Unless you’re an art history major, classical art probably feels a little out of touch.  The oil-on-canvas medium has lost it’s resonance with a lot of us—why wander through an art gallery when we can look at high resolution images on Instagram?

Be that as it may, the likes of Van Gogh and Poussin actually have a lot that they can teach us. Classical art draws the viewer in because these painters were masters of composition. They know how to draw a viewer in, and tell them a story. As a photographer, it could be useful to take a look at these artistic visionaries and learn a thing or two about how to compose your images.

painting, monet, park, water

Claude Monet: La Grenouillere

1.) Play with Shadows

Monet is known for painting with a light hand.  The details of his subjects aren’t clear, but he tricks the human eye by using light and shadow to define the dimensions of his paintings.

In your own photography, you can experiment with shadows to make your subjects stand out. In landscape photography, shadows can help to balance your images and soften the sunlight. In portrait pictures, shadows can change the angles on your subject’s face. If you want an image that’s dynamic, use shadows to your advantage.


painting, boat, rembrandt, ocean

Rembrandt: Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

2.) High Contrast

This goes along with the use of shadow, but contrast can be created with colors, light, or even perspective.

In this particular painting, your eyes are drawn to the boat because it is tilting on the axis between sun and shadow. The image uses the two-thirds/one-thirds rule.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s essentially what it sounds like: two-thirds of the image is in the dark, and one-third is in the light. This high contrast helps to focus the viewer’s eye on the subject. If you want a striking composition, this rule is the way to go.

Poussin, painting, angel,

Nicolas Poussin: Selene and Endymion

3.) Use Movement to Help Tell the Story

While you probably won’t be capturing horses in the sky and babies with wings anytime soon, there’s a lot that you can take from Poussin’s portrayal of Selene and Endymion.

Note that the woman on the right is the starting point for your eye.  As she pulls back the curtain, your eyes follow the painting from right to left. The painting successfully tells a story because it guides your eye through each element of the image.

When photographing a scene with several subjects, you don’t want your viewer to get overwhelmed. Find a focal point where the action seems to start, and put this in one corner of your image. This will help the viewer navigate their way through a complex composition.

landscape, trees, balance

Gaspard Dughet: Landscape with Abraham and Isaac

4.) Create Balance

There’s something about symmetry that just makes you feel relaxed. Scientists have noted that people are more attracted to symmetrical faces, and classical painters understood that symmetry was essential to a balanced composition. The trees on either side of this painting frame the valley, which not only creates a focal point, but makes the artwork feel purposeful.

As a photographer, your job is to make people see ordinary sights and objects in a new way.  When you frame your compositions with symmetry, your audience will feel more grounded in the image.

painting, classic, landscape

Claude Lorrain: Ascanius Shooting the stag of Sylvia

5.) Use Patterns

From the columns of the building on the left, to the repeated uses of color, to the repetition of trees, Lorrain uses the natural patterns of a landscape to compose balance in this image.

As a photographer, you probably have a natural eye for repetition in nature. You can utilize this skill by composing images that place these patterns side-by-side. It creates not only an interesting image, but a piece that is balanced.


The school of athens, painting

Raphael: The School of Athens

6.) Have a Focal Point

If you ever took a drawing class, you were probably exposed to Raphael’s The School of Athens.  Everything in the picture, from the arches to the people on the stairs, is working to frame the two men in the center of the image.

Without a focal point, an image feels purposeless and chaotic.  Artists like Raphael use their entire image to direct the viewer’s attention to the focal point.  When you are about to take a picture, ensure that you have one point that you want to focus on, and that all other elements are working to make that point stand out.

wheat field, painting, trees

Van Gogh: Wheat Field with Cypresses

7.) Use Colors that Are Complementary 

In elementary school, you were probably introduced to the color wheel, where you learned about complementary colors. It may seem like a frivolous lesson, but the artists with the best eyes are the ones that use colors to balance out their image. Van Gogh often uses yellow and blues, because they stand out against one another.

When taking a photograph, make sure to pay attention to your color palette. Find flowers that stand out against the ground, or people whose clothes stand out against the grey sidewalk. Wherever you are (unless you live in a dreary black and white movie), you’ll be able to find images in nature with dynamic, unique color schemes that will make your photos pop.


Feature photo by Václav Pluha? on Unsplash