9 Art Composition Principles that will help you create better artworks, and take better photos

Let’s Take A Brief Look Over The Main Elements Of Art Composition

In my previous post, introduction to art composition. I mentioned that there are multiple elements of composition, which act as a language that communicates with the viewer of your artwork or photo. Just like any language, the more you know about its rules, the better you will be able to communicate with your pictures. In this post, I will introduce many of these elements, with a description that’s hopefully very easy to understand.

Here’s a word of caution. Many of these composition principles may appear vague at first, but they are very easy to understand once you see them in action. I added few examples to illustrate each concepts. Given their importance. I will write a dedicated post that explain many of these concepts in details, as part of this composition series.

These principles overlaps in many cases. Understanding one of them leads to understanding one or two more. That also led for some of the examples to feature two or more of these principles.

As a little reminder, this post is a part of a series about art composition, you can refer to the first post of the series here if you want to read the whole series.

Now, let’s get started~

Unity (Harmony)

Unity happens when a group of elements in your composition work together, as if they were one entity. Together, they define the photo or artwork. Unity may appear vague the first time you read its definition, partly because it can be applied in many ways.

Unity is also known as Harmony~

Take a look at the flowers field below, they all work together to define the photo, which we could name flowers field if we like. When we look at the picture, we intuitively see the flowers as a whole, even though we could look at each flower individually if we like:-

 

That’s all because the flowers are acting as one, they have unity in them.

One possible way to understand unity is to ask yourself, can I give the group of similar elements one name? Animal name? Band? Family, etc… Do you look at them as one? Can you group them as one based on a similar trait they all share? Unity works well when all the elements have a similar specie, size, color, font, style, gender, repetition, even if they are of a different species.

You can see that clearly in the following group of girls picture. each girl is her own individual, but they all feel as if they are one. Maybe it wasn’t done in purpose, but the fact they all have the same hair color, and similar hair length and clothes adds to the unity:-

 

Unity is an important principle that I will dedicate a post to it in this series, with more examples that cover the principle more.

Balance

Balance is the arrangement of elements around the composition (or picture frame) so that the various elements counter each other, creating a visual stability in the process.

The following symmetric image shows you two identical ducks, each duck is the opposite side of the picture frame. Effectively balancing each other:-

If we are to remove one of the ducks, the image would look quite unbalanced:-

You don’t need identical visual elements to create balance. We can create the same balance we had in the picture above by replacing one of the ducks with a cat:-

It’s worth noting that the black line that divide the images above is there to make the explanation easier to understand. The same images would have the same visual balance even without it.

In the post introduction to art composition, we looked at the following example of a bird flying in the sky. I mentioned that the picture is not balanced:-

The picture is not balanced mainly because the bird is the only element in the picture, and it is placed at the very corner of the composition, and that created visual instability.

If the bird has been placed closer to the center of composition, the photo would look much better:-

Another possible solution is to have another bird in the picture, to balance the one we that’s already there. In case of digital painting, placing another bird is easy, you just need to draw another one in the empty space we have. In case of photography, we have to make sure to include another bird at the time of taking the photo. Or to simple apply the first solution and place the bird closer to the middle of the picture frame.

While balance is desirable to have in many photos & artworks, it’s not mandatory to have. In many cases, balanced artworks can be boring. Sometimes you want a picture to be unbalanced to get the attention of the viewer.

Given its importance, balance will get its own dedicated post in this series. Since it would be hard to explain everything about it in the post.

Movement

The term movement has two meaning. The first meaning is having a sense of movement in the artwork, be it the movement of the figure or the elements in it, or simply the movement of time (the artwork or photo is implying that time is passing).

The following dancing guy has the first type of movement. While performing his dance, the dancer was totally off-balance in the picture was taken. Few moments later, he must have landed on the ground and continued with the next move:-

The second meaning of movement is the movement of the viewer’s eye around the artwork, to either guide the viewer toward the main subject, or to help them explore the various elements in it, or even both, even when there’s no actual movement in the photo or artwork.

What do you think the eye movement would be around the following flowers painting? Can you make a guess about it?

For the most part, the eye movement will be guided toward the pink flower at the middle, as it contrasts quite a bit with the others (more on contrast later). Then it will wander around the artwork. The way the brush point toward it helps a bit with that (see the arrows):-

The two usage of movement can exist in the same artwork, and can work together at the same time. Like how following convoy is actually moving, with the eye following its path as it looks at the artwork:-

Rhythm

There are two types of rhythm, musical rhythm, and visual rhythm. Understanding one can help you understand the other more easily.

In music Rhythm, a sound is repeated multiple times, usually in a timed manner. It could be repeated slowly or fast, depending on the musical composition. You could make out the Rhythm after listening to the piece for some time.

In visual rhythm, a certain element, or kind of element, gets repeated, which causes the eye to move from one to the other, in a very timed movement, as if we are playing a musical piece.

Rhythm causes the eye to wander around the artwork in a certain manner, which is one of the things we are trying to achieve by studying art composition. A common way to achieve that is with repetition & arrangement.

Take a look at the row of trees. If I am to make a guess, you looked at one for some time, then moved along to the other, and looked at it for the same amount of time, and so on. This happens so quickly that you probably didn’t realize it at the time it happened:-

You could make your pictures more interesting by breaking the Rhythm. This can be done by adding an element that contrast with the similar elements. This is happening in the picture below, where the eye wanders from the rows of houses and right to the car parked in front of one of them:-

Rhythm works hand-on-hand with the movement principles. It also depends on pattern composition principle quite a bit. So let’s take a look at that next~

Pattern

According to Wikipedia:- A pattern is a regularity in the world, in human-made design, or in abstract ideas. As such, the elements of a pattern repeat in a predictable manner. A geometric pattern is a kind of pattern formed of geometric shapes and typically repeated like a wallpaper design.

Pattern is a self-explanatory to a degree, any repetition of elements, shapes or color can be considered a pattern. But what does that have to do with composition? Well, in many cases, pattern works alongside the other composition principles mentioned here, like Rhythm.

A pattern can be abstract, like this painting:-

 

It can also be made from a regular arrangement of anything around us. Like this pattern of poles:-

The way this flocks of birds photo was taken gives the impression the pattern would continue even beyond the picture frame. Even if that wasn’t the case at all. This is called continuity, which is one of the Gestalt principles:-

When we talked about Rhythm, we saw how a repeated pattern is used in to have Rhythm in a picture. As we saw before. Breaking the pattern breaks the Rhythm.

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Focus (Emphasis)

Focus is one of my favorite principles of composition, not only it’s fun & easy to understand, but it can create some very interesting artworks.

The idea behind focus (Emphasis) is to have an element or part of the picture that attracts attention somehow, either because it’s so different, or using some other way. This element is called focal point.

There are multiple ways to create a focal point, like:-

    • Contrasting.
    • Isolation.
    • Guiding lines.

When an element looks so different from all the others, it attracts attention. All the guys in the picture below are wearing similar clothes, except for the one in white. Causing you to look at him almost right away:-

We will take a look at contrast more in the following section, as it is a composition element on its own.

Isolation is where one element is set apart from the others, like the lemon on the right:-

The lemon itself doesn’t look any different from the others, neither in color nor size. It stands out just because it was isolated from the others.

Guiding lines can help getting the focus toward the main interest of the picture. The guy below doesn’t look unique, and is not isolated at all, but it still easy to attract attention toward him:-

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Guiding lines is one reason why the guy is prominent in the picture:-

Placing the guy near the center (not the exact center) of the picture frame also helped guiding the focus toward him, but I guess that’s a bit obvious.

Contrast

Contrast is a huge difference between two or more element in your picture. A certain element in the artwork or photo could be so different that it catches the attention of the viewer right away. It makes a difference in the composition, and sometimes very easily.

Contrast comes in many ways. Some of them are:-

    • Proportions contrast (size, length… etc).
    • Color or tone contrast.
    • Texture contrast (soft, rough).
    • Solidity contrast (hard, soft).

You probably remember the rocks example from the introduction post. Where the rocks solidness contrast with the water, as well as contrast in color, making them stand out:-

An example of color contrast is the flower artwork we saw earlier. The different color of the flower at the middle draw the attention:-

Tone contrast is used often in sketches. Notice the how cat closest to the stands out, given the darker tone it has:-

In all the examples above, the contrasted element stands out. Create a focal point, and in that case, contrast heavily overlaps the focus / emphasis principle of composition.

Contrast is one of the composition principles that makes a quite a difference in an artwork, so adding it to your designs can be a good idea at times. In case of shooting photos, you have to accustom yourself to see contrast in nature. Developing an eye for contrast is a skill worth developing, no matter what medium you work on.

Line Of Sight

When the subject in a picture is looking toward something, we tend to follow their line of sight. As we get curious on what’s the subject is looking at. It’s one way of guiding the viewer’s attention inside the composition. It usually appears in picture where the subject is a living thing.

The dancer below is looking toward at her reflection on the mirror. That causes our eyes to wander toward that reflection as well:-

The eye would also follow the girl’s look to the side. Unfortunately, we don’t know what she’s looking at, as it is outside the picture frame:-

Line of sight works Well when there’s an expression on the subjects face. For example, if the subject appears shocked, while looking at the side, we would want to know what caused the subject to feel that way.

Keep in mind that when the subject is not looking at anything in particular, it creates tension. Something you may want to create on purpose in many cases.

Proportion

Proportions is used to refer to the relationship between the different objects in an artwork. Be it size, angle or distance relationship. A common case is comparing the size of the human head to the rest of the body, which helps drawing the figure accurately. Proportions is also used to measure any relationship between two objects, like the angle between them, as well as their alignment.

At first, it may seem like proportions is totally unrelated to composition, but in fact, it’s an integrated part of it.

When it comes to composition of a picture, objects are more interesting when they have different proportions. The following two balls are similar in size, make them not that interesting, as the eye may wander from one ball to the other. probably without settling on any:-

Now, the following two balls have different sizes, making them more interesting than two balls earlier:-

Proportions can be exaggerated to make some very funny & interesting pictures. Like how the following guy is of the same height as the status of liberty. We know the picture is not real, but it’s still very interesting to look at:-

The proportions of the picture frame itself has an effect on how pleasing a picture is. A square frame is so imposing, while a rectangular frame is better for the eye. Placing objects in certain positions in relation to the frame can affect how the picture looks like. A common way to do that is to use the Rule Of Thirds. Where we divides the picture area into 9 divisions. And place the subject in the intersection of one of them. This was done in the apple artwork:-

 

The most important proportion at all is the golden ratio, which is a proportion that exists in nature, and can be taken advantage in your designs and photos. It’s a very important concept that it deserves a post on its own.

Note:- If you’re interested in drawing in proportions as a drawing skill. I have a series about drawing in the right proportions, which contains many lessons & tips related to that, including the proportions of the human body.

And Finally

The composition principles I introduced here act as the language of composition, which could make your photos & artworks much better. Your viewer may not know much about composition or any of these principles, but will naturally feel them as they look at your artwork or photos.

Besides these principles, there are many rules & techniques that depend on them, so make sure you understand these concepts here well, as it will make your ability to understand art composition much easier. Don’t worry if you felt a bit confused about them at first, as it’s natural, they will get much easier once you learn more about art composition~

I hope my post helped you understand composition principles more, and see you again in the next post of the series. Please subscribe to my mailing list with the form below for more updates & promotions~

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