Deconstructing Composition: 6 Rules for Artists

Composition, for artists, means how we arrange the visual elements in a work. This tends to be separate from the subject of the artwork itself. Ideally, the composition of the entire work lends itself to a visual order that the viewer can use to understand the work's meaning and emphasis.

The basic elements of design—line, shape, color, texture, form, tone, and space—are used to create compositional elements that reinforce the structure of the artwork. The following six "rules" are how we use these elements of design to create a composition that keeps our viewers engaged with a work.

Perspective describes the viewpoint from which you see your subject. Before you start your work, think about your viewpoint on the subject. Are you eye-level with your subject? Maybe your perspective is from directly overhead, like a bird's eye view. Perhaps you are viewing your subject from the ground. Close up? Far far away? Your perspective on your subject can greatly affect how your viewers respond to the artwork. Extreme close ups bring your viewer in to an intimate relationship with the subject. Far away perspectives make the viewer feel distant and removed from the subject. Think about what you want your viewer to feel, and then make a choice on perspective.

Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds isn't really a rule—more of a strong guideline. The rule of thirds breaks your composition space into nine equal segments, with four intersecting lines: two vertical lines, and two horizontal lines. The rule of thirds purports that the most important elements in your work are placed on these lines, and most especially where the lines intersect. This creates balance in your work, as well as visual interest for the viewer. Additionally, it keeps the viewer's eye roaming around the space of the work.

Leading Lines
Leading lines do precisely that: they lead your eyes to the most important parts of your art—most commonly, directly to your subject. Lines in artwork are very directional, regardless of whether they are straight, jagged, curved, horizontal, diagonal, and so on. To emphasize the importance of your subject, incorporate leading lines to draw the viewer's eye. You can also use leading lines to take the viewer through your work rather than directly to your subject.

A balanced work uses multiple elements to define the space. Your subject, of course, tends to be the weightiest element, and thus it is often necessary to create a weighted balance with other less important, and less heavy elements. Heavy elements can mean large, colorful, or patterned. White objects draw the eye quickly, so they tend to be the first focus. Balance is more than an even number of objects in a composition. You can use objects in your work for balance, but you can also use colors and color placement for balance, just as you can use perspective and depth to create balance, to name a few. Work with elements in your composition to find a balance that is pleasing to you.

Although it might sound like it is in direct opposition to the rule of thirds, symmetry is actually perfect for the rule of thirds, as well as for creating balance. In fact, symmetry is the ultimate balance point. It makes a work feel stable and solid. To give it its best use, align the symmetrical elements along your lines of thirds.

Depth in a composition creates dimension, and a feel of reality, especially for two dimensional visual arts, like painting or drawing. Depth can draw on the perspective you utilize from the beginning, or it can create perspective by being forced. Look for ways to incorporate elements of depth—object further in the background, or closer to the foreground—to enhance the visual experience and interest in your work.