“Master the Art of Visual Storytelling with 12 Composition Keys”

female artist sitting in the middle of a studio

Here are the key elements of good composition in visual art as they relate to landscape, still-life, and portrait genres. However, it’s important to note that composition is subjective and can vary depending on the artist’s style, intent, and personal expression.

1. Balance: Balance refers to the distribution of visual weight in an artwork. A well-composed artwork should have a sense of balance, whether it’s symmetrical or asymmetrical, which creates a visual equilibrium and harmonizes the composition.

Consider if the visual weight in the artwork is distributed evenly or intentionally to create a sense of balance.

Example 1: “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh: The swirling forms in the sky are balanced by the dark and solid forms of the village and cypress tree in the foreground, creating an overall visual equilibrium.

Example 2: “Composition VIII” by Wassily Kandinsky: The use of geometric shapes and bold colors creates a symmetrical balance in this abstract artwork, with each side of the composition mirroring the other.

2. Negative Space: Negative space is the empty or blank space around and between objects or elements in an artwork. The effective use of negative space can create balance, emphasize the subject, and add visual interest to a composition.

One example of an artist who used negative space to achieve balance in their work is the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai. In his iconic woodblock print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” Hokusai used negative space to balance the composition. The wave and the boats are drawn using intricate lines and details, while the sky and the water are depicted as negative space. This use of negative space creates a sense of balance in the composition, with the weight of the wave and the boats on one side countered by the empty space on the other. This balance gives the composition a sense of harmony and stability, despite the dramatic subject matter.

3. Repetition and Pattern: Repetition involves the repeated use of an element in a work of art, while pattern refers to a repeating motif or design that creates a sense of order and harmony in the composition.

For example, in the work of artist Yayoi Kusama, repetition and pattern are central elements. Kusama’s “Infinity Nets” series features large canvases covered in an intricate web of repeated marks, creating a sense of depth and movement within the composition. The repeated marks create a pattern that is both hypnotic and calming, drawing the viewer’s eye across the surface of the canvas and creating a sense of harmony and balance within the work.

4. Focal Point: The focal point is the area of the artwork that draws the viewer’s attention. It should be strategically placed to create a point of interest and guide the viewer’s eye through the composition. In landscape art, the focal point could be a prominent feature such as a mountain or a tree. In still-life, it could be an object that stands out. In a portrait, it could be the subject’s eyes or face.

Evaluate if there is a clear focal point that draws the viewer’s attention and if it is strategically placed to create visual interest.

Example 1:Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci: The subject’s enigmatic smile and eyes create a strong focal point in this portrait, drawing the viewer’s attention and guiding their gaze.

Example 2:Haystacks” series by Claude Monet: In these landscape paintings, the bright and contrasting colors of the haystacks create a focal point amidst the vast fields, capturing the viewer’s attention.

5. Rule of Thirds: The rule of thirds is a compositional guideline that divides the artwork into a grid of nine equal parts using two horizontal and two vertical lines. The points where these lines intersect are considered strong focal points. Placing key elements along these lines or at their intersections can create a visually pleasing composition.

Assess if key elements have been placed along the lines or intersections of the rule of thirds grid, enhancing the composition and creating visual balance.

Example 1: “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli: The figure of Venus is positioned along the left vertical line of the rule of thirds grid, creating a focal point and a sense of balance in this iconic Renaissance artwork.

Example 2: “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí: The surreal melting watches are placed along the bottom horizontal line of the rule of thirds grid, creating a strong focal point and an intriguing composition.

6. Scale and Proportion: Scale refers to the size of objects or elements in relation to each other and the overall composition. Proportion refers to the relative size and shape of different elements in an artwork. Achieving accurate scale and proportion helps create a realistic and visually appealing composition.

Consider if objects or elements in the artwork are accurately sized in relation to each other and the overall composition.

Example 1: “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci: The figures of Jesus and the apostles are carefully proportioned to create a realistic representation in this iconic religious painting.

Example 2: “Sunflowers” series by Vincent van Gogh: The varying sizes of the sunflowers in these still-life paintings create a sense of depth and proportion, adding visual interest to the composition.

7. Depth and Perspective: Landscape art often includes a sense of depth and perspective to create a realistic representation of distance and space. Techniques such as overlapping, diminishing size of objects, and atmospheric perspective (where distant objects appear lighter and less detailed) can be used to create depth in a composition.

Evaluate if the artwork conveys a sense of depth and perspective, especially in landscape art, and if techniques such as overlapping, diminishing size, and atmospheric perspective are used effectively.

Example 1: “The Hay Wain” by John Constable: The use of overlapping trees and diminishing size of objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background creates a sense of depth and perspective in this landscape painting.

Example 2: “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli: The use of atmospheric perspective, with the distant landscape appearing lighter and less detailed, creates a sense of depth and distance in this Renaissance masterpiece.

8. Contrast: Contrast refers to the difference between elements in an artwork. Contrast can be achieved through variations in value (lightness and darkness), color, texture, or other visual elements. Contrast adds visual interest and can create focal points and emphasize key elements in a composition.

Assess if there is variation in value, color, or texture to create contrast and visual interest, and if it emphasizes key elements and adds depth to the composition.

Example 1: “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt: The dramatic use of light and dark values, known as chiaroscuro, creates a strong contrast and adds depth to the composition, emphasizing the figures and creating a sense of three-dimensionality.

Example 2: “Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich: In this abstract artwork, the stark contrast between the black square and the white background creates a bold visual contrast, drawing attention to the simple form and making a statement about the nature of art.

9. Unity and Harmony: Unity and harmony refer to the overall visual coherence and balance in an artwork. A well-composed artwork should have a sense of unity and harmony, where all elements work together cohesively to create a harmonious whole.

Evaluate if there is a harmonious relationship among the elements in the artwork, creating a cohesive whole.

Example 1: “Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge” series by Claude Monet: The repeated motif of water lilies and the Japanese bridge creates a sense of unity in this series of landscape paintings, with the elements flowing seamlessly together to create a serene and cohesive composition.

Example 2: “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí: Despite the surreal and disjointed elements in this artwork, such as the melting watches and the distorted face, there is a unity in the dream-like quality and the overall sense of mystery and intrigue.

10. Movement and Direction: Movement and direction refer to the visual flow and directionality of an artwork. It can be achieved through the use of lines, shapes, and arrangement of elements. The arrangement of elements should guide the viewer’s eye through the composition in a purposeful and visually pleasing way.

Consider if there is a sense of movement or flow in the artwork, guiding the viewer’s eye and creating a dynamic composition.

Example 1: “Whaam!” by Roy Lichtenstein: The use of dynamic lines, bold colors, and comic book-style imagery creates a sense of movement and action in this pop art painting, capturing the viewer’s attention and guiding their eye across the composition.

Example 2: “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” by Umberto Boccioni: The sculptural form appears to be in motion, with the figure seemingly moving forward, creating a sense of dynamic movement and energy in this Futurist artwork.

11. Emphasis: Emphasis can be achieved in many ways, such as by making an element larger or more prominent than others, using contrasting colors or values, or placing an element in a central or strategic location within the composition. The use of emphasis can help to create a sense of visual interest and drama in a work of art, and can also be used to communicate ideas or emotions to the viewer.

Assess if there is a clear emphasis on key elements or areas in the artwork, creating a focal point and guiding the viewer’s attention.

Example 1: “The Scream” by Edvard Munch: The central figure with its distorted face and wide-open mouth creates a strong emphasis in this iconic expressionist painting, drawing the viewer’s attention and conveying a sense of anguish and despair.

Example 2: “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer: The luminous pearl earring and the gaze of the girl create a clear emphasis in this portrait, making it the focal point and capturing the viewer’s attention.

12. Originality-Creativity: While there are compositional guidelines, it’s also important to remember that creativity plays a crucial role in composition. Experimenting with different arrangements, viewpoints, and interpretations can lead to unique and compelling compositions that stand out and capture the viewer’s attention.

Consider if the artwork is unique and has a personal touch or a fresh perspective, showcasing the artist’s individuality and creativity.

Example 1: “Starry Night Over the Rhône” by Vincent van Gogh: The swirling forms, vibrant colors, and expressive brushstrokes in this nocturnal landscape painting are unique to van Gogh’s style, showcasing his originality and artistic vision.

Example 2: “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Pablo Picasso: This groundbreaking cubist artwork, with its fragmented and abstracted forms, was a radical departure from traditional artistic representation, showcasing Picasso’s originality and revolutionary approach to art.

Remember, this guide is not meant to be overly prescriptive, as art is subjective and personal. It is intended to serve as a helpful tool for artists to evaluate their compositions based on fundamental principles of good composition in visual art, while also allowing room for individual creativity and expression.