Project Three – Notes on composition

Most classical composition rules:
– The Golden Ratio (1:1.618..) – a guide that is supposed to bring aesthetic beauty (examples: Da Vinci’s “The Annuciation”):

Leonardo da Vinci 'Annuciation'

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Annuciation’
1472–1475, oil on panel, 104 × 217 cm
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

I’ve found a nice and interesting contemporary approach by graphic designers on the Golden Ratio:
Belos, Alex (2014) ‘Golden Meaning: graphic artists depict the golden ratio‘ The Guardian 25 Feb 2014. Available from: (Accessed 2 May 2015). One example:

    George Hardie poured wine into three specially designed glasses, which are each full with golden ratio proportions - the ratio of wine to emptiness is 1.618

George Hardie poured wine into three specially designed glasses, which are each full with golden ratio proportions – the ratio of wine to emptiness is 1.618

The simplified version of it is: The Rule of Thirds (1:1.5)

Further basic ideas on composition (one related more to old masters, the other more Contemporary)

1.) Cooke, H.L. (1973) ‘Painting techniques of the masters‘. New York: Watson Guptill Publications

– A good book to understand classical painting techniques with around 200 examples of the masters.

  • Some Basis Design Principles:
    i) Seven principles of design and its connotations:
    – 1. Strong horizontal lines: restfulness, peace, calm
    – 2. Diagonals: motion or action
    – 3. Pyramid: stability, permanence
    – 4. Jagged shapes: pain, tension
    – 5. Round shapes: restfulness, soothing
    – 6. V-shape: unstable, danger
    – 7. Circle: perfection, completeness
    ii) Importance of contrast: of shapes, of color, of content
    iii) Alternating rhythm: put accents, active lines along the edges to make it come alive
    iv) Consonance: to unite a picture with receptive design motifs (e.g. a V shape)

2. ) Roberts, Ian (2008) ‘Mastering composition‘. Cincinnati, USA: North Light Books

– A wonderful book with many hands-on hints and suggestions to improve compositions. Roberts talks about armatures as the underlying structure that than will help to establish the major shapes within the composition. It is the backbone of a painting that guides the eye through it.

  • Eight common Armatures (pp.13 -24):
    1. The S: like a road meandering through a landscape
    2. The L: the focal point at the intersection of the two arms
    3. Diagonal: with the most dynamism within a rectangular format, depending on the angle
    4. Triangle: often ceated by perspective lines, moving towards the focal point
    5. Radiating lines: like in one-point perspective, can be used to keep the eye within in the picture (thicker, thinner)
    6. Fulcrum: a dynamic balancing act of large versus small, light versus dark etc.
    7. O: as a framing for the focal point or to guide the eye around the picture
    8. Portrait: as the focal point and point of interest
  • Twelve composition basics (pp.28-36):
    1. Crop for drama: for tension and dynamic
    2. Look for value masses: Simplify and see masses not details
    3. Design divisions with rhythm: to avoid the middle by variety
    4. Keep your shapes interesting: Find unique angles and proportions, not generic
    5. Avoid attracting attention to the edges of the picture plane:
    6. Create depth with overlaps: with gradation
    7. Watch the corners: the diagonals create the most dynamism, avoid the eye moving out of the picture plane, can be done by reduction of contrast towards to corners
    8. Create an entrance: avoid a visual hurdle e.g. table edge, hedge;
    9. Organize your masses: arrange shapes e.g. clouds, water reflections to move the eye around in the picture
    10. Orchestrate the masses for good eye movement with gradation: using gradations, typically the eye moves towards lighter tonal values
    11. Use straight lines: even a curved road can be depicted more interestingly by sections of straight lines
    12. Think foreground, middle ground and background=> use emphasized-edge sketches (relative strength of lines for pulling attention or letting go): more density of information in the middle ground, foreground acts an entry level, the background creates space
  • Emphasized-edge sketch: the main lines are the lines of attention, adjusting those lines through weight, light or dark; from hard and high contrast edges to lost edges

Another book that gave me some insight on art perception and composition:

3.)  Arnheim, Rudolf (1974) ‘Art and Visual Percerption’. Berkely, USA: University of California Press. 50th anniversary printing

–  A quite intense book into the psychological thinking and perception of art. In chapter I. ‘Balance’ Arnheim talks about the structural frameworks and perceptual forces. The eye is typically looking for balance in a picture. If there is instability the brain pulls against. It is also a matter of weight how balance is perceived: in a picture typically the upper half has more weight as well as the right half. Practical examples: while placing a picture in a vertical frame one most likely puts the picture slightly above the middle, placing shapes in a picture most likely the right side needs to be less dense than the left side. This can be checked by turning the picture upside down or turn right to left.

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