What are some “rules” of composition guiding an artist’s hand?
In the last post, Analogue & Digital Lighting, I discussed how artists manipulate the lighting of a subject to assist viewers of different cultures to perceive images as three-dimensional. This discussion moves away from the effect of lighting, even though it plays a pivotal role in projecting meaning, and focuses on principles of composition designed to engage the viewer’s eye and brain. To narrow down the large field of principles relating to composition I have limited my selection to ten “rules” of composition that lie at the back of the mind of most artists. I use the words “at the back of the mind” guardedly as in one sense these rules should be avoided because they can be distracting to a viewer’s reading of an image. In another sense, they should be applied because they catch a viewer’s eye by being disturbing to a smooth reading of an image and may be the critical ingredients that make an image memorable. To demonstrate the affect of each of these rules on images, I will apply them to a set of exquisite scientific illustrations by the almost legendary biologist and naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919). For sensitive folk who see no reason to explore Haeckel’s images in the way I plan I apologise in advance.
Rule #1: avoid creating tangents (i.e. do not to allow a subject to either “touch” another featured subject or the bordering edge of the image). In Haeckel’s Basimycetes—Plate 63 (shown below) all of the portrayed fungi pictorially float separated from each other in the black space surrounding them. This separation allows the eye to move in a conceptually democratic way to each of the featured subjects (disregarding for the moment any eye-catching attributes of one subject over the next).
Sheet of explanatory text for Basimycetes—Plate 63 from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899–1904 edition of Kunstformen der Natur published by
If Haeckel had allowed the fungi on the peripheral rim of the image to tangentially brush against the border (as shown in the digitally altered image below) then the mushrooms at these points of tangential union are privileged by the eye at the expense of those closer to the centre. This phenomenon also applies to the portrayal of single subjects (as shown in the digitally altered image further below) where the points of tangential union again attract the eye away from the rest of the subject.
|Digitally altered image of Basimycetes—Plate 63 showing the effect of tangents|
Detail of Basimycetes—Plate 63 showing the effect of tangents
Rule #2: avoid lines that point to corners (i.e. do not allow a subject to be angled towards a corner of the image). In Haeckel’s Ophiodea—Plate 70 (shown below) his composition of various type of starfish (Brittle Stars, Basket Stars etc) show Ophiopholis Japonica (on the upper left) and Ophiohelus Umbrella (on the upper right) aligned with their central axis towards the corners. To my eyes these two invertebrates catch my eye like arrowheads which initially make me look at them and ultimately to look outside the composition even though the very symmetrical arrangement of all the starfish as a group is visually undemanding.
Sheet of explanatory text for Ophiodea—Plate 70 from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899–1904 edition of Kunstformen der Natur published by
As an experiment, I have digitally repositioned the two invertebrates in the upper corners of the image so that they no longer “point” directly towards the corners. As I had expected, the result (shown below) is visually undemanding in the sense that the eye is less engaged with looking at the upper corners but, interestingly, some of the “life” of the original image is lost in the change. In short, Haeckel's decision—whether by conscious planning or intuitive insight—to ignore the second rule (i.e. to avoid lines that point to corners) is one of the mercurial ingredients that make the original image memorable.
Digitally altered image of Ophiodea—Plate 70 showing the effect of realigning the upper left and right corner invertebrates
Rule #3: avoid lines that visually crop corners (i.e. do not allow a subject to create a corner shape—usually a triangle—in the background that is not “connected” to the rest of the composition). In Haeckel’s Ammonitida—Plate 44 (shown below) all the portrayed ammonites have space around them. This arrangement ensures that there are no redundant—in the sense of “orphaned”—spaces in the composition.
Sheet of explanatory text for Ammonitida—Plate 44 from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899–1904 edition of Kunstformen der Natur published by
Digitally altered image of Ammonitida—Plate 44 showing the effect of pictorially cropping the corners of the image with the portrayed subject
Rule #4: avoid having more than one centre of interest (i.e. do not allow for more than one portrayed feature to be the main attraction). In Haeckel’s Spirobranchia—Plate 97 (shown below), for instance, the eye is not guided through a hierarchy of points of interest as if going on a journey of discovery. Instead each of the flatworms visually fights with its neighbours for attention. In short, what is produced by this bombardment of each subject seeking attention is visual indigestion for the viewer’s eye and brain.
Sheet of explanatory text for Spirobranchia—Plate 97 from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899–1904 edition of Kunstformen der Natur published by
Digitally altered image of Spirobranchia—Plate 97 showing the effect of creating a hierarchy of interest within the selection of forms
Rule #5: avoid placing vertical lines on the left and horizontal lines on the right (i.e. do not place subjects that are fundamentally vertical in form on the left side of a composition and subjects that are fundamentally horizontal on the right). This rule is driven by a left-to-right reading direction in that strong verticals disposed on the left of a composition “block” an Occidental viewer’s reading while strong horizontals on the right allow the viewer’s eye to “slide” out of the composition. Conversely, artists compose their images with horizontals on the left and verticals on the right. Even our eating habits are driven by this rule in that when we eat a triangular slice of pie or pizza inevitably we angle the “pointy” end to the left and the crust (i.e. vertical) end to the right. Going further, when a waiter leaves a plate of steak and vegetables on the table we are pleased when the steak is on the left (presuming the steak is lying on its major axis parallel to us) and the row of vegetables (arranged in a vertically away from us) is on the right.
Sheet of explanatory text for Cyrtioidea—Plate 31 from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899–1904 edition of Kunstformen der Natur published by
To explore what would happen if the same zooplankton skeletons were rearranged to invite a conventional reading from left-to-right, the original image has been digitally altered so that the Cyrtioidea of the left are now aligned horizontally as shown below. This new arrangement certainly allows for a lateral reading even if the position of the forms is awkward in the sense that the composition is top heavy. For my eye the scanning direction follows a horseshoe-shaped pattern with the entry and exit points (i.e. where the eye begins looking and when it finishes) both being on the left. Moreover, the leaning to read from the centre subject outwards is no longer as strong.
Digitally altered image of Cyrtioidea—Plate 31 showing the effect of horizontally aligning the featured subjects on the left of the image
The above discussion is the first part of the focus on 10 “Rules” of Composition. The next post will give the second part of the discussion.