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Composition in art is the putting together of different elements. While a music composer puts together notes and chords to create harmony, so too does the artist. Photographers, painters and visual artists compose their work following sets of composition rules that have been passed on throughout art history. Today, some artists draw on the same set of rules and conventions that artists from classical art through the Renaissance used in their work. Other artists break with tradition and rebel against classical rules of composition. 

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This article defines composition in art and considers the ways artists and photographers have utilised these methods to create iconic and celebrated artworks and how others have broken their rules to create impressive pieces.

What is composition in art? A definition

The composition of an artwork is defined by how the image is depicted and laid out on the canvas. 

In other words, the arrangement of elements within a work of art. The artist uses composition to arrange the subject and object of the image in a way to engage the viewer or provide a visually compelling scene.

Artists aim to compose the subjects and objects of their works in a visually pleasing manner to engage the viewer. The composition can be considered the design or structure of what is depicted—the scaffolding that props up the subject within the image, directing the viewer's eye across the artwork. 

Composition is important to catch attention and create a dynamic, tranquil or animating effect on the subject matter. 

Historically, artists have used various compositional techniques to arrange the subjects of their works and create balance and harmony. And artists have adhered to these techniques throughout the radical upheavals of the early twentieth century. Even abstract artists such as action painter Jackson Pollock aligned his process with what he described as "allover composition".  
 

Elements of composition

So what elements make up the definition of composition in art? The following elements are important: 

  1. Line — the path that directs the eye across the work
  2. Shape — geometric or organic areas of the objects depicted
  3. Colour — the value and intensity of the pigments
  4. Form — depth, width, or breadth
  5. Texture — the richness of surface 
  6. Value — the light and dark that gives form to the subjects or objects
  7. Space — the existence of positive or negative space between subjects and objects

What kinds of rules do artists use to put these elements in order? Here are some key compositional rules.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds composition follows the logic that by dividing the canvas into three equal parts and placing subjects or objects along these lines creates a balanced and visually engaging arrangement. 

Placing subjects near the horizontal and vertical lines creates balance and harmony in the painting. Take for example Max Nonnenbruch’s Madchem am Strand, for example. The subject is placed along the first vertical line of the canvas and her lower and upper body is perfectly aligned with the upper horizontal and lower horizontal thirds. The remaining two horizontal thirds are left to the landscape. 

 

Max Nonnenbach, Madchem am Strand, 1920

 

In Jan van Goyen’s View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer, 1646 the artist painted the landscape scene of the the belltower of the church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem. Rather than give space to his topographically accurate view of the landscape, he gives two-thirds of the vast canvas space to the rolling clouds in the sky. The panoramic and atmospheric work influenced the paintings of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. 

Johannes Vermeer was an expert at creating a sense of depth in his works by aligning his subjects with horizontal lines in his paintings. In A Maid Asleep, he lines the head of the sleeping maid with the horizontal line above and the jug on the table with the lower line. The use of straight lines divides not only the subjects and objects within the work across the canvas but creates a depth that recedes back into the room behind the sleeping woman.  

The use of negative space is also a compositional element that artists play with.

Rule of space

The rule of space in art is used by artists to give the illusion of movement within an artwork and provide the context of a picture. 

In Max Nonnenbruch's painting, the subject gazes out to the sea which directs the viewer’s eye toward the open space. In doing so, he utilises the rule of space to give compositional value to the movement of the sea. 

Leaving open space in the location where the subject's gaze is directed or leaving space in front or behind the subject to emphasise movement is an effective use of this compositional rule. 

Rule of odds

Paul Cezanne's preoccupation with vanitas painting at the turn of the twentieth century saw him play with the rule of odds. In his painting Pyramid of Skulls, 1901, he composed three skulls on a table in a triangular pyramidal form, which is also another composition rule. Why did Cezanne opt for three instead of two or four skulls? 

This rule of odds suggests that an odd number of subjects in an image is more interesting than an even number. The compositional rule is based on the idea that symmetries create a formal, less naturalistic composition than odd numbers. 

Rule of the Golden Triangle

Artists use triangles to frame their subjects. The rule of the golden triangle states that compositions can be divided into four triangles of different sizes. These triangles are created by using a diagonal line from the top corner to the bottom corner with two additional lines at 90-degree angles. 

 

Jan van Eyck's Lucca Madonna, 1437, Städel Museum.

 

The compositional makeup can be exploited by placing the subject within the triangle to frame the focal point of the work Jan van Eyck's Lucca Madonna, which uses the golden triangle compositional approach. Perhaps more famously, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa—in which the subject's elbows, hands and head form a triangle—uses the triangular line to draw attention to the subject’s facial expression. 

Placing the subject within the central triangle creates a greater sense of intimacy within the image and focuses the viewer's attention on the principal subject matter.

Jan van Eyck's painting engenders a feeling of calm and serenity, thanks in part to the symmetry of the work. The scene is calm, balanced and focused. Other compositional techniques do quite the opposite. 

Rule of the Golden Spiral

The use of the Golden Spiral creates a feeling of dynamism within the picture.

Also known as the Golden Ratio or Fibonacci spiral, this composition is composed of a rectangle divided into two squares. A square the length of the rectangle's longest side is added to the rectangle and a series of diagonal points on each square create a path in which the spiral flows through the picture. 

 

Detail of the Golden Spiral on Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831

 

The celebrated Japanese artist, Hokusai in The Great Wave off Kanagawa employed the Golden Spiral technique. The spiralling wave sits on the left-hand side of the painting, gifting space to the movement of the sea on the right and an organic spiral form on the left. This asymmetry energises the picture and draws your eye towards the circling movement of the surf. 

J W M Turner was perhaps the greatest British landscape painter of the 19th century. He was a pioneer in the close study of light, colour, and atmosphere to express significant historical, mythological, literary, and narrative forms. In his seascape painting The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up, he uses the Golden Spiral compositional form to electrify the painting. To the left, within the "spiral", the fighting takes place. The ship is on fire while to the right, the landscape provides the context for the scenes and in doing so balances the dynamism of the narrative with the harmony of the landscape.

 

J W M Turner, The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up, 1838, oil on canvas, 1839; in the National Gallery, London.

 

Breaking the rules

Throughout modern art history, artists have rebelled against the conventions of compositional rules. Take for example, Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.The compact staging of women within the canvas marks a radical break from traditional composition and perspective in painting. It depicts five naked women composed of flat, splintered planes whose faces were inspired by Iberian sculpture and African masks. The painting marked the beginning of the Cubist movement which saw fragmented planes of objects and subjects displayed simultaneously. The subjects’ faces, at times seen from multiple angles, emerge from this compressed space as if they were set to emerge from the canvas.

In the 1940s, the American abstract artist and action painter Jackson Pollock began drip painting. The technique was a radical shift not only in conventional approaches to painting but also in our understanding of compositional forms. In Horizontal Composition, 1949. He placed his canvas on the floor and splattered it with paint as he traversed across. For Pollock, the composition was not so much the arrangement of objects and subjects within the canvas, but about the creation of balance of colour and form. Pollock played with elements of composition, including line, texture and colour, to render an arrangement or composition of these very elements. Pollock's process was defined by chance in the arbitrary way in which he produced his works. 

 

Jackson Pollock, Horizontal Composition, 1949

 

Cover image: Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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