A strong composition is crucial to a successful piece of art. It's what attracts a viewer's eye, and what holds their attention once they take a closer look.
It can mean the difference between an action-packed piece of art and a solemn, contemplative one. But how do you make a composition convey the mood you want, and what is it that makes a composition successful?
Think of them as suggestions… or better yet, as optional templates. Traditional methods like these are just one answer to a problem which has an infinite number of solutions. Their purpose is just to offer a simple method for an artist to use to make a more pleasing image.
I'll discuss some of these techniques, explain why they're successful and how you can use that knowledge to make a better image.
To begin, all you really need to know is this: a good composition is nothing more than a pleasing arrangement of shapes, colours and tones. That's simple enough really. Chances are, most of you can make a good composition with your eyes closed.
But we don't want good compositions, we want great compositions! We want to be masters of composition, bending it to our will. In order to do that, we need to understand the basic properties of composition...
01. The basics
The root of all composition lies in relationships. Look at the image above. Although it's technically a composition, it's not a very successful one. The viewer doesn't know where to look, nor is there any sense of flow to the image.
By altering one of these squares, even slightly, I've created a much more successful composition in the second image. As simple as the image is, it already has a sense of motion, and depth. How?
Through relationships. By causing a disparity between the shapes, I've given the viewer a means by which they can compare those shapes. "This one is bigger, that one is lighter." The grey square appears to be moving and receding only when compared to the black square.
The process of comparing these shapes requires that the viewer moves their eyes repeatedly around the canvas, and therein lies the true goal of a great composition: controlling that eye movement.
02. The Golden Ratio
Let's look at the Golden Ratio. The idea was started by the ancient Greeks, who were strong believers in the Platonic concept of ideals.
They believed that all things, both tangible and intangible, have a perfect state of being that define them.
They also felt that one should always strive toward achieving this ideal state, be it in mathematics, one's physique, politics or aesthetics.
Greek mathematicians, after repeatedly seeing similar proportions in nature and geometry, developed a mathematical formula for what they considered an ideal rectangle: a rectangle whose sides are at a 1:1.62 ratio.
They felt that all objects whose proportions exhibited this were more pleasing, whether a building, a face or a work of art. To this day, books and even credit cards still conform to this ideal.
03. The Rule of Thirds
This states that if you divide any composition into thirds, vertically and horizontally, then place the key elements of your image either along these lines or at the junctions of them. You'll achieve a more pleasing arrangement. But does it work?
Let's look at Edmund Dulac's painting, The Little Mermaid: The Prince Asked Who She Was (above). Dulac was great at using empty space to his advantage, partly because he tended to abide by the Rule of Thirds.
Here Dulac has placed the column and the horizon line perfectly along a line of thirds. But what if he didn't?
With the column and horizon line in the centre of the image, the result is less successful. The column dominates the image, stealing focus away from the figures.
The viewer's eye is now glued to this strong shape that bisects the canvas, instead of wandering around the image like it originally did.
04. How the rules work
The Rule of Thirds works because it demands that the artist makes one element more dominant than another. This dominance creates an imbalance, and an imbalance of any sort will always attract the viewer's eye.
Bisecting an image perfectly in half creates the least amount of interest, because everything is equally balanced.
Look back at those black and grey squares. The first composition is boring because it's too balanced. Making one area of your composition more dominant creates tension, and therefore adds interest. It also makes your eyes move around the canvas more to compare all of these relationships.
The fact that the composition is divided into precise thirds is really of minimal significance. You could divide a composition in fourths, fifths or even tenths. So long as there's some sort of imbalance, the composition will exhibit tension. As you'll soon see, this concept of imbalance applies to many aspects of composition, including value and colour.
05. Implied lines
These are probably the most important aspect of a composition, because you notice them first. When painting realistically, there's no actual line around a subject.
The illusion of a contour is a result of different values and colours contrasting. But even the impression of a line is strong, and our eyes will go to it and follow its length until it ends, or until it meets another line, which we'll follow again. A great composition makes strong use of this natural attraction to lines.
By creating strong lines for the eyes to follow, we can decide what path we want people to take and where we want that path to end. In this painting you can see a strong contour that follows along the cape, down the woman's arm, to our subject's face, down her arm, and then back up to the cape.
This creates a circular current that keeps the viewer's eyes flowing around the composition, holding their attention. That current also brings their eyes past every key element of the painting, one at a time.
And don't forget, whether you're working for print or for websites, the borders of your composition are an implied line, too.
06. Reinforcing those focal points
As well as using implied lines to draw the eye all around a composition, you can use the same method to make someone look immediately at your chosen focal point.
In fact, you can do it repeatedly, from multiple directions. This is particularly useful when your image is a portrait or a pin-up, and the character's face is the most important element.
To bring more attention to a particular character, try to make surrounding objects, such as arms, swords and buildings, point to your subject. You can also use implied lines to frame the subject's face, locking the viewer's eyes in place.