In our Modern World, planning and analysis, numbers and assessment have taken over much of what we do. Almost no decision in the realm of business, even as and now especially as it affects the world of entertainment, is made without consulting the bean-counters and their algorithms. It is almost to the point where soon, parents will make choices as to how to dress their kids for school based on measurable data from research on popular and well-received apparel. Numbers and their use in planning almost any action or decision have pervaded practically every corner of our lives. Of course that doesn’t mean that planning is a bad thing in and of itself. While I feel that our reliance and over-absorption with quantification is loathsome in the extreme, there is benefit in careful, reflective planning and not all we do should be spontaneous and unprompted. The domain of the artistic mind benefits from creating a design and an organization for any project. A beautiful song is often times planned out patiently. It certainly has to subscribe to strictures like time signature and key. Superior writing utilizes components like a plot structure and literary devices to achieve voice and deliver its message. Even visual arts like painting and photography are at their best when “rules” of composition are applied and that requires thought, preparation and execution. On occasion, a “photographer” may accidentally hit a home run with an image that appears to utilize some of the finer points of compositional strategies. However, the trick is to do it again and/or to coherently explain what the basic design elements used within a photograph are. Consistently brilliant work is not the product of happenstance. Knowing how to bring a viewer’s eyes to and through the components of your image is the hallmark of the intelligent artist.
Composition (N) – the nature of something’s ingredients or constituents; the way in which a whole or mixture is made up.
The composition of any piece of art is at the very center of what makes it effective. A wide variety of compositional elements must be brought together in any artistic rendering and work seamlessly and harmoniously to engage that person who gazes upon a painting or a photograph and seeks to extract meaning from it. Since a piece of an art is “constructed” and follows a set of steps from its inception to its completion, what goes into the composition must be done so with an eye for understanding how and why it is utilized. While there are many different facets to any composition, some of the most important involve the use of lines, space, balance and mood.
Lines – The very essence of all artistic composition starts with the understanding, arrangement and harmonious utilization of lines. Lines fall into one of two categories; they are either straight or bent in some fashion. How those lines intersect or move in a parallel direction, and how they flow with energy or purpose will dictate part of the artist’s composition for the image. Simply put, lines must bring the eye of the viewer to the primary subject of the image’s composition. That does not mean that all lines must stream toward the focal point of the image, but they must work together in a variety of ways to create a flow towards that subject and a flow within the image itself. That means a photograph should have a point where the eye enters the image, progresses through the image to the subject and then there must be an exit point where lines take the eye out of the composition. The lines of the image are dictated by what is happening in the foreground and background. This means looking at details in a prospective image while also seeing “the whole” to achieve an efficacious composition. This requires reflection and analysis before, during and after the creative process. Whether you understand and utilize specific artistic terms like “leading lines” and “implied lines”, just knowing that lines have to be employed with purpose and planning is a large part of how to make a photograph or other visual artistic conceptions work.
Space – People who truly create “art” understand that not all of the canvas is covered in varied lines. There will be sections of the composition where space is not utilized and this space is equally as important as the flow of lines in an image. Negative space is the areas of the composition bordering the regions where energetic lines are moving. This space is essential for balancing the frenetic nature of the movement of lines, but also for creating a framing mechanism so that lines CAN do their job and propel the eye through the composition. Working with or creating the appropriate amount of negative space in an image is essential to the success of the composition. Too little negative space and the eye cannot rest or find meaning in an overly “busy” image. Too much negative space means there will be a lack of dynamic energy in a picture and the result will be an unengaged viewer. The aim of any artist is to thoughtfully compose the image in the camera or on the canvas and then improve upon its composition after the initial framing of the subject by cropping it even more purposefully. Allowing for the right amount of negative space is necessary for a successful image, but that only comes about when the artist considers the ultimate purpose of the image and the message being related therein. Space is never something to be ignored; it must be contemplated so that the next level of compositional strategy can be accomplished.
Balance – The balance of an image is how the picture is planned for its use of lines and space and how the “weight” of those geometries “feel”. The feel of an image is what needs scrutiny when you consider if the balance works and is correct. When creating a sense of balance, photographers are urged to use the “rule of thirds” and there are other wise guidelines like the “rule of odds” and the “golden ratio”. In the end, what must be considered is the “weight” of an image. If too much is going on in a small part of the composition and not enough is happening elsewhere, the image can be said to be unbalanced. This is different from use of negative space for the reason that this could be a condition brought on by the pose of the model, or the complexity of foreground or background issues or even where the leading lines start and end. What is the final determiner of how an image is balanced is the intuitive assessment of the composition’s array. An artist must be able to look at a picture and “feel” if it is rightly arranged. Using guidelines like the “rule of thirds” can certainly help, but it is not always sovereign. Strictly applying a guiding principal without intuitive insight can sometimes damage what could have been a well-composed piece of art. One way to become more familiar with the nature of balance is to carefully survey masterworks of all types of visual art. Each and every one of those works will have achieved that sense of balance by managing how lines and space are incorporated.
Mood – The most subtle and least mechanical of the compositional considerations of any piece of art is its “mood” or the emotional tone of the image. Unlike balance, space and lines, which can be fashioned and altered through careful planning, the mood of a photograph or painting is an amorphous blend of all the prior mentioned components added to the utilization of color, light and shadow. How color is present or absent, the proportion and array of light and shadow and how these are married to each other and the other compositional elements can greatly determine the presence of atmosphere or lack thereof. The aim of influencing the “mood” of an image is an attempt to engage a viewer less on the cognitive scale on more on the affective range, a place where emotion and intellect are fused and guided towards a reaction. It is where the “voice” of the artist’s image whispers its “message” to the viewer and then that person “hears” with both mind and heart. The carefully considered and rendered mood of an image is the final piece of the puzzle in the manner of the composition having an “impact” beyond simple practical precision. A photograph can be technically proficient, even superbly done, but without a sense of mood that engages the viewer at a subconscious level, the art will be only partly successful in its execution.
This article is meant to be a simple guide to some of the basics of composition and is not meant to be an “end all-be all” of the elements of composition. There are many deeply learned and incredibly complex treatises on this subject in art instruction manuals aplenty both in print and on-line that are very worth exploring for the serious artist. But because there are so many “dabblers” of an unserious nature out there passing off pics on Instagram of very attractive girls that are rife with poor lighting and even more insufficient structural components, another set of guidelines is never a bad thing. Art is accomplished by artists who are people who merge planning and inspirational creativity. As such, an understanding of how things are “done” and what constitutes artistic creation is part and parcel of the world of artists. Those who wish to create and to have their work stand the test of critical analysis, and not just get likes on social media put in the time and effort to learn what true artistry is. Just as carpenters must spend the time learning their trade in a wide variety of situations, artists must be proficient in what they do as well. It doesn’t mean that reading discourses on art will make you a great artist. There is a lot more to it than that. But it is a part of the entirety of the realm of creativity that the brain is not just a place of creation, but a repository of understanding married to that creative wellspring.