The individual parts contribute to their sum but don’t try to become the sum.

An unbalanced composition can lead to tension. When a design is unbalanced, the individual elements dominate the whole and the composition becomes less than the sum of its parts. In some projects, unbalanced might be right for the message you’re trying to communicate, but generally, you want balanced compositions.


Artists can utilize contrast to guide the viewer’s eye across a painting. It can also be used to emphasize one area of the piece that the viewer should concentrate on like your focal point. In this way, the other principles of art stem from the intentional use of contrast.

Value Contrast or light/dark contrast 

This is the more commonly understood use of contrast but can easily be overlooked. Controlling value to add contrast in your piece can help you make a scene more realistic, adjust the lighting, or add drama to your work of art. An easy way to study this concept is to break down well-known paintings into two shapes. Looking for the light area in contrast to the dark area. These simple values studies or “notans” will help teach your eye to see the larger impact of value on your compositions. 

Color Contrast

We can look at color contrast in two ways. Hue contrast and saturation contrast.

Hue Contrast appears when two colors are placed next to one another in a picture.

Chroma/Saturation Contrast appears when the chroma of the two adjacent colors varies. One-color is closer to gray and the other color has a high chroma or saturation. The higher chroma will often pull the viers eye to it.

Detail Contrast

Where the detail is or isn’t placed in the picture can add to your focal point. While the ability to draw items in hyperfocus is at first existing in and of itself it may not be that impressive. Your composition may in fact become more interesting by selectively utilizing areas of clearer detail against areas of lesser focus. 

Edges Contrast

Where you place soft and hard edges will help determine the areas of your picture that are in and out of focus. With a sophisticated use of edge control, you can help direct the viewer through your picture and determine what is or is not important in the composition. 

Shape Contrast 

Shape contrast invokes the use of different shapes and forms to create interest in your image. Shape contrast comes into play in the composition of your piece before any value or color is added.

As your design, your composition remember that the circler shapes are often read as 


Circles–Circular shapes are much friendlier than the others for encompassing other images within. Because they tend to “invite” the viewers into their “completeness”.

They remind us of a wheel or a bouncing ball. They have no sharp edges, which adds to their friendliness. All of this gives them a joyful, almost mischievous personality, and they are commonly found in designs aimed at children.

Despite this, circles are not all immaturity: the fact that they have no beginning or end leads them to be associated with lofty concepts such as eternity or recurring cycles, as in the rising and setting of the sun. They commonly represent both unity and protection. 



Square shapes are formed by straight lines and right angles that give viewers a sense of reliability and security. As such, we typically associate them with stability. They remind us of skyscrapers and tall buildings, especially when stacked. They also tend to imply weight and immovability.

Like buildings, you expect squares to stand firm. Similarly, a character with square shoulders and/or upper body can come across as strong, imposing, or immovable. In terms of personality, squares can imply both reliability and sternness.



Triangles Although they are not the only shape to contain points and corners, there is something that feels extra sharp about the triangle’s edges. Triangles remind us of spearheads, and rows of them can feel like shark’s teeth. As such, they inherently imply danger. 

However triangles are literally pointing, and we are used to seeing triangles in directional contexts, such as compasses or maps. Likewise, many ancient triangular structures such as pyramids and Mayan temples are believed to have been built with the implication of reaching towards heaven. So depending on the context, there is a varied view of how we see triangles. 


Texture Contrast

Every form that you are rendering has an underlying texture. Juxtaposing soft versus hard textures of wet versus dry texters can help create more complexity to your images. 


Silhouette read of objects 

The Silhouette is the exterior shape of an object. The purpose of finding a strong and interesting silhouette is to allow the objects to clearly be read as what they are. You’re attempting to reduce the ambiguity from the viewer. 

Simple and Complex 

When drawing you can take advantage of a concept of simple and complex. The underlying concept is that you want to allow the viewer areas of rest in the picture. While giving them a payoff in other areas. If all things were simple the image would be boring. If all things are complex the image would be way too hard to enjoy as you would be overwhelmed with visual information.

While these art nouveau images have a tremendous amount of detail and activity there are areas within the composition that are simple. These areas of rest allow your mind to appreciate the areas of activity.



Symmetry in the composition is often seen in religious works. Symmetry can also be applied when working on Heroic subjects, Symbolic subjects, works that are peaceful or show serenity.


In opposition to symmetry is asymmetry. This is when the composition is Asymmetrically balanced. An asymmetrical balanced image in art is when an artwork’s composition is not symmetrical, but balances visual weight between its two sides. This frees an image from the constraints of symmetry, while still maintaining a feeling of balance in the artwork. Asymmetrical balance offers greater expressive and imaginative freedom to the artists.

Timothy Jahn - Jahn Atelier

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