by Marne Jensen

“Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.” – Henri Matisse, one of the 20th century French art masters.

When you begin a trip to an unfamiliar destination, it’s good to have a roadmap handy (or GPS, Google map, etc.). Likewise, when you first see a painting or fine art photograph, a different kind of “roadmap” called composition has been used by the artist when creating the artwork to make a pathway for your eyes to travel into, around, and through the piece. There are different ways that artists call upon to create these roadmaps, but the purpose of doing this is for you, the viewer, to be able to easily and enjoyably wander through the art with your eyes. No matter the subject matter or media, good art begins with good composition. If we can say that a particular piece of artwork is well designed, then that design depended upon compositional skills or techniques. It requires planning and skill to decide where and how design elements will be used to break up the overall space in the artwork.

So what specifically do I mean when I used the term composition? Aren’t all paintings and photographs “compositions”? Certainly, but artists also use techniques we identify with the term composition. There are various aspects of composition which are recognized today as being valid. These are usually broken down into two groups: 1) the principles and 2) the elements of design. The lists vary depending upon the source.

What is the artist trying to tell us when we look at a particular piece of their art? Good art has a story to tell. Skilled artists use their compositional tools to tell that story and to help us see that story. When you first look at a fine art photo or a painting, is there a place your eye initially lands? For example, if there is both an old man and a baby in the image, the artist can make the story be about either the old man or the baby using compositional fundamentals.

One popular technique (and at the top of the list) used by many artists is referred to as the “rule of thirds”. This is a method used to create a focal point – or center of interest – that will catch your immediate attention and initially direct your eye to a particular part of the artwork. Sometimes there will be two focal points, one being more dominant than the other. To do this, the artist creates an invisible grid on the surface of the artwork by drawing two lines across the space to divide the art into three equal horizontal spaces, then draws two vertical lines to create three equal vertical spaces. As a result, there are then four points where these invisible lines create intersections. Any one of these four “intersections” can become the focal point.

Once the artist has decided where to locate the focal point, then decisions are made related to specific techniques that will highlight this area. Among these are color contrast: using the darkest darks positioned against the lightest lights in the palette. Another can be dominance of size. Strategically placed lines and shapes also work well. Objects of varying or unequal size are more interesting than just one size as are groupings of objects that are made of unequal numbers. The size, shape, and color of negative space (that space which surrounds an object, for instance) is also up for consideration by the artist. A landscape artist will need to decide whether to use a high or a low horizon line (hopefully avoiding placing it right in the middle of a painting or photo).

Where and how the artist places shapes, objects, contrasts of lights and darks, all these become compositional elements. Especially in realism or impressionism, the light source needs to be effective and consistent. The way the artist chooses to arrange objects is part of the composition decision. Shapes such as a fence, a bend in the river, the curve of a road, or a winding path can direct our eye into a scene. A technique called fragmentation is sometimes used, especially in landscapes, to break up spaces into smaller segments. A triangular shape, which our eyes seem to like, works well for the negative spaces in between or around objects and also for the object featured, such as a floral arrangement. These compositional elements affect how the viewer will see the art. The overall layout can be symmetrical or asymmetrical, and one part of the artwork can have more visual “weight” which will draw your eye to that spot.

There is more to “seeing” art than just using your eyeballs. When you visually step into a painting or fine art photograph, you also use your brain. A skilled artist knows ways to entice you, using compositional techniques, to capture your attention and direct you through the journey into his or her creation. Successful artists from the past – from the Old Masters up to and including today’s contemporary artists – have developed what have now become tried and true compositional elements to create art that we love to see. Effective composition will draw you in and help guide your vision across the entire space of the artwork.

Sometimes art creations take a different direction – which can be reality or abstract – and these are referred to as “pattern pieces” where there is not a significant focal point. An example would be a close-up view of tree blossoms, or a pile of match sticks or marbles, or other objects that are small in size and similar in shape. In an abstract work, an example might be random abstract shapes where the design is similar over the entire space of the artwork. These works rely on compositional techniques, such as repetition, rather than the use of a focal point.

Compositional skills are an important asset in the artist’s toolbox, and knowing when, where and how to use these fundamentals is essential to creating good art. It takes both education and experience for an artist to understand and use these principles and elements effectively. Strong, well-designed composition, more than any other aspect, is what separates the good from the mediocre of art excellence.

For you, the viewer, why should you have an interest in or knowledge about how artwork is composed? My answer to this is that having some understanding of what goes into creating good artwork will give you a more expanded way of appreciating art. We hope that having an awareness of these concepts will help you to better enjoy the artwork you see.

More later… stay tuned!

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