MiddayArt Illustration & Lettering


  • Basics of Composition. Why is it so important?

    Composition is a means of expressiveness.
    This is such an organization of elements on your sheet that:

    1. emphasizes the most important (focus point)
    2. conducts the view throughout the picture, detaining attention on the main elements
    3. helps the viewer understand the author’s idea
    4. gathers all the elements together, creating an integral, balanced and harmonious image.

    That is, the principles of composition are our tools, necessary to consciously control what is happening and to form the impression that the viewer will have when he looks at our picture.


    First, the sheet format is not a dogma. The format may be chosen for our purposes. We are used to the A4 sheets, arranged vertically or horizontally. But here it is worthwhile to think: perhaps, for the landscape, the format of an elongated rectangle will fit, and the ivy climbing the tower is logical to place in a rectangle format that is elongated vertically. In addition, there is a stable and unshakable square format, as well as an ideal circle and even a variety of ovals.

    Various Formats

    (All the pictures here and below are taken from my Pinterest. The rights to the images belong to their authors.)


    Also called the semantic centre. This is the very main thing which our picture is devoted to. To emphasize the composition centre, you may:
    1. place it in the focus points / focus lines of your format
    2. point at it with some lines
    3. emphasize it by means of color and/or tone contrast

    Depending on the position of the semantic (composition) centre, your composition may be either SYMMETRICAL (1) or ASYMMETRICAL (2). The symmetry evokes sensation of stability, statics. Asymmetry arises the feel of dynamics. By the way, asymmetrical composition doesn’t mean chaos. It also have to be well-balanced.

    Symmetric - Asymmetric

    What are the focus points of your format? Here there are two historical traditions of perception: European and Asian one. The “European” composition centre is located in the top central part of the sheet. The “Asian” one is one of the intersections between the lines that divide the sheet into thirds. This classification is barely conventional and it has some relation to the artistic traditions of the East and the West.

    Consequently, the focus lines of the format are the vertical and horizontal lines that contain the focus points.

    Composition Center


    We read and write from left to right, and this is also the way we view pictures.

    Psychologically, if a person (charachter) stands in the left part of the format and looks to the right, it seems to us that it goes (looks) forward (1). If a person stands in the right part of the format and is turned left  — it seemingly “turns (goes) back”.
    Besides, movement direction to the top and to the right is considered by us as something good, growth, joy, ascent. Conversely, movement to the bottom and to the left is considered as decrease, decay, sadness (2).

    Frames and pointers are the lines in the composition that allow to abridge the scene, to focuse the view on the most important thing (1). The lines in composition make the viewer unconsciously follow them and the viewer’s eye moves along these lines to the focus of the picture (2). That is why it is wrong to make straight vertical or horizontal lines that go through the picture from edge to edge — they quickly carry the viewer’s eye through the image, not allowing it to linger at the picture details.

    Frames and Pointers


    This is a very important principle that makes our composition integral and firm: the spots of different colour and tone MAY NOT occupy equal space in the picture. E.g., if we take only 4 tones: black, dark grey, light grey, and white, we may arrange their amounts according to the following scheme. They may be placed in any order, but their amounts MUST be different. If we observe this principle, the areas of different tone do not contradict with one another, and there’s harmony and just proportion in our picture.

    Hierarchy of tone

    Similarly, we may replace one of the greys with dark blue:

    Hierarchy of tone

    Or arrange 4 spectral colours according to this scheme:

    Hierarchy of tone


    If objects in the picture do not just stand next to one another, but overlap — it’s the simplest way to create an illusion of depth.

    Overlapping of forms


    You may just draw a frame and place the objects inside it, about the centre of the image and not touching the borders (1). Or you may make such a composition that some objects will cross the borders of the frame (2). This creates additional dynamics and make the viewer feel involved. It seems to the viewer that he/she is inside the image, as some objects feel like dropping out his/her field of vision.

    It depends on our artistic aims and intuition, whether to use this or that method:


    There are three types of contrast:
    1. Tone contrast  (i.e. lighter/darker)
    2. Color contrast (i.e. red and green colors are contrast ones, while red and orange colors are relatives, there are no contrast between them)
    3. Empty/full (e.g., the place where a dense dappled pattern adjoins white empty space of the sheet, is a place of contrast. While two dappled patterns do not contrast as much)

    While the contrast is a strong contradiction in some feature, the nuance is a weak or barely noticeable contradiction. It means that we should use contrast for the main elements and nuance for the minor ones.


    Rule of Thirds
    It is based on the simplified rule of the Golden Section. If you divide the sheet into three parts in height and width, then the resulting lines and their intersection points will be those very areas where we unconsciously direct the eye first. Therefore, it is there that it is appropriate to have the main thing that we want to say about.

    Rule of Thirds

    Rule of Odds
    It is good to have an odd number of elements in the picture, not an even number — three, five, etc. Also, ideally, those elements should be subject to a hierarchy: the greatest, smaller, the smallest, and they should not occupy same amount of space in the picture. Why so? It’s just magic 🙂 If there are two apples in the picture, the viewer just glance at them and that’s all (1). If there are three apples, the view starts to linger among them, examining them, because this triangle seems to our brain to be a more complicated configuration that worths evaluating and analyzing (2).

    Rule of Odds

    Rule of Triangles
    This implies the rule of triangles. If the objects are placed on the tops of some triangle, and moreover, if they fall on the focus lines of the sheet, then such objects are in the focus of perception. Also in painting — if, for example, the red color appeares at one point in the sheet, then it must necessarily flit in two more points, so that a triangle would form — then our eye considers this arrangement to be harmonious.


    1. The object shouldn’t be too big (to get out the format) or too small (get lost in it)
    2. The object shouldn’t be placed too high or too low
    3. The object should be well-balanced
    Errors in Composition
    4. The objects shouldn’t be located straight on the vertical or horizontal axis of the format (unless this is a decorative composition)
    5. …shouldn’t run into the edge of the sheet
    6. …shouldn’t run into the corners of the sheet
    7. …shouldn’t run into the edge of one another

    Errors in Composition

    or it would be just awful.

    On the contrary, if we avoid possible errors and compose our picture consciously, bearing in mind the composition principles, it will be strong, integral and harmonious. By the way, all the same rules are applicable in photography and cinema.

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