Studio 100: 9th class (composition)

Colville, Alex. Horse and Train. 1954, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Alex Colville, Accessed May 2017.

Today’s class: composition. It’s something I’ve been wanting to learn about, and have even looked up in library books and on the Internet. So I was a bit disappointed that the class was simply the instructor talking, and us taking notes. I had hoped there would be, at least, a slide show of famous art that illustrates some of the things that were talked about! Where’s a better opportunity for visuals, than an art class? However, I guess I will do that part myself – looking for and adding the pictures that will make the notes meaningful.

I’ve included, at right, an image of Alex Colville’s “Horse and Train” – a painting I saw when I was a kid, and which I’ve always remembered. It’s kind of sad and haunting – a dark horse running toward a speeding train at night, perhaps thinking it is running toward the lights in a barn? The painting is full of tension, because you know what is coming, but you are suspended in those last moments of dreadful anticipation before the tragedy. I also like strong values – the very dark and very light elements. Those are the things I knew I liked before I knew anything about art. After class, though, I now also understand why this painting works as a composition.

Why are there rules of composition?

One of the things I’ve struggled with since becoming involved with modern quilting has been this idea of “anything goes if you like it – no judgement” versus the feeling that some things merit praise and some don’t. I agree that if you are making a quilt (or anything else) for yourself, you can follow whatever rules you want, and as long as you personally are happy with the outcome, that’s all that matters.

However, it’s also clear that some quilts (or anything else) work better than others – in the sense of, they seem more successful, are liked more broadly, than others. Understanding the rules of composition helps one to understand why some pieces “work” and others don’t. The rules are guiding principles that define the pieces that are able to attract and hold a viewer’s attention. And as it turns out, they are not arbitrary, but are derived from the way our brains see and interpret our surroundings. Among other things, you can read about The Gestalt Principles here, which are “theories [that] attempt to describe how people tend to organize visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied.” To put it more simply, our brains are geared to look for patterns, which help us to make sense of our surroundings. Faces, for example, are one of the innate patterns our brains look for, which both help us as infants to identify our mothers, but also cause us to see faces where they don’t exist – in knots on a pine board, or in bumps on a potato, or to see headlights as the car’s eyes and the grill as its mouth.

Composition theory in art is about planning the elements of an art piece so as to have an impact on the viewer. The purpose of the principles of composition is to help the artist to grab the viewer’s attention, point it to the most important aspect of the work, and then continue to hold the viewer’s attention and guide their eye around the entire work.

The instructor likened good composition to the layout of a variety store. Variety stores arose to provide essentials, such as milk, during odd hours. Where is the milk in any variety store? In a fridge at the back of the store. Thus, to achieve your goal of getting the milk, you have to walk past all the other items in the variety store twice (on the way to the milk, and on the way back to the cashier), which the store hopes will cause you to notice and buy other items you didn’t initially come for. In the same way, the artist wants you to notice a main aspect of the art piece, but also wants to you notice all the other elements of the piece as well.

An important note: composition is deliberate and staged, not random. Modern access to photography has ruined our sense of composition. In olden days, you knew anything placed in a picture was put there deliberately, had a reason to be there because the artist put it there. With modern photography, we think any random snap of life is a composition, or vice versa. Not true. A composition is a deliberate arrangement by the artist. It may be physically created by the artist, it may be a “found” arrangement. But the artists chooses it – the subject, the elements, the arrangement, the angle, the lighting, etc. In a composition, an artist makes a conscious choice about what to show you.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds divides a composition vertical and horizontally into thirds. In the diagram at right, the red circles represent the “hot spots“, any of which represent an ideal place for your focus element (the thing you want the viewer to notice first).

Why not the centre square? If you place your key item of interest in the dead centre of the photograph, that will be the only thing your viewer notices. Consider this picture of a dog. The dog is in the centre of the frame – everything else is background. In this instance, the dog is not only the most important thing, but the only important thing in the image – everything else is background, and gets no notice from the viewer. You look at the dog, say “Cute dog,” and move on. As a viewer, you are not invited to look around the photograph or notice any other elements.

However, consider this other photograph, which conveniently has third lines on it since I found in on, shows how the third lines divide up the points of interest: on one side, the tree, which is the focal point, is on the right third line; on the left, it is balanced by the large hazy mass of mountain. The light grassland runs along the bottom third of the picture, and the misty grey sky takes up the other two thirds.

The distribution of items in the photograph move your eye around to notice all the elements: the tree, moves your eye down to the grass, moves your eye left to the mountains, moves your gaze up to the tree again, and then you notice the second, lower mountain running off the right edge of the paper.

Do not put a dominant horizontal in the centre of a composition. The horizon, for example, is a dominant horizontal. Placing at the midpoint of the page will cause the eye to ping-pong between top and bottom of the page. Similarly, do not put a dominant vertical in the centre of a composition: now it seems to split your composition in half vertical, and your eye will ping-pong between the two halves. Even in the picture of the centred dog, above, you can see that the horizon (green grass line) is not running through the center of the image.

If you place the horizon of your drawing at the centre of the image, the viewer’s eye tends to move constantly between top and bottom. By placing the horizon line at the 1/3 or 2/3 point of the image, the viewer is more likely to travel around the image, and not get stuck in the top/bottom viewing pattern.

Similarly, don’t put the dominant vertical element in the middle of the composition.

Imagine dividing an image into 1/3’s, both vertically and horizontally. The four points where the 1/3 lines intersect are the “hot spots”, and any of these is the good place to put the focal point. The dead centre square of this is definitely the pictorial “dead zone”. Place the interest point there, and it will be the only part of the image the viewer sees.

Now, how to move a viewer’s eye around the image?

  • The eye tends to travel from like to like. So, determine what you want the viewer to notice, then repeat that similar property around the image. It could be similar colour – red –> red; similar shape – triangles –> triangles; similar value – dark –> dark.
  • What you show the viewer first, they will tend to look for again. Try to give the viewer’s eye an asymmetrical triangle path to move along, that joins the three similar things. Along the way, the viewer may also discover a secondary path.
  • Think of asymmetrical triangles – not the Renaissance pyramid with Jesus at the focal point.
  • Think in terms of diagonals and arcs.
  • Odd numbers of repeated things are good – if there are an even number of things, the eye tends to ping-pong between them.
  • Don’t “kiss the edge” – if the picture/focal point ends at the edge of the picture, you make the edge part of the drawing, and often give it a stronger weight than you had intended it to have.
  • Symmetry is over-rated. Symmetry tends to look like background to the real world. Instead use “balance” – example, balance a large shape on one side with two small shapes on the other side.


Although you are working in 2D, you are creating an image with pictorial depth – the perception of 3 dimensions. Pictorial depth determines what elements of the image jump out at the reader – what is salient, versus what is subtle/subdued.

To manipulate the image (manipulate the viewer), you can use ATMOSPHERIC PERSPECTIVE.

  • warmer colours move to the front of the image.
  • More vibrant, more saturated colours move the foreground
  • Cooler colours, less saturated colours, melt into the background
  • If your foreground colour isn’t super vivid, place its contrast colour beside it to make it more vivid in comparison.
  • Shapes in the foreground should be crisp, in sharp focus.
  • Objects in the background should be blurred, in softer focus, less detailed.
  • You can give an element surface texture or detailed marks to pull the image forward from the pictorial space.

Conversely, if something is popping out too much, you can mute its colour, muddy it, lighten it to blend into a light background or darken into blend into a dark background (give it the same value as the background), give it less texture, blur its edges, make it cooler.

Although in current art classes, your name goes on the back, for future reference – your signature should never be the most prominent element of the composition.



– “Line” can be a literal line that you draw, or it can be a linear element. It may be a point moving through space, or an implied line that connects things.

  • A line can be vertical, horizontal, diagonal, straight, jagged, curved, smooth.
  • Line can be a contour line – a closely observed edge of something
  • line can be a gestural line – a quick, rough, hasty, rough quality line.
  • Line can be calligraphic or serpentine – a line which changes of direction and/or weight
  • Sketching/structural lines are used for organization.


  • shape is a contained, flat area created by an outline, or often an implied outline. Shape can be positive or negative (Betty Edwards drawing of the RAM)
  • Shapes can be geometric (mostly straight-edged – man-made)
  • Shapes can be organic (bounded mostly by curved edges, usually describing something that grows, see the work of architect Frank Gehry)


  • 3D shapes
  • Common to break art into geometric forms (represent an image object as cubes, or as a collection of spears, etc.)


  • variety of hues (name of the colour)
  • Value is the relative lightness or darkness of a colour
  • Saturation/Intensity is how vivid or muted a colour is
  • High intensity colours pop forward, while low intensity colours recede


  • rough, smooth, patterned
  • – but also can be literally textured – paint can contain sand, have torn edges, include bumps, etc.
  • Visual texture – looks like it has a texture.

A composition works through UNITY AND VARIETY

  • unity is when things have similarities that bind them together.
  • Variety is when things change
  • Variety operates through contrast – more than 1 colour, texture, line, etc.
  • Unity operates through repetition / grouping things together
  • Things that are in close proximity have unity, even if they are dissimilar. Things that are grouped, or appear on the same line, have an implied relationship

Gestalt viewing principles: your visual field tends to group things naturally.


  • it is harder to make things interesting if they have true symmetry.
  • Symmetry can be bilateral or radial (flower)
  • Asymmetry is more interesting. Can be asymmetrical, but have balance – example, one large object can be balanced by two small objects.

-repetition can take place In a geometrically orderly way (kaleidoscope)


  • Scale is how big something is relative to something else. Like, Michelangelo’s The David is on a much larger scale than a human.
  • Note that all work is the same size on the internet
  • Scale can have an emotional impact. Art on a small scale – tiny, jewel-box sized – can feel intimate. It can be viewed only by one person at a time. Conversely, a wall sized painting or oversized sculpture can be overwhelming to the viewer.
  • Proportion is relative sizes within an image. In Van Gogh’s peasant painting, the people have proportionately larger feet and hands than normal ?


  • multiple elements, usually similar, repeating
  • How you space them is a rhythmic pattern


  • making someone notice something
  • Some things in a drawing may be more emphasized, some less emphasized
  • Emphasis can be created through anomaly, placement and contrast
  • anomaly – object is different from its context
  • Placement – in one of the 1/3 hot spots. Place it differently from other objects in the composition
  • Contrast – anything that creates contrast creates emphasis.



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