Visual Arts | Basics

Composition techniques

There are numerous approaches or “compositional techniques” to achieving a sense of unity within an artwork, depending on the goals of the artist. For example, a work of art is said to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye if the elements within the work are arranged in a balanced compositional way.[1] However, there are artists such as Salvador Dali whose sole aim is to disrupt traditional composition and challenge the viewer to rethink balance and design elements within art works.

Conventional composition can be achieved by utilizing a number of techniques:

Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a guideline commonly followed by visual artists. The objective is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest (such as the horizon) from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines.

Rule of odds
The “rule of odds” states that by framing the object of interest in an artwork with an even number of surrounding objects, it becomes more comforting to the eye, thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure.It is based on the assumption that humans tend to find visual images that reflect their own preferences/wishes in life more pleasing and attractive.

Rule of space
The rule of space applies to artwork (photography, advertising, illustration) picturing object(s): – to which the artist wants to apply the illusion of movement, or – which is supposed to create a contextual bubble in the viewer’s mind.

This can be achieved by e.g. leaving white space in the direction the eyes of a portrayed person are looking at. Another example would be when picturing a runner, adding whitespace in front of him rather than behind him to indicate movement.

Images with clutter can distract from the main elements within the picture and make it difficult to identify the subject. By decreasing the extraneous content, the viewer is more likely to focus on the primary objects. Clutter can also be reduced through the use of lighting, as the brighter areas of the image tend to draw the eye, as do lines, squares and colour. In painting, the artist may use less detailed and defined brushwork towards the edges of the picture.

Limiting focus
In photography, and also (via software simulation of real lens limitations) in 3D graphics, one approach to achieving simplification is to use a wide aperture when shooting to limit the depth of field. When used properly in the right setting, this technique can place everything that is not the subject of the photograph out of focus.

Geometry and symmetry
A simple composition with cloud and rooftop that creates asymmetry.
The “rule of odds” suggests that an odd number of subjects in an image is more interesting than an even number. Thus if you have more than one subject in your picture, the suggestion is to choose an arrangement with at least three subjects. An even number of subjects produces symmetries in the image, which can appear less natural for a naturalistic, informal composition.

Other techniques
There should be a center of interest or focus in the work, to prevent it becoming a pattern in itself;

The direction followed by the viewer’s eye should lead the viewer’s gaze around all elements in the work before leading out of the picture;

The subject should not be facing out of the image;

A moving subject should have space in front;

Exact bisections of the picture space should be avoided;

Small, high contrast, elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements;

The prominent subject should be off-centre, unless a symmetrical or formal composition is desired, and can be balanced by smaller satellite elements

The horizon line should not divide the art work in two equal parts but be positioned to emphasize either the sky or ground; showing more sky if painting is of clouds, sun rise/set, and more ground if a landscape