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Composition: Summary

Composition

Composition is perhaps the most ignored aspect of artistic creation. It is also one of the most important aspects to success. If your composition is weak, then your work is also weak. Even if you have a full range of values, your proportions are correct and you have used the medium correctly: if your composition is poorly planned and executed, then your art could be considered a failure.

Fortunately, composition is one of those things we can do well with a little planning and knowledge. It doesn’t require “talent” and it’s definitely not about “guesswork.” There are some “rules” that we can consider when planning our jobs so that we can succeed at all times.

What is composition in art?

Our composition plays an important role in how our works are seen and experienced by our audience.

But before we define the composition in terms of art, let’s look at an example:

If you’re a musician, then you know that musical works can also be called “compositions”. There’s a structure for a song. Each musician plays “his part.” If a musician plays at the wrong time or plays the wrong notes, then the song becomes a disaster. Each part is carefully designed to make the song as good as possible. In some songs, the guitar may have more parts and dominate the song. In others, it can be the piano.

We can compare this musical analogy with artistic creation. Like a song, every artwork we create has a structure (or should have a structure). As artists, we plan this structure and execute it as we create art.

If we don’t carefully plan the elements we include, our art can become a real disaster.

So, when it comes to art, composition is the arrangement of elements within the pictorial space (or three-dimensional space with a sculpture). The positioning and layout of the elements within a job affect the way a viewer interacts with what we create.

As with a song, the possibilities are endless. We have complete creative freedom regarding how we organize the elements within our works. But even though the possibilities are endless, it doesn’t mean that we can approach the composition with a casual, undestopption approach. We must make our compositions, just as an expert composer would.

In some works, a specific element may dominate. In others, a different element can dominate. However, we must always make sure that we don’t have too many elements that compete for attention. In a song, we wouldn’t expect to have a guitar solo, a piano solo and a drum solo at the same time. In a work of art, we would also not expect all the elements we included to compete for attention.

Instead, we need to focus our viewer’s attention on one or two elements within the scene. These elements become focal points. All other elements within the job become the support cast members.

Create focal points

A focal point is the area or areas within a scene that attract the viewer’s visual attention. In most cases, focal points include the main topic. Every work of art must have at least one focal point.

Focal points should be limited. In many cases, only one focal point is required. You can have more than one focal point, but any number beyond three will be difficult to achieve. If your work has more than one focal point, then there should be one that dominates others. In other words, there should be a primary focal point and perhaps a secondary or supporting focal point.

Focal points can be created in a work using a variety of techniques. These techniques include:

  • Contrast
  • Insulation
  • Placement
  • Convergence
  • The unusual

Now, let’s briefly look at each technique to create a focal point.

Contrast

Contrast deals with difference. This could be a difference in value, color, texture, size, etc. When we include an area of strong contrast, it draws the viewer’s attention to that location at work and creates a focal point.

Zorn Painting
Zorn Painting

Insulation

When we isolate a subject or element in a drawing or painting, this element naturally draws attention and becomes a focal point.

The Agnew Clinic Thomas Eakins
The Agnew Clinic Thomas Eakins

Placement

They push us visually to the center of the shapes. If we think of the plane of the image of our work as a shape such as a rectangle, then we can expect our viewer to be dragged into the center. If we place a subject near or exactly in the center of our image plane, then this subject becomes a focal point.

Central focal point in a work of art

Van Gogh “Head of Woman” 1882

Although this technique works to create a strong focal point, it is generally not the best technique for creating a visually stimulating composition. When we place subjects at the center of the job, the result is typically static and boring. It is better to place the subject a little off-center, or better yet, in one of the thirds. More on this in a moment.

Convergence

Convergence refers to the act of guiding the viewer’s eye within a work using visual cues. They can be lines, shapes, contrasting colors, etc. Each element we include can guide the viewer’s gaze towards the focal point. Sometimes, we are drawn to an area within a work simply because the artist has manipulated elements to force our attention to a specific area. We can do this too!

kim cogan
kim cogan

The unusual

Anything out of the ordinary catches our eye. Similarly, everything we include in our work that is not expected or that is drastically different from the other elements within the scene will become a focal point.

Annie Murphy Robinson Feature Image
Annie Murphy Robinson Feature Image

Creating a defined focal point is important for creating a strong composition, but there’s more to it than that. We should also consider some of the principles of design.

The principles of design in artistic composition

The principles of design deal with the arrangement of the elements of art at work. The elements of art are the basic components of artistic creation.

You can learn more about the elements of art and the principles of design here…

The eight principles of design are:

  • Balance
  • Proportion
  • Movement
  • Rhythm
  • Harmony
  • Unit
  • Emphasis
  • Variety

(Some art specialists also include contrast as a principle. But since contrast can create emphasis, most people exclude it from the list.)

Not all design principles directly affect our compositions, but most do.

Balance

In terms of art, balance refers to the general distribution of visual weight in a composition. Every object we include in a job carries with it a visual weight. When we add an element to one side of our composition, we’d like to have to add another or more elements to balance the visual weight on the other side.

Visual balance can be achieved by adding elements or using negative space. (More about negative and positive space in a moment).

We can compare the balance with a rocker. Imagine that we have a large object (or person) on the side of the rocker. The rocker will not be balanced.

Unbalanced composition

But, if we add a couple of medium-sized objects (or people) to the other side of the rocker, we achieve a balance. The rocker is now balanced.

Balanced composition

If a job is not visually balanced, it may feel “heavy”. For example, if we include too much visual weight at the bottom of a composition, the weight will draw the viewer’s attention to the background. The composition will feel disturbing.

Visually heavy at the bottom of the composition.

But if we counteract this weight with an element or two at the top of the composition, then it becomes more balanced.

Elements added to balance the composition.

We should also be aware of how our composition is trimmed, as this can also influence balance.

Many times, you’ll have elements that extend beyond the boundaries of the image plane. If the edges of these elements are positioned in such a way that they are close to the edges of the image plane, this will create additional visual weight and perhaps unwanted attention.

Check out the images below. In the image on the left, notice how the bird is placed too close to the edge of the image plane. The edge of the branch at the top is also too close to the left side of the image plane.

The subject is too close to the edges in this composition.

In the second image, there is enough space provided on both sides of the image plane to provide some balance that results in better composition.

If we position the subjects in our works so that their edges end up a little further from the edges of the image plane or extend well beyond the boundaries of the image plane, then this visual weight is minimized.

Joaquin Sorolla Barcas On The Beach
Joaquin Sorolla Barcas On The Beach

We should also consider each edge of the image plane. If we have elements that extend outside the image plane on two sides, we can create too much visual weight on those two sides. But, if we allow subjects to extend out of the image plane on all four sides, we can create a more balanced composition.

Movement

Movement may refer to the illusion of actual movement in a drawing or painting; or it may refer to the movement that the viewer’s eye takes when he watches the work. In terms of composition, we are more concerned about the latter.

When a viewer interacts with your art, their eyes move from one element to the next. Generally, the most dominant element demands immediate attention. After that, the viewer can move on to other support elements within the scene.

As artists, we can control this “eye movement” based on how we plan our composition. We can guide the viewer to the most important elements and often control how most people will “ingest” our creation. In most cases, we want the viewer’s eye to flow through work in a certain order.

Depending on the theme, the order can look more or less like this…

  1. The viewer is attracted to the play.
  2. The viewer is guided to the focal points.
  3. The viewer is guided to support elements.
  4. The viewer is guided out of work or back to the focal point.

This visual movement is usually achieved by creating contrast, guide lines, diagonals, and overlapping elements.

Take a look at the job below. When you examine it, take note of how your eyes move through work.

Eye movement in composition
Willard Metcalf “Flying Shadows” 1909-1910

Maybe your eyes followed a route similar to mine. I went into work at the bottom of the valley, near the creek. I was guided by the line of darker trees to the center of the pictorial space, then back to the forest. Then I followed the tree line, right in front of the distant mountains. From there, I was guided back to the center.

Eye flow through a work of art.
Willard Metcalf “Flying Shadows” 1909-1910

The positioning of these elements allowed me to see all the important parts within the work, while appreciating each section of the painting by itself.

We can use the same techniques to have a little control over how a viewer interacts with our art. While we can’t fully control how people will see our art, we can have some influence on their visual experience.

Rhythm

We understand the rhythm through repetition. For example, we can hear the rhythm of a song because it repeats itself, often predictably. No repetition, no rhythm.

In art, the same is true. We must have repetition to have rhythm. Visually, the rhythm is created by repeating elements. This could be a regular or irregular pattern of repetitive shapes or could be a repetition of a specific topic. Either way, repetitive elements produce a rhythm.

Check out the painting below. See how he has a sense of rhythm.

Van Gogh Irises
Van Gogh “Iris” 1889

This rhythm is created through repetition. Here we can see how the shapes created for the leaves of the flowers are repeated …

Repetition of forms in art.

And also the shapes of the smaller flowers in the upper left corner …

Repetition in the art of smaller flowers

The shapes created for the iris are no different. They are also repeated …

Repetition in the art of larger flowers

An element that is repeated within a work is often called a “motive”. Including a motive in your work can often lead to a sense of harmony and unity.

Let’s go back to the musical analogy. The most popular songs present a constant rhythm throughout the song. The dynamics of the song may change, but the signature of time rarely does. And even though the notes can change drastically, the constant rhythm unifies the song from start to finish.

Our works of art must have this consistency, which leads us to the following principles: harmony and unity.

Harmony and Unity

Our art compositions must also be harmonious and unified. Harmony and unity are so closely related that it is easy to assume that they are the same. They are very similar, but each should be considered separately in our compositions.

The unit deals with a feeling of “unity.” This is usually achieved in a work of art by using the medium consistently and up to a level of completion. We can also think of unity in terms of artistic style. If the style and use of the media are constantly used in a job and the work feels complete and finished, we can usually say that the work is unified.

The unit can also be created in a work by simplifying. This can be achieved by simplifying shapes, subjects, or color schemes.

The following work is unified and harmonious for several reasons. The most obvious form of unification is by using color.

An interior of North Africa: an example of harmony and unity in a work
Robert Harris “An Interior of North Africa” 1877

Harris has simplified the color scheme and has mainly used the complementary red and green colors. Green is very earthy, but still present.

Unit using a color scheme
Robert Harris “An Interior of North Africa” 1877

Harmony helps create unity in a work. While unity deals with the work of art as a whole, harmony takes more care of the individual parts of the work. If the individual parts of the piece work together, then art could be considered harmonious.

Another way to think about this is to consider a family. A family is made up of different members. Let’s look at a family in a traditional sense for this analogy. A family can have a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. Each family member is different and is their own unique person, but the family remains a unit.

We can create harmony and unity in our compositions by:

  • Use the media consistently throughout the work.
  • Simplify shapes, subjects or color schemes.
  • Using a consistent style throughout the work.
  • Making sure the work looks finished.
  • Make sure that each individual part of the part works (and makes sense) with the other parts.

Emphasis

We often use emphasis to define the focal point or important points within a composition. We have already discussed several ways in which an artist can create a focal point within a work. Each of these methods is based on the emphasis for its success. Emphasis is usually created on a work through some form of contrast.

Take a look at the job below. What do you think is emphasized?

Edgar Degas "The Wormwood Drinker" 1876
Edgar Degas “The Wormwood Drinker” 1876

Most of us are attracted to the woman on the scene, more specifically, by her face. Degas has drawn our attention to her using various methods. For starters, it is located in the center of the image plane. There is also a strong contrast of value around it. Watch as the man next to her is dressed in black, while she wears white. There’s even a dark shadow on the wall right next to his light face.

Then there are the convergence lines created by the tables and the back edge of the bank.

You’ll also notice that the woman’s face has more details compared to the other elements within the scene. This also helps attract the viewer’s attention.

All of these features help influence how we interact with the topic.

Variety

Like emphasis, variety also deals with difference. Our drawings and paintings must include some variety.

Think about your favorite food for a moment. Now think about what life would be like if you had to eat your favorite food at every meal for the rest of your life. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, you have your favorite food and nothing else. It can be great the first day, but after that…

We can think of our artworks in the same way. We don’t want to bore our viewers with the same visual information. Instead, we should include some variety to keep them interested and make our artworks more interesting.

The trick here is to balance both harmony and variety. If we take the variety too far, the work probably won’t be harmonious. If we take harmony too far, the work can be boring.

Take a look at the image below. Notice how much variety is present …

Courbet Latelier Du Peintre
Courbet Latelier Du Peintre

Positive and Negative Space

Space is one of the seven elements of art. When we think of space, we often consider it in terms of depth or the illusion of depth in a drawing or painting. However, when it comes to composition, we can think of space in terms of the actual pictorial space on the drawing or painting surface.

The space that occupies important themes or design elements is considered positive space. The areas surrounding these places are considered negative space. Often, it is the negative space that provides a “rest” area for the viewer.

Check out the images below. First we see the original image on the left. In the center image, the negative space is highlighted in red. In the third, we see the positive space highlighted in red.

Positive and negative space in an art composition.

Positive and negative space work together to create the composition. A composition can be composed mainly of positive space, a uniform balance of the two, or mostly negative space.

The following image illustrates a composition made mainly of positive space …

Mostly positive space in a composition

Here is an example of a composition made of equal parts of positive and negative space …

Positive and negative space balanced in a composition.

And here’s one made mostly of negative space …

Mostly negative space in a composition

Each of these compositions is derived from the same theme and each could be considered “successful”.

Successful use of positive and negative space within a composition depends on balance. How this balance is achieved will depend on the theme, the use of the media, the level of detail included, the contrast, and other visual factors.

The best way to strike a balance in a work and ensure that positive and negative space works for the good of composition is through careful planning.

Planning your composition

Planning is perhaps the most important aspect of finding success with your compositions. Unfortunately, it’s the step that most people completely skip.

Let’s say you decide to take a road trip to a place you’ve never been before. It wouldn’t make sense to just put your bags in, get you in the car and leave without knowing how to get to your destination. You’ll probably take a look at a map or enter your destination into your navigation system. You will never reach your destination without some form of preparation and guidance.

Similarly, we must plan our compositions before attempting to execute them. We need to know “where we’re going” with our artworks. We should plan the final result before we start creating it. We can change our ideas as we work if we want, but we need to get a general idea of what we want the finished work to look like before we dive.

When planning, we can solve all the composition puzzles that are part of a solid work of art. When we do this, we can focus on the actual process of drawing and painting, since most of our decisions regarding composition have already been made.

In most cases, planning a composition involves creating small drawings that lack details. These small drawings are often called miniatures or preliminary sketches. Sketches must be created quickly and addressed with an attitude of experimentation.

As you create your sketches, you’re open to trying different things. Experiment with the positioning of the subjects and with the balance of positive and negative space. Consider how the viewer’s eye can move through work. Test vertically based compositions and compare them with horizontal ones. Experiment with different colors. Keep your mind open.

Many times, we have a vision in our minds of what we want to create and naturally assume that this vision is the most successful. However, in most cases, our initial vision is only the “tip of the iceberg”. With a little more “excavation,” our original vision evolves into something much more successful. This only happens when we are open to experimentation and take the time to plan.

The rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a theory of composition that is based on the location of subjects within a composition. It is based on the , which is a mathematical formula that deals with proportional relationships. Since the golden measure is quite complex, most artists and photographers rely on the rule of the thirds to create a similar effect.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s take a composition and divide it by thirds, both horizontally and vertically. We can imagine lines running along each of the thirds. These lines intersect at four locations within the image plane. By placing important themes or focal points at or near these intersection sites, we create a more aesthetically successful composition.

The rule of thirds in composition.
Armand Guillaumin “Hollow in the Snow” 1869

Notice how Guillaumin has positioned the figure almost directly at one of these points.

We can also create more dynamic and interesting compositions by placing themes directly on these lines.

Creating diagonals

Compositions can be dynamic or static. Static compositions are quite straightforward. A static composition makes sense for an informative image, such as a scientific illustration. In contrast, a dynamic composition creates a greater sense of history and attracts the viewer. In most cases, we want our compositions to be dynamic.

Dynamic compositions can be created by incorporating diagonals into the work. These diagonals can be created with actual lines and shapes or implicit lines. They can also be used to help guide the viewer’s eye through work, as discussed above.

Diagonals in artistic compositions
Fredric Remington “The Cowboy” 1902

Look for interesting ways to include diagonals in your work. This can mean changing the angle of the viewer’s point of view. Instead of drawing or painting subjects from a standard point of view, consider drawing them from above or below, or even from a slanted angle.

Odd numbers are better

When composing our works of art, we must also consider the number of themes or elements that we include. The human mind finds balance in odd numbers. The most optimal number to use is 3. This means that if you’re composing a still life, it’s best to use 3 objects. This does not mean that we are limited to 3 objects. We can, of course, include more if we want. But if we include more, the odd numbers are the best.

Let’s consider an image with two objects. With two objects, there seems to be some kind of visual competition between the two. It’s hard to decide which topic is the focal point.

Two objects in a composition.

However, when we include a third, the other two subjects act to frame the third, resulting in a more balanced composition.

Three objects in a composition.

Conclusion

The composition is not “conjecture”. A great composition is not the result of luck and it is certainly not about talent. It’s about understanding how a viewer will visually interact with what we create and plan carefully.

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