Creating flow in your art compositions is one of the best ways to creating engaging artwork that quickly captivates your viewer.
How do you get your audience to quickly immerse themselves in a painting? How do you keep their attention there for as long as possible?
These are questions that artists have asked themselves for hundreds of years, and it’s never been more relevant. With the advent of the internet and social media, art is consumed far more quickly than ever.
Imagine your audience scrolling through Instagram or a potential client browsing on Artstation. Sometimes all you have is a fraction of a second to grab your viewer’s attention and pull them into your painting.
This can be achieved through a compositional principle called flow.
What is flow?
Flow is basically how your eye moves around a painting. You may not notice it because it happens so fast, but the eye automatically follows a particular pattern depending on the image.
Imagine you’re taking your viewer on a journey through your painting. Do you want to give them an immersive experience where they can easily move through interesting points of focus? Or do you want to have them quickly enter and leave your artwork without ever really seeing it?
Essentially, a painting with good flow makes it easy for the viewer’s eye to enter the painting, and easy for them to keep looking at it.
There are two main components of flow: the path and the directionality.
Think of the path like a water pipe. It provides a channel for the eye to move through the painting. This can consist of lines, shapes, the canvas border, even one object pointing at another across an empty space.
The directionality, on the other hand, is how the eye moves along the path. Is it moving towards your focal point or away from it?
Factors like saturation, contrast, detail, texture, edge, and more determine the directionality of these pathways. Basically, the eye will move towards interesting things like high saturation or high contrast and away from the opposite.
How to use flow in your art compositions
Ok, so how do we maximize flow in our artwork?
First, we have to have at least one point of focus to direct the eye towards. This is the most interesting part of our painting, and we want the viewer to be immediately drawn there and to return back to that point over and over.
We can make as many focal points as we want, but it’s much hard to manage multiple focal points properly. Focal points must be ordered in terms of importance so they’re not competing for attention, so it’s best to just stick with 1-2 at first.
Establish the focal point by creating more detail, saturation, or contrast in that area. You can also use hard edges or rougher textures, or use different shape language to draw attention to that area.
Then, decide how you’re going to create pathways to get the viewer that focal point. It can be the edge of a cliff, or a river, or even a literal pathway or road in your painting. Use every line and shape to direct attention towards your focal area(s).
Finally, make sure the eye is following the right direction along your pathways. Do this by creating areas of non-interest near the edges of the canvas or in spaces where you don’t want the eye to land. Use larger, simpler shapes, low contrast, lost edges, and low saturation to create areas of non-interest.
You can also design pathways that create circular flow between multiple areas of interest. Notice in the painting below how the spear points to the creature’s head, which points to the stairs, which brings us back up to the character, and along the line of sight back along the creature’s body.
This is a great way to keep your viewer engaged by leading them through infinite loops between interesting areas.
There are tons of ways to create flow in your art compositions, and I’ve covered just a few of them here. If you want to learn more about how to create a strong composition and create a full painting like this from scratch, check out this full tutorial.