The Art of Composition


Ashley Zhao, Staff Writer

Composition—whether it be through films, paintings, or photographs—plays a major role in guiding the viewer’s eye across an image as well as influencing the overall mood of the scene. However, composition is perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of artistic creation despite having such crucial significance over it. Even if you have expert control over your proportions, color scheme, and art medium, having a weak and poorly planned out composition can ruin the potential of a piece. Thankfully, composition isn’t something that requires natural-born talent or skill to master and is actually something you can get right with a little planning and knowledge.


But what is composition in the first place? When it comes to art, it can be defined as the arrangement of elements within the pictorial or three-dimensional place. When a skilled composer begins to create a song, otherwise known as a “composition”, he or she must carefully craft a structure in which each musician must play his or her part. If each musician were to play at the wrong time or play the wrong notes, the song would sound like a mishmash of chaotic noises. In some songs, the guitar may have more parts and dominate the song, and in others, it may be the piano. Just like writing a song, composing a work of art requires the right planning, and in some cases, one specific element may dominate others.


But to do that, the artist must create certain elements that grab the attention of a viewer. These elements become the focal points of a piece, and all the other elements within the work become the supporting cast members. In most cases, only one focal point is required and usually includes the main subject. You can have more than one focal point, but having more than three will be difficult to pull off. To make focal points in a work, there are a variety of techniques that you can use, including contrast, isolation, placement, convergence, and something unusual.



Contrast utilizes differences and can be differences in value, color, texture, size, etc. By including an area of contrast, you can draw the viewer’s eye to that spot and create a focal point. We can isolate a subject by drawing it further away from other elements of the painting, thus naturally creating a focal point. Our eyes are naturally inclined to look at the center of shapes and can expect the same from viewers by placing a subject close to or in the center of a picture. Although this technique is useful at creating a strong focal point, it isn’t the best technique to create a visually stimulating composition. To combat this, place your subject slightly off-center or even on a third of the canvas. Convergence refers to the act of guiding a viewer’s eye by using visual clues like lines, shapes, or contrasting colors within a work. Anything out of the ordinary can also command a viewer’s attention, which can also apply to art. By including anything in our work that isn’t expected or is drastically different from other elements in the same scene, we can create a noticeable focal point.



Planning your composition is by far the most important part in the process, and typically requires you to sketch out small drawings that lack details. These are called thumbnails or preliminary sketches and should be drawn quickly with an attitude of experimentation. The more thumbnails you create, the more likely you are to create a better composition. Stay open-minded to trying different subject positions, and balancing positive and negative spaces, page setups, and colors differently. While composing your work, make use of other compositional techniques like the rule of thirds, odd numbers, and creating diagonals. The rule of thirds is a compositional theory and is based on mathematician Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio.


Start by dividing a piece into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and notice how these lines intersect in four places within the picture plane. By placing important subjects or focal points on or near these parts of an intersection, we can create a more aesthetically successful composition. There are two basic styles of composition: static and dynamic. Static compositions are fairly straight forward and direct, making them great for an informational image (like a scientific illustration). In contrast, dynamic compositions provide a greater sense of story and engage a viewer through the direct placement of subjects on a line, making it the more popular choice. One way to achieve this is by using diagonals, which can be incorporated using actual lines, implied lines, or shapes. Look for interesting ways to include diagonals, and consider the view from above, below, or even from a tilted angle. Furthermore, the human mind finds balance within odd numbers, meaning that one of the most optimal numbers to use is three. Of course, you can use more than three, but try to limit them to odd numbers. When using two objects, it feels as if there is some sort of visual competition between the two. But by including a third object, the other two objects seem to frame the third and harmonize the overall piece.

In the wise words of renowned artist Claude Monet, “No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.” Just like Monet once said, creating a great composition is not something that you can acquire through luck or talent. It’s about understanding what the viewer will feel and how they will visually interact with a piece. Although this might be a lot of information to take in, do your best to practice these concepts and incorporate them into your artwork. After all, practice makes perfect!