Updated: Jan 24
Composition is an art term that describes how an artist fills space in their artwork - using the elements and principles of art. A strong composition is an important part of successful artwork.
There's a few guidelines artists work from when doing representational art. These 8 tips will also help you discern what makes a piece of art move from being 'good' to being 'great'. If you get a good understanding of these it will help you decide if a piece of art is worth investing in.
But as with all things in art - rules are meant to be broken. Just because an artist hasn't followed all these steps, doesn't mean the art is bad. The only rule is - If you love it - buy it.
Guideline 1 The Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds dictates that if you divide any composition into thirds, vertically and horizontally, and then place the key elements of your image along these lines or at the junctions of them, the arrangement achieved will be more interesting, pleasing and dynamic.
You can test this out on your phone when taking photographs. Set your camera on phone/tablet to show grid lines and always place the focus of your image along those lines, or where the lines intersect. You'll notice the difference in no time at all.
Guideline 2 The Golden Ratio
Mathematically speaking, the Golden Ratio is a ratio of 1 to 1.618. In artworks, this ratio creates a pleasing aesthetic through the balance and harmony it creates. It is a proven ratio used in architecture and art.
Guideline 3 Tangents
A tangent is when you draw or paint something and it lines up exactly with the edge of the frame. They are very distracting to the eye and hinder a composition. The images below show other tangents an artist should avoid having in their work.
Guideline 4 Odd & Even Numbers
Odd Numbers create interest and even numbers create symmetry. The same applies in interior design.
Why? Our eye and brain is always seeking to work out a pattern. If there is an even number it is generally easier to work out - then our eye moves onto something else.
An uneven number of objects means our brain has to do more work to understand if there is a pattern or not - so holds our interest longer. Artists can do this with the number of objects within the frame, or by using repetition of colour.
Dutch artist Clara Peeters
Guideline 5 Triangles
Triangles are inherent in perspective, a characteristic artistic technique developed during the Renaissance. The golden triangle is instead a classical rule of composition used in paintings and photography. This timeless rule states that to create a harmonious image, the main subject should describe the shape of a triangle.
The reason? This kind of arrangement exudes peace while the symmetry conveys clarity and harmony. The orientation of a triangle can be important to it's meaning also. A point-up triangle might represent a strong foundation or stability, as it is rooted to the ground through a solid base. But triangles can give a feeling of action, tension or even aggression.
Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Beheading Holofernes
Guideline 6 Modelling Historical Artwork
Great art stands the test of time. Many artists have spend endless hours copying the Great Masters work - that's how they learn. These guys knew their stuff. In fact, back in the days where Academies where the only place you could be trained in art (eg French Academy of Fine Arts (Academie des Beaux-Arts), male artists (female artists weren't permitted) would spend 2-3 years learning how to draw and sculpt the human body and face, before they could even pick up a paint brush.
Many artists still copy the greats, until they master techniques - then they can be more adventurous.
Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass or Dejeuner Sur l’herbe
Renaissance master Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi
Guideline 7 Framing
I'm not talking about the outside frame - although that is important to really complete the art.
When an artist is outside looking at objects or landscapes, or if they have an image/photo as a reference in their studio - sometimes it needs to be cropped. The artist should actively block out areas from your vision that are not interesting or distracting. They often use a tool as simple as a cardboard frame to do this.
Guideline 8 Moving Your Eye Around the Artwork
Artists use line and colour and even shapes and value to move your eye around their art. The aim is to attract you to their art and hold your attention for as long as possible.
The Absinthe Drinkers by Edgar Degas
Now you've got some insiders tips on what to look for when you're working out how good a piece of art is. Some of this applies to Abstract as well eg moving the eye around.