View Full Version : Composition in a Nutshell

03-22-2016, 05:25 PM
Perhaps this may be useful to some of you who are less familiar with the various ways in which one can use composition. These notes are a compilation from many sources I've read and learned over many years of learning and teaching. I don't claim to be an authority by any stretch of the imagination; I just know they have been useful to myself and my beginning students.

Composition is the arrangement of shapes into a unified whole. It consists of line, form, balance, rhythm, and space; a theme housed in an abstract structure. Put another way it means using or altering elements to make a point.
Throughout history, various compositional formulas have been invented. The idea has always been to guide the movement and pacing of a viewer's eyes, directing them finally to the piece's climactic focal point for an appropriate emotional reaction. In recent history, composition may be based on intuitive methods (sometimes referred to as "expressionistic" composition) rather than on rigid rules. However, before breaking the rules it helps to understand what some of them may be.

Here are but a few things to consider when creating the division of space and subject placement.

1. It will help your awareness of composition by starting with a frame of reference; draw a line 1/2 to 1 inch from each border of your paper. Beginning a picture with a subject, then attempting to enclose it with a border, can lead to compositional (as well as framing) difficulties. When an experienced artist eliminates a drawn border, it is because they can maintain a mental picture of what overrides the paper's edges.
2. When first learning it is considered best to divide a composition into areas of unequal sizes. For example, always place a horizon line well above or below a picture's mid-line. Such unequal divisions are believed to be more dynamic.
3. In the beginning, avoid multiple points of interest. This is not usually a problem with single subjects; such as portraits. However, it must be considered when working with a landscape or still life. As the artist becomes more experienced, secondary points of interest may be included, but never in quite as prominent a manner.
4. Avoid placing a center of interest in the composition's center; place an X in the exact center of the paper to remind yourself to avoid this. To further aid in this accomplishment, artists sometimes use compositional devices. A few of these are the "dynamic point", the "division of thirds", and the "golden mean or golden section". You may find that the center of interest in both the dynamic point and division of thirds are very close to being the same on some sizes of paper.

To find the DYNAMIC POINT in a rectangular painting, draw a line from one corner to its diagonal opposite corner. Draw a second line from one of the remaining corners to the middle of the opposite edge (not corner). Where the two lines intersect is the 'dynamic point" or center of interest. There will be a choice of which of the four points to use depending upon which corner you choose to draw the first diagonal.

To find the DIVISION OF THIRDS POINT is almost self explanatory. Divide the paper by thirds both horizontally and vertically. Choose one of the four intersections as the location for your center of interest.

The GOLDEN MEAN OR GOLDEN SECTION is one of the most widely known and oldest of principles. It is easy to use, but requires the artist to remember some mathematical skills! (Here's where a calculator on your cell phone comes in handy.) Divide the height of the painting by 2.62, and draw a horizontal line near that point. Now do the same for the width, and draw a vertical line near that point. Where the lines intersect is the magical spot for your center of interest. Here too you will choose one of the four possible points. This method is especially helpful for any shape or size of painting. Some sizes of paper will give you a very odd number when divided by 2.62 so just do the best you can when rounding up or down. For example these are the numbers for a 12 x 16 paper. 12 = 4.58015267 and 16 = 6.10687023! I would use 4 5/8 and 6 1/8 inches for my calculations; as I've written above, "draw a vertical/horizontal line near that point", and you'll be close.

1. When composing a fairly simple still life, draw your subject large within the picture plane unless you deliberately want to communicate loneliness or isolation.
2. Uninterrupted diagonals are a very strong design element, and should be avoided as they move a viewer's eyes right out of the picture.
3.One way to create rhythm/movement in a painting is by using shapes similar to the letters "S" or "Z", and diagonal or horizontal lines.
The "S" rhythm has a slow gentle motion.
The "Z" rhythm is lively and may be aggressive.
When using these rhythms, one must remember to keep them well within the defined border of the paper; or boldly exit at the sides.
4. Diagonal lines such as railroad tracks or furrowed rows in a field that recede towards the horizon can rapidly move the eye through the painting, and should be broken up by leading the viewer to a point of interest such as a train, a building, or other points of interest.
5. Horizontal lines convey a slow relaxed feeling, and unless carefully handled may quickly become very boring. To prevent this, don't make your lines parallel with the bottom edge of the paper. Make both narrow and wide linear bands in a variety of values and hues; break at least one of these bands into interesting shapes, and establish a strong center of interest.
6. Be aware that shapes can form symbols you may or may not want. Seeing figures and animals in the clouds may be a fun activity with a child, but they are very distracting and detrimental to good composition.

03-23-2016, 12:07 AM
Very useful (not just for pastels either!), thank you so much for sharing.

03-23-2016, 03:38 AM
You're welcome Laura.

03-23-2016, 12:48 PM
The Golden Mean is easier to find than that.

Draw a diagonal line from one corner of the painting to the other.
Draw a line at a right angle to the line you just drew to the corner opposite to where you started. The intersection is the Golden Mean.

I got this one from Henry Rankin Poor's book Pictorial Composition. An inexpensive, worthwhile addition to ones library.

Bodhi Peace
03-23-2016, 05:44 PM
I'm not sure that would work for a square canvas.

03-23-2016, 06:12 PM
It will. It put's it dead center. The Golden Mean assumes you are dividing a rectangle into an even square, plus the the remaining area.

03-23-2016, 07:37 PM
Actually you're right. It doesn't work for a square. If you go to any good photography site, that talk about the Golden Mean and square formats. The solution they give involves a compass. Place the compass at one point of the square. Then draw an arc going through two opposite corners of the square. If you then draw a diagonal line through the square. where it intersects the arc is your focal point.

03-23-2016, 10:36 PM
Mike I think for me looking for another instrument (a compass) is more complicated than doing a little math on my cell phone which is always at hand. lol

03-26-2016, 09:37 PM
Very good points for any successful painting.

I find the term “area of dominance” to be a more useful reference than “center, or point, of interest” as you typically aren’t referring to a specific point or spot in the painting, but an area that is dominant; where you want the eye to be drawn to.

Again, being more area than point specific, the Rule of Thirds is more than close enough to place your focal area. Like everything in art, it is a guideline, not a rule. Dividing your painting surface into thirds can typically be done without a calculator and will be close enough for all viewers, except those with a ruler!!

03-27-2016, 06:52 PM
Good points Kathy. The one exception I happen to believe in where division of thirds is concerned is if you want a painting that is square or near square. I prefer the "area of dominance" to be more interesting if the concept of the Golden Mean/Section is used.
Yes although everything in art may be a "guideline", when first learning it is good to know which guidelines one is not following. Another example might be the "guideline" in pastels is to work dark to light, and hard to soft. I've known some professional pastel artists who don't always start with the darks, and use only very soft pastels of one brand. However, they all started out learning traditional methods before learning what works best for themselves. I believe the same to be true for composition; learn the rules first, and then use them as "guidelines" or completely break them; and hope you are happy with the result.