What are some “rules” of composition guiding an artist’s hand?
This is the second part of the discussion begun in the last post regarding “rules” of composition. As explained in the last post (Part 1), these “rules” should not be perceived as inflexible laws but rather as guides intended to help artists to arrange their subject material in artworks. After all, to make an artwork eye-catching, artists need to deviate from conventional arrangements underpinning the “rules” and add an element of surprise (i.e. an unpredictable element breaking the “rules”). To sustain the same approach to the discussion as in Part 1, I will again use Ernst Haeckel's scientific illustrations as the focus for the explanation.
Rule #6: avoid creating uninterrupted lines across an image (i.e. where the featured subject creates a conceptual bridge spanning one side of the image to the next, such as an horizon line that has no subject breaking its continuous line). In Haeckel’s Acanthophracta—Plate 41 (shown below) the radiolarians are all arranged with black space surrounding them. Consequently, there are no uninterrupted lines to be seen that might otherwise break the composition into separate components. For instance, if some of these delicate forms were rearranged to create a continuous line wherein they “touch” each other as well as two sides of the image’s border (as shown in the digitally altered image further below for example) then the viewer’s eye is drawn to the uninterrupted line they create. In the case of this altered image, the eye then reads the division in the image as producing two sections; each of which are united with the other but at the same time both are examined by the eye as separate pictorial zones. In short the cohesiveness of the image is diminished.
Sheet of explanatory text for Acanthophracta—Plate 41 from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899–1904 edition of Kunstformen der Natur published by
Digitally altered image of Acanthophracta—Plate 41 showing the effect of creating an interrupted line
Rule #7: avoid even numbers of subjects (i.e. images composed with, for example, two, four, six or eight featured subjects). This is a common sense type of rule in that when an artist uses odd numbers of subjects—one, three, five or seven etc.—then there is a better chance of there being a centre of interest upon which the eye can focus. To express this differently, committees are ideally composed of an odd number of people because an odd number means that one member of the committee stands alone and can cast a deciding vote. In terms of composition, the same logic applies in that odd numbers of subjects usually means that one of them stands out to become the focal point whereas when even numbers of subjects are featured this can lean a composition towards symmetry where all the subjects compete for attention. In Haeckel’s Siphonopharae—Plate 37 (shown below) there are an odd number of subjects and clearly the central form is visually arresting because of its size and complexity. If this central form is removed (as can seen in the digitally altered image further below) then there are an even number of subjects and the eye is left in a perceptual flux as to where the eye should “rest.”
Sheet of explanatory text for Siphonopharae—Plate 37from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899–1904 edition of Kunstformen der Natur published by
Digitally altered image of Siphonopharae—Plate 37 showing the effect of featuring an even number of subjects
To extend this process of elimination a stage further, in the second altered image of Siphonopharae—Plate 37 shown below, the number of subjects is reduced to just three forms and the eye has less of a problem choosing a centre of interest—to my eye the lower left Siphonopharae. In short, the odd number of displayed subjects allows the viewer to select a centre of interest by establishing one of the forms to be the most interesting in a hierarchy of visual importance (i.e. by a perceptual “pecking order”).
Digitally altered image of Siphonopharae—Plate 37 showing the effect of featuring an odd number of subjects
Rule #8: avoid creating a “floating” composition (i.e. do not position a subject so that it is unattached to the outside border of the image or in a way that does not conceptually relate to the border). For example, if I revisit the composition of Haeckel’s Siphonopharae—Plate 37 and digitally “float” the portrayed forms with additional space surround them as a group, as shown below (see upper-right image), the relationship between the forms and the borderline of the format becomes more “free” compared to the original print (see upper-left image). By this I mean that an element of visual uncertainty is introduced into the composition as to the spatial position of the forms—to my eyes they are further away in this fresh arrangement. Moreover, there is also a leaning to ambiguity with regard to the meaning projected by the new composition—to my eyes the forms are not as structurally solid compared to how they appear when juxtaposed close to the straight edges of the border as in the original print. If I then digitally remove all but the central Siphonopharae from the composition (see lower-left image) the relationship between the borderline and the portrayed subject becomes more tenuous. This is because the removal of the Siphonopharae from the corners of the composition makes the arrangement less formal and rigid. As a final experiment, consider how the relationship between the border and the central Siphonopharae breaks down even further if the subject’s form is distorted (see lower-right image) so that it could be framed with formats other than a rectangle (e.g. an oval or a diamond-shape). At this stage the compositional link between subject and the image shape is lost by the effect of a perceptually floating subject.
The addition of a single line connecting the subject to the borderline, however, can “fix” the problem and give compositional cohesiveness back to the image as can be seen in the adjusted image below.
Digitally altered image of Siphonopharae—Plate 37
Rule #9: avoid creating an unbalanced composition (i.e. do not position the subject material so that it is aesthetically too “heavy” on the top or sides). Usually artists seldom create unbalanced compositions because intuition and years of developing a “good” eye for aesthetics guides judgements regarding balance. Rather than resorting to the tried and tested approaches to test whether a composition is balanced or not (e.g. looking at the artwork in a mirror to give a fresh viewpoint—there is even a tradition of looking at artworks by turning your back to them, bending over, and then examining them from the unusual viewpoint of between your legs) I wish to discuss the more delicate approach of using the centre-of-interest as a fulcrum point to avoid an unbalanced composition.
In the earlier adjustment of Siphonopharae—Plate 37 showing the effect of using only three featured subjects (see the left image below) the composition displays a visually unsettling top-left weighting. One way to address this aesthetic problem is to shift the upper-left Siphonopharae to a position where it acts like a fulcrum (i.e. the pivoting point) of a child’s swing to aesthetically balance the two other forms. In the right image below, I have selected such a point that I feel is aesthetically “right” for balancing the visual weights of the lower-left and the upper-right forms. Of course there are many other such positions and there will be many viewers with a much more refined sense for locating the exact “sweet spot” for placing this subject.
Digitally altered image of Siphonopharae—Plate 37 showing the fulcrum point adjustments
(left) Siphonopharae—Plate 37
(right) digitally altered image using uneven spacing of subjects