You might hear the term composition used to refer to any piece of music, writing, painting or sculpture, but in the visual arts it is used specifically to talk about the arrangement of elements within an artwork. Mastering composition is essential for any artist, yet the importance of this skill is often forgotten about. A poor composition can affect the whole artwork, so either careful planning or a great sense of intuition is necessary when putting paintbrush to canvas.
How can composition vary?
Composition is the way in which different elements of an artwork are combined or arranged. The artist has complete freedom when choosing the composition of their artwork. Elements may all be clustered towards the centre of the canvas or photograph, or spread out in the corners of the piece. Alternatively, there may just be one subject that dominates the whole artwork. Different schools of thought have had diverse approaches to composition in art over the centuries. What is common today would have been unheard of in another time.
What are the rules for good composition in art?
There is no one formula for a good composition, but there are some basic principles that can be applied to most artworks. To put it simply, the rules of good design can be followed to achieve a pleasing composition.
However, these rules are not always so easy to define in clear terms – rather, they are something that comes down to the artist’s unique style and intuition. For example, many people say that a good composition should be balanced, with equal attention drawn to each element of the artwork. On the other hand, some artists may choose to emphasise particular parts of the work that they consider to be most important. While some artists will try to create a simple, minimal composition, others will aim for a more eclectic style.
How has composition changed over the years?
Traditionally, classical artists aimed for a triangular or pyramidal composition to create a sense of geometry within the piece. Ancient Greeks believed that art should be as perfect as possible, and as such they divided the canvas into eight equal segments to create a balanced, triangular composition. You’ll see this approach echoed in Renaissance Art, which aimed to emulate the appearance of classical art.
Another technique is known as ‘The Golden Ratio’, another mathematical concept that creates a kind of spiral shape that is reminiscent of a snail shell or whirlpool. Leonardo Da Vinci famously used this composition for the Mona Lisa, which might be one of the reasons why it has stood the test of time.
Abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock threw these concepts out of the window, opting instead for allover composition. This approach involves working onto the surface of the piece in a more or less uniform way, rather than considering the top, bottom and centre of the artwork.