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Two Techniques For Cropping Your Subject To Achieve Better Compositions

Surrey Farm in Winter, by Barry John Raybould, Oil on Board, 2017
Surrey Farm in Winter, by Barry John Raybould, Oil on Board, 2017

Why is cropping your subject important?

Cropping is a method of selecting parts of a scene in order to find an interesting composition. If you do not focus on the important parts of the subject, your viewers will have trouble understanding why you painted it, what drew you to it, and how you felt about what you were looking at. There are a couple of techniques you can use to select the part of the scene in front of you that attracted you to the subject matter in the first place.

Zhongli Lanterns, by Barry John Raybould, Oil on Linen, 2014
Zhongli Lanterns, by Barry John Raybould, Oil on Linen, 2014

Technique #1: ask your self the important questions

Many beginners are overwhelmed when they begin a painting, especially landscapes. They become so absorbed in painting everything they see in front of them, that they do not focus on what drew them to the scene in the first place. There is no point in painting every tree, mountain, blade of grass, flower, or figure in front of you. All you will end up with is a mass of confusion that has no impact on your viewers.

If you are more selective in what you choose to capture, you will end up with a more powerful painting. Sit quietly and look at the scene. Ask yourself some questions like these:

  • do I want to capture the vastness of the view in front of me, or was it a small section such as a babbling brook that is the most interesting part?
  • is it the whole building that attracted me, or was it the vine growing up the side, or the rusty section of roof?
  • am I trying to capture the whole background, or just the figure sitting on the grass/park bench/in the doorway?
  • was it the sunlight on all the trees and hills, or was it a patch of sun illuminating something in the foreground?
  • do you want to paint the whole sky, or the most interesting set of storm clouds?

Until you can verbalize your main subject, then there is no point trying to make any preliminary sketches, or worse spend time on a full painting. Once you have narrowed down our subject, then consider which parts you are going to leave out, and which ones you are going to accentuate.

Technique #2: use a viewfinder to get a better cropping of your composition

A viewfinder is a tool that enables you to frame or crop your subject to achieve a better composition. It is usually a square or a rectangle made out of card or plastic through which you look at an area in more detail. It is similar to a viewfinder on a camera with a zoom lens, in that you use your physical viewfinder to zoom in and out of a scene. To do that, hold it far away from you, then squint your eyes. This will help you find a good arrangement or composition of shapes and values. Zooming in on a scene also simplifies the scene in front of you.

What kind of viewfinders are available for cropping a composition?

Use a viewfinder to help you find a good composition. There a several different types you can use.

Fixed frame

fixed frame viewfinder
fixed frame viewfinder

You can make these yourself from a piece of cardboard, poster board, or card stock. All you have to do is cut a rectangle out of your material, then cut a rectangle in the middle in the ratio to the support you are going to paint on. The outer rectangle removes any distraction from the scene and allows you to focus on what is important.

Create a different viewfinder for each of the different ratio size panels you use. For example, a ¾ ratio viewfinder is good for 6x8in (15x20cm), 9x12in (23x30cm), and 12x16in (30x40cm) panels. A 4/5 ratio viewfinder is good for 8x10in (20x25cm) and 16x20in (40x50cm) panels.

Variable frame – card

adjustable viewfinder
adjustable viewfinder

You can make, or buy, a frame that will work with canvases that have different aspect ratios by using two L-shaped pieces of card held together with paper clips. These can be useful for wider angle scenes in which you are including most of your field of vision in your composition. They can be used for unusual ratios, for example if you want to use a much wider support to capture a panoramic view, or a taller ratio for a figure painting.

Variable frame – plastic


If you do not want to make your own viewfinder, there are some commercially produced ones that work just as well, such as the ViewCatcher. It is colored a #5 gray to help judge values, and has a small sight opening in the center that enables you to see values.

Simple frame

hand viewfinder
hand viewfinder

As a last resort, if you do not have your viewfinder with you, you can use your hands.

How to use a viewfinder to crop your subject

To get interesting ideas for compositions, use a viewfinder to select a part of the scene in front of you. There are two ways of looking at your scene:

cropping in art

Distant cropping, in which you fit your complete subject within the frame. 

cropping in art

Close cropping, in which you bring the viewer close to your subject so that the frame of the viewer cuts right across the shapes of important objects in your picture.

Use the painting’s borders to create new and interesting positive and negative shapes, and enhance the abstract quality of your composition.

Two common problems when using a viewfinder

  • Make sure that the aspect ratio of your compositional sketch matches the opening in your viewfinder.
  • Also, ensure that the aspect ratio of your canvas matches the aspect ratio of your compositional sketch.

Crop and float rule

When you are cropping a figure, there is a special rule called ‘crop and float’. If you crop the top part of your subject, float the bottom half and vice versa. 

Do this: 

In this example just the bottom is cropped. The top of the figure is ‘floating’. 

Avoid this: 

In this example the figure has been cropped at both the top and the bottom. This creates a very unbalanced composition.

cropping your subject
cropping your subject

The history of cropping

Supper At Emmaus by Caravaggio
Supper At Emmaus by Caravaggio

Originally, compositions were worked out through preparatory drawings before the artist put paint to canvas. During the Renaissance, artists began to crop parts of the figures in the left and right-hand edges of the canvas. The master of using this cropping technique was Caravaggio, who used to create the sensation of dramatic nearness, and get the viewer more involved in the scene.

The Guitar Player by Jan Vermeer
The Guitar Player by Jan Vermeer

The use of the strong crop appeared later in the Netherlands, specifically by artists who painted interiors such as Vermeer. He deliberately cropped both inanimate objects and figures in order to get the viewer more engaged in the subject. He drastically cropped the musician’s left-hand elbow in Guitar Player.

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Please feel free to share it with friends. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, take a look at my online painting classes.

Happy painting!

Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy

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Two Techniques For Cropping Your Subject To Achieve Better Compositions

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