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An Introduction To Composition

     If you've read my article on design, you'll know that design is the placement of elements on a two-dimensional surface, while composition is the arrangement of elements in the illusion of three-dimensional space. Composition, along with design, are the most important areas for the artist to consider when creating art. The best drawing and painting skills in the world won't save a flawed composition or design. In this article I will lay out the essential principles of composition the artist must be aware of as they relate to painting or drawing.

These are the 3 main considerations to consider when establishing a composition:
1. The distribution of "masses" in a composition
2. The location of the focal point
3. The distance from the viewer to the scene

The first thing I'll do is to clarify what I mean by the word "masses". It simply refers to the objects or figures present in a composition, the things that have an illusion of weight or substance. One of the first things the artist must decide in the early stages of a painting is whether the masses in a composition will be placed in a "symmetrical" arrangement, or an "asymmetrical" arrangement. "Symmetrical" means that the masses are placed evenly throughout the picture. This usually creates an unsatisfactory result, and can be quite boring and uninteresting. "Asymmetrical" placement puts more of elements on one side of the picture than on the other, and this is usually a better option, creating more visual interest, as long as the elements on each side of the picture balance each other, as in Example A in this diagram (I recommend opening this file in a new browser window--you'll be referring to it again!).

The analogy to the see-saw in this diagram shows how the "mass" of the elements can be used to balance each other in an asymmetrical arrangement.

The second major consideration that the artist must take into account when developing the composition is to decide what the "focal point" of the picture will be, and where it will be placed. The "focal point" is the area of a painting where the artist wishes the viewer to pay the most attention. It is usually, but not always, the subject of the piece. There have been many attempts throughout the centuries to determine the effective arrangement of elements in a work of art through mathematic formulas, such as the "Golden Section" of Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman engineer and architect. The "Golden Section" was used to determine the placement of the focal point in a painting, and the results can be seen in Example G in the diagram listed above.

As you can see in example G, any of these four points could be used for optimum placement of the focal point. While there are mathematical equations used to determine these points, this shouldn't be necessary for the modern artist; you can easily establish these points with a rough approximation by sight alone. And while placing the center of interest in one of these points is a traditional practice, it is perfectly acceptable to put the focal point wherever it is effective. A multitude of modern artists have thrown out traditional working methods and used unorthodox compositions, achieving surprising results. But I believe you must first master a rule before you can effectively break it, and this is a good approach to start with.

The third consideration that must be taken into account when establishing the composition is whether to "zoom in" or "zoom out"-- in other words, should I view the scene I am painting close in or far away? To put it simply, how much of the scene should I include in the picture? This will effect the number, size and scale of the various elements in the picture.

Now that these three basic concerns have been addressed, I want you to look at the diagram again. Examples B through E show simplified compositional motifs that have been used for centuries. The black areas in these examples represents the "masses", or the figures or objects in a picture. These can even be combined, as Example F shows. There are many other possibilities, but these have been the most basic and widely used in Western art. Now take a look at the artwork on my website and see if you can discern these patterns or their variations in my work. Do not worry about adhering too strictly to these basic patterns, though; they are here simply to show you some of the most common layouts.

With the most important considerations now resolved, I'll discuss some of the other factors that help to create an effective composition.

Positive and Negative Space: "Positive" space is simply the solid objects in a picture. "Negative" space is the "empty" areas around these objects, such as sky or other background, the areas between the branches of a tree, or the space between the legs of a standing figure. Look at Example H in the diagram. The black areas represent "positive" space; the white areas depict the "negative" space. Generally, the positive and negative spaces in a picture should never be equal in amount; usually one should predominate to avoid a static look. But they should always be carefully balanced.

Another thing to consider is the path that the viewer's eyes follow as they move through the composition to the focal point. While it is desirable to have the "lines of motion" in a picture lead the viewer to the center of interest, you don't want the viewer to reach it too quickly! The viewer's eyes should move throughout the picture, savoring the composition until it finally reaches the focal point. In Example I, notice how some, but not all, of the lines lead your eyes to the focal point, the black dot. Hard edges on objects is one way of leading the viewer's gaze to the desired point, as well as hard contrasts of light and dark values or areas of strong color.

Finally, if you are trying to create the illusion of three dimensions in your work, it is standard practice to divide your picture into three layers: foreground, middle-ground and background. This allows the viewer to gauge the relative scale of the elements in the picture. This can, of course, be disregarded if the artist decides that it isn't relevant to his concept for the picture.

There are many lesser considerations that can contribute to optimizing a composition, and I will discuss them in future articles. But as long as you have balanced the different objects and figures effectively, placed your focal point in an advantageous location and decided how much of the scene you want to include, your composition will be effective. Composition is the "skeleton" around which the picture is fleshed out. No painting has ever succeeded without a solid, well designed composition. With the principles discussed here, you now have the means to establish effective compositions for your work.

Article Source:

The paintings of the author, Charles Griffith, can be found at and he can be contacted at Charles Griffith's interest in art began in childhood, and was encouraged by his family. Later, while serving in the U.S. military in Europe, he was inspired by seeing firsthand some of the treasures of European art. Today his art focuses on traditional realism, often with elements of Expressionism and Surrealism.

Posted on 2007-01-06, By: *

* Click on the author's name to view their profile and articles!!!

Note: The content of this article solely conveys the opinion of its author.

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