Principles of Art: Composition in Art

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If you’re a digital artist, more interested in the latest trends for Cinema 4d then in oil paintings, you may wonder why you would even need to consider concepts from the more classical art schools. However, as the old phrase goes there are reasons that clichés are clichés, and traditions are traditions - many of the same principles of colour and composition carry over well from the classic to the digital art world.

What Is Composition In Art Anyway?

Composition refers to a school of thought around how a painting- or digital artwork - is laid out to best flow harmoniously. It focuses on how the visual elements are arranged. It works closely with the principles of artistic design.

Do note that this has nothing to do with the subject you choose for your art. Even the most abstract of art needs good composition if it is to work as an art piece. Ideal composition draws in the viewer, encourages them to take in all aspects of the painting, and then finally leaves them focused on the main subject.

So, What Are The Key Principles Of Composition In Art?

There’s a few key principles that will help you use good composition in your art:

Principles Of Art: Composition In Art  - Image 1

Firstly, you need Unity. Without some unifying structure, even abstract art will fail at the job. Disunity occurs when something feels ‘tacked on’ and out of place. Everything should seem as if it belongs together no matter what style you are using. Get a friend to evaluate the art and see if anything feels disjointed to them.

Principles of art: Composition in art: Movement

Movement is a little more difficult. Even the staunchest still life needs some direction of movement for the viewer. These can be literal movements - say a flowing stream - or the implied movement generated by a leading line. These can be literal lines - think of how many great masterpiece landscapes use roads, rail tracks and fencing to lead you into the picture and give you a sense of the scale of the landscape. They can also be implied - things laid out in a way that draws the viewer's eye along them.

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Rhythm is more abstract still, but equally as critical. Does a piece have ‘harmony’? You may notice repeated blocks of colour, repeated shapes, repeated themes…no matter how abstract, there will still be a rhythm to a piece of art, or the piece will fail to grasp the viewer.

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Pattern is very closely related to rhythm, although more easy to define strictly - we are talking literal patterns of colours or shapes, or even objects, rather than the more implied issues of rhythm.

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Contrast refers to the difference between certain shades in the painting. These can be very stark and pronounced, or very minimal and subtle- there’s no right or wrong- but giving careful consideration to the contrast in your work is critical. Proportion is similar in that there is no right or wrong, but it refers to sizes and how those sizes tie in together. From hyper-real scenes where things relate as they do in the real world, to symbolic sizing and more, playing with proportion can carry a bold message to the viewer.

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Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s focus. What is the main object, or point, of the painting? Obviously there are abstract pieces of art with no obvious main subject- but you will still find that they have a focal point, a specific area where the artist wants the viewer’s eye to end up.

How Do We Use These Principles Of Art?

Knowing about something is never enough, of course. You’ll notice with each of these points that there is no strict right or wrong- that would defeat the purpose of art itself. Rather, there’s points that need to be considered and used in the right way to carry out the vision that you have. Remember, there’s really never any strict right or wrong in art - but here’s some ways you can tweak and improve your composition.

Firstly, consider carefully the relationship between everything in your work. Humans tend to work by comparison. They will notice what’s lighter, darker, larger, smaller use that to your advantage while telling the story you want to tell.

What About The ‘Rules’?

In no way are these noted concepts ever strict rules - even if they were, rules are made to be broken! Rather, the following three famous concepts are templates to experiment with, break and use to further your goals.

The ‘Golden Ratio’ is 1:1.62, or the Ancient Greek Ideal of a rectangle. Although it sounds arbitrary running with a concept of something as arbitrary as what an Ancient Greek thought, you’ll find that this particular ratio does please the eye more than you would imagine…even credit and bank cards use it.

The rule of ‘odds’ suggests that one subject is best framed with even, less important subjects. This please the eye. Chefs use a similar version of this rule when they choose to put an odd number of items on a plate - think of it. 3 and 5 usually look more appealing than 2 and 4!

The rule of space implies that where there is empty space on a canvas, we imply movement towards it. So if you have a train, boat, car or runner, you’d put that empty space ahead of them to lead to the feeling of movement.

The rule of thirds is simple. If a canvas is divided into horizontal and vertical lines, in thirds, this is where the main elements should be placed. Again, it sounds simple, but do a little googling for examples of this rule used - you will find it holds true. You can use strong breaks to this rule as statements, but be aware it exists, and can be used to your advantage. 3s seem to be important in the way the human psyche works, as most applications of this rule are not deliberate - things simply ‘look right’ when you place them this way. You can tinker with imbalances in anything that comes in three - fore, middle and background, grouped colours, anything- to play with the way your art is consumed.

Some Tips When It Comes To Composition In Art

As we mentioned above, implied lines have a great power to draw the viewer. There’s few real stark lines in nature [although those that exist can be used to great effect in paintings too], but you can imply lines of vision with the way clothes drape, the way objects are arranged, lines and swirls in patterns - almost anything can be an implied line. And these can have a powerful effect on how the viewer sees and proceeds through the work. You can also use a similar method to reinforce the focal point of your picture - a technique best used where a face or central character must come to the forefront as the main subject. If you have a good, but mundane, piece, you can actually try tipping the angle of composition to see if this jazzes it up.

Remember the power of contrast too. From idyllic scenes where you don’t want a stark difference in something, to the dramatic effect of a dark shade right alongside a light, the way you use contrast in your picture will have a huge effect. Remember that colour has a powerful effect on our perceptions. Certain colours are easily associated with certain feelings, moods and even ‘evil’ and ‘good’. Likewise, a strongly contrasting colour placed among other tones draws attention. The colour wheel and colour theory can be very effectively used to your benefit.

The age old theories on composition of art will benefit any artists, whether they’re working in older or digital mediums, so it’s always worth a little time spent on getting familiar with them. Being familiar with the basics of art composition will help you create powerful, strong imagery that connects with your audience, and improve the way that audience consumes your art.


Posted 21 December, 2016 Official

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