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In the arts of painting, graphic design, and photography, composition is the plan, placement or arrangement of the elements of art in a work. The selection and appropriate placement of elements within the work contributes to a gratifying response from the viewer, due to the perception of the work as being esthetic. There are fundamentally two types of composition: informal, and the less frequently found formal or symmetrical. Composition is also related to artistic canon, for example, the draughting of a pleasing face. In graphic design and desktop publishing, composition is commonly referred to as page layout.

Artistic elements in composition

The visual elements (the vocabulary with which the visual artist composes) are:

  • Line - the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece
  • Shape - areas defined by edges within the piece whether geometric or organic
  • Tone- the lights, midtones and darks throughout the piece
  • Texture - surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
  • Color - hues with their various values and intensities
  • Direction - visual routes which take vertical, horizontal or diagonal paths
  • Size - the relative dimensions and proportions of images or shapes to one another

Composition Theory

The artist determines what the centre of interest (focus in photography) of the art will be, and composes the elements accordingly. The gaze of the viewer will then tend to linger over these points of interest. Elements are arranged with consideration of several factors into a harmonious whole which works together to produce the (usually) desired statement.

Some factors which use many of these elements affecting the composition within a picture are:

  • Shape and proportion
  • Centre of interest, or emphasis
  • Balance, between the elements
  • Harmony, or consistency among the elements
  • The orientation of elements
  • The area within the field of view used for the picture ("cropping")
  • The path or direction followed by the viewer's eye when they observe the image.
  • Negative space
  • Color
  • Contrast: the value, or degree of lightness and darkness, used within the picture.
  • Geometry: for example, use of the golden mean
  • Rhythm
  • Illumination or Lighting
  • Repetition (Sometimes building into pattern; rhythm also comes into play, as does geometry)
  • Perspective
  • Breaking the rules can create tension or unease

Such factors in composition should not be confused with the elements of art (or elements of design) themselves. For example, shape is an element; the usage of shape is compositional.


The position of the viewer can strongly influence the esthetics of an image, even if the subject is entirely imaginary and viewed "within the mind's eye". Not only does it influence the elements within the picture, but it also influences the viewer's interpretation of the subject.

For example, if a boy is photographed from above, for example from the eye level of an adult, he is diminished in stature. A photograph taken at the child's level would treat him as an equal, and one taken from below could result in an impression of dominance.

A subject can be rendered more dramatic when it fills the frame. People can have a tendency to perceive things as larger than they actually are, and filling the frame fulfills this psychological mechanism. This can be used to eliminate distractions from the background.

In photography, altering the position of the camera can change the background so that the subject has fewer distractions to compete with. This could be achieved by getting closer, moving laterally, or moving the camera vertically.

Rules or Principles

Though still an art rather than a science, experience handed down through art's history has bequeathed a number of principles which aid to successful composition:

  • There should be a centre of interest or focus in the work, to prevent it becoming a pattern in itself;
  • The direction followed by the viewer's eye should lead the viewer's gaze around all elements in the work before leading out of the picture;
  • The subject should not be facing out of the image;
  • A moving subject should have space in front;
  • Exact bisections of the picture space should be avoided;
  • Small, high contrast, elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements;
  • The prominent subject should be off-centre, unless a symmetrical or formal composition is desired, and can be balanced by smaller satellite elements

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a guideline commonly followed by visual artists. The objective is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest (such as the horizon) from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines.


Images with a clutter can distract from the main elements within the picture and make it difficult to identify the subject. By decreasing the extraneous content, the viewer is more likely to focus on the primary objects. Clutter can also be reduced through the use of lighting, as the brighter areas of the image tend to draw the eye, as do lines and squares. In painting, the artist may use less detailed and defined brushwork towards the edges of the picture.

Limiting focus

In photography, one approach to achieving simplification is to use a wide aperture when shooting to limit the depth of field. When used properly in the right setting, this technique can place everything that is not the subject of the photograph out of focus.

A similar approach, given the right equipment, is to take advantage of the Scheimpflug principle to change the plane of focus.

Geometry and Symmetry

The "rule of odds" suggests that an odd number of subjects in an image is more interesting than an even number. Thus if you have more than one subject in your picture, the suggestion is to choose an arrangement with at least three subjects. An even number of subjects produces symmetries in the image, which can appear less natural for a naturalistic, informal composition.

Related to the rule of odds is the observation that triangles are an aesthetically pleasing implied shape within an image. In a canonically attractive face, the mouth and eyes fall within the corners of the area of an equilateral triangle.

Line and Shape

Literal lines do not exist in nature, but are the optical phenomena created when surfaces curve away from the viewer. Nonetheless line-like shapes are for all intents considered line elements by the artist; for example, telephone and power cables or rigging on boats. Any such elements can be of dramatic use in the composition of the image. Additionally, less obvious lines can be created, intentionally or not, which influence the direction of the viewer's gaze. These could be the borders of areas of differing colour or contrast, or sequences of discrete elements, or the artist may exaggerate or create lines perhaps as part of his style, for this purpose. Many lines without a clear subject point suggest chaos in the image and may conflict with the mood the artist is trying to evoke.

Movement is also a source of line, and blur can also create a reaction. Subject lines by means of illusion contribute to both mood and linear perspective, giving the illusion of depth. Oblique lines convey a sense of movement and angular lines generally convey a sense of dynamism and possibly tension. Lines can also direct attention towards the main subject of picture, or contribute to organization by dividing it into compartments.

The brain often unconsciously reads near continuous lines between different elements and subjects at varying distances.

Straight Lines

Horizontal, Vertical, and Angled lines all contribute to creating different moods of a picture. The angle and the relationship to the size of the frame both work to determine the influence the line has on the image. They are also strongly influenced by tone, color, and repetition in relation to the rest of the photograph. Horizontal lines, commonly found in landscape photography, gives the impression of calm, tranquility, and space. An image filled with strong vertical lines tends to have the impression of height, and grandeur. Tightly angled convergent lines give a dynamic, lively, and active effect to the image. Viewpoint is very important when dealing with lines particulaly in photography, because every different perspective elicits a different response to the photograph.

Curved Lines

Curved lines are generally used to create a sense of flow within an image. They are also generally more esthetically pleasing, as humans are programmed to perceive them as being symbolic of fertility and softness. Compared to straight lines, curves provide a greater dynamic influence in a picture.

In photography, when paired with soft-directional lighting curved lines can give gradated shadows which usually results in a very harmonious line structure within the image.

See also

External Links

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