Basic Composition

“Good composition is like a suspension bridge; each line adds strength and takes none away… Making lines run into each other is not composition. There must be motive for the connection. Get the art of controlling the observer – that is composition.” –Robert Henri

What is Composition?

Simply put, composition is the overall design found in a work of art. It’s the components; the puzzle pieces; the parts. It’s what occurs between the four walls, so to speak.

Let’s start there. The “four walls” are the edges of your paper, canvas, or computer screen. Most often, the format is a rectangle. (Squares and circles will be dealt with in separate lessons.) All design decisions that occur in the work of art are in relation to the four lines that make up the rectangle.

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The basic goal of composition is to get people to look at your work for as long as possible and to feel good while they’re looking.

In the Western world, we “read” a composition from left to right, just like we read a book. Ask yourself a question. If allowed to place a single mark on a blank sheet of paper, where would you put it? (Answer is at the very bottom. Did you get it right?)

This is what I call the “sweet spot.” It should be about 2/3 over and high. Because we “read” from left to right you don’t want the climax to occur too soon (on the left). Also, the “eye” likes to travel up. It’s more active. Rolling the eye downhill makes it more tempting to exit the building.

If you have one major focal point in your composition, put it in the sweet spot.

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In this horizontal rectangle, the sweet spot is the back of the black sign hanging in the window. While that might not seem too exciting as a focal point, it serves as an important foil to all the chaos in the rest of the sketch.

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In vertical rectangles, the same rule applies.  In this sketch, the sweet spot is the hotdog!

Regardless of whether you have one focal point or many, there will always be an “eye path” created by the various elements in your composition. Knowing how to use these elements lets you determine the eye path.

The goal of composition is to get people to look at your work for as long as possible and to feel good while they’re looking.

Use Line. The eye will follow a strong line.

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Use Shapes.

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Use Line of sight. If you have a figure present, the viewer will tend to look where they are looking.

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In this dramatic example, the line of sight literally creates a spiral which climaxes in the “micro-theme” of the two game players, found dead center in the composition.

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Distribution of powerful or dramatic elements such as light, dark, and detail.

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Remember, the idea is to keep the viewer in the picture.  Pay close attention to what occurs on the right side of your composition. Whatever is there should function totake us back over to the left!

Strategies for dealing with the right side:
Point back to the left with “arrows,” directional line, shapes, etc.

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“Block” the exit with strong verticals and “soften” any elements that take us out.

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The most important key to success is to begin every drawing with light, exploratory lines and “map out” the entire composition before committing.
(See How to Hold a Pencil)

Learn the rules about composition but know they can be broken. I do it all the time. 

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