Design and Composition
There are three factors that make a good picture:
- The subject matter itself - a beautiful landscape, a family portrait, a powerful figure, a cute child - all have make an attractive image in their own right.
- The story told by the image – movement, drama, joy or sadness, glory or despair. The image of a child taking their first steps is much more powerful than that of the same child in a rigid pose for example
- The shapes, lines, colours, shades, contrasts and their arrangements that are used to portray the image. Regardless of the subject matter a picture where all the colours are dull with nothing standing out will not appeal to the eye. The archetypal ‘white cat in a snowstorm’ has an attractive subject (pet cat) and a dramatic story (the storm), but in its simplest form will fail as there is not enough variation in colour or contrast to attract the eye.
The first of these factors is relatively easy to master and is usually the one given most importance by the beginner. There are pitfalls to avoid – the view across vast swathes of a landscape from a mountain top is spectacularly beautiful, but will lose much of the drama that makes it attractive when depicted on a small painting. A grand scene does not always make for a great painting, it is often best to pick some smaller element from it. Remember also that there are many subjects like everyday objects, dilapidated buildings, or dramatic skies that can make a great painting because of the story they tell or the way in which they are portrayed. For this reason we can often say that this is the least import factor for a good picture.
Next we look at the story behind a picture – it is this that gives the image life. You may add things to the background or foreground to set the scene. By painting a figure slightly out of balance (with a foot off the ground for example) you add a sense of movement. You can soften (blur) the edges of moving limbs or objects to show the movement. Lines can also show movement – they can be subtle soft lines as well as hard ones as in comic strips. By adding a story we have given another dimension to our painting and added another level of interest for the viewer.
Finally we come to the third factor – this is the purely mechanical composition of the various lines and shapes which make up the scene. Why is this important? Is it not better to concentrate on making as realistic image as we can?
Let us look at an example
Let us look at an example
Which image catches your attention? Of course it is image B. Yet the subject matter is the same in both cases – a triangle, a rectangle, a circle and an arc all on a plain grey background. Let us list the differences and discuss their importance.
- Unity – picture A has it’s elements scattered around and there is nothing holding the different parts the picture together. Picture B retains the different elements but by arranging them they now form a unified image.
- Focus – there is no focus in picture A, whereas in picture B you eye is lead to the blue circle – it stands out against the yellow and the red line catches the eye and leads back to the focus point. Another point to note is that the focus as about a third across and a third up the picture – this is the point at which the eye finds an image most attractive. Incidentally it does not matter whether it is a third up from the bottom or down from the top, or from left or right – any of these four positions are a good place for your main subject, the focus of the painting.
- Contrast – picture A has dull colours against a dull background so nothing stands out. Placing a dark circle against a light background immediately makes it stand out. Equally you could use a light object against a dark one.
- Variation – the shapes in A are all regular in shape with equal sides. In B they are irregular which makes them much more interesting to look at. When you are painting a landscape for example you will not use block shapes like these, but you will still find shapes in your painting within objects or formed by the outlines of them – a roof may be triangular for example. It is just as important to look at these shapes – they will look better with variation just like those above
- Movement – the red line circling the subject and the points of the triangle thrusting out all give a sense of dynamism to the image.