Composition is a term that’s frequently thrown around in the art world. Composition, simply defined, is the structure of a piece of art. When creating a work of art in any medium, you must consider how each element of your piece is organized. But what exactly does that entail? What makes a “good” composition, and how do you achieve it? Even if every other component is thoughtfully constructed, composition can make or break a piece, so it’s important to understand how to properly apply this concept to your work.
First and foremost, the purpose of composition is to provide information about the subject or idea of a piece to clarify the intent of the artist. For example, let’s say I’m drawing a picture of a leaf floating freely on a powerful breeze. If I draw a leaf in the lower center of my paper, it confuses the viewer – yes, the leaf is technically floating, but it looks as though it’s falling to the ground; and its centered position doesn’t make it look very free. The viewer can identify the subject and its action, but can’t understand the emotion or context the artist wants to convey. That would be a bad composition. Conversely, if I draw the leaf twisting upward in the upper right portion of my paper, the viewer can see the leaf’s unrestrained nature, as well as the force behind the wind. Now, with the same subject arranged with more thought given to the experience of the audience, I can convey the feeling and purpose I originally wanted to render. That would be a good composition.
What happens if your composition doesn’t add any information, but it doesn’t contradict a piece either? Following the leaf example, this might occur if I draw the leaf in the exact center of my paper. That would make a neutral composition. While a neutral composition doesn’t necessarily confuse a work’s subject matter, it detracts from the piece by omitting tension and boring the viewer. No one wants that! Here’s where the rule of thirds comes in. This concept states that splitting a photograph or piece of paper into nine sections with four evenly spaced lines creates a guideline for maximized tension and energy (see example image, below). By placing your subject on the lines, especially on the intersecting points, you can garner more interest in your piece and create a successful composition. Personally, I have a bit of a prejudice for this rule – sure, following these lines is an easy way to balance your piece, but it’s also an easy way to slip into a neutral composition. If using the rule of thirds helps you convey your artistic intent, by all means, use those lines. However, following this grid simply for the sake of creating a “pleasing” composition is counterproductive: you may end up stifling the potential of your wonderful piece.
Along the same lines of my opinion about the rule of thirds, it’s important to affirm the number one rule of composition: every rule can be broken. Artistic innovations are only produced by creating something new using inventive methods. As long as every choice you make has purpose, feel free to explore the boundaries of composition: it’s all up to you.
Questions about composition? Comment below and tell us what you think!