Techniques and Tips

In Painting, Sometimes Its Hip to be Square

In Painting, Sometimes Its Hip to be Square

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When designing a painting’s composition, the four most important lines you’ll choose are the outside edges. This choice sets the psychological stage for the painting’s performance.

Basically there are four formats: the horizontal rectangle, horizontal vertical, horizontal oblong, and the square:

  • The horizontal rectangle (3:4, 4:5, 4:6) is the most traditional, due in part to our human field of perception. Its horizontal nature relates to the earth’s surface, creating a grounded and calming effect. It is by far the most popular format for painting the landscape.
  • When turned vertically, the rectangle relates to the human head and is commonly referred to as the portrait format. If the landscape is portrayed in this format, the eye moves up and down within the design, creating a forward and backward thrust.
  • When the rectangle is elongated (1:2) beyond the standard rectangle, a sweeping panorama is created. The eye pans back and forth across the design, imparting expansiveness.
  • The square (1:1) is the most ambiguous, creating a visual tension. It is neither fish not fowl—a bull’s eye of sorts.

It’s important that every artist experiment with these formats to gain insight as to how they can be utilized to strengthen an artistic statement. Do an exercise in which you take a scene and compose it in each of the formats. As you will discover, elements of the composition will need to be altered to accommodate the change in format. You may be surprised as to which format stimulates you artistically. It’s not to say that one is better than the other, they just communicate differently.

Personally, I often enjoy working in the square. Its symmetry creates a compositional challenge. The basic rules of placement don’t apply in the same way they do to the rectangle. The format can’t just be divided into thirds and the dissecting lines used as a guide for the placement of the center of interest. It is too even. The tension this creates compositionally is a challenge I find stimulating. For this reason, it is a personal favorite. If you haven’t worked in the square, give it a try. Who knows, you may find it hip to be square as well!


  • Richard McKinley on DVD
  • Watch art workshops on demand at ArtistsNetwork.TV
  • Online seminars for fine artists
  • Get a copy of Pastel Pointers, the book!

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