Visual Compostion


The term “composition” derives from Latin and means “well placed”, while perspective derives from the Italian word “perspicere” which means “see clearly”. The composition and the perspective are instruments through which the artist draws lines and shapes to create the illusion of a three dimensional image. Compositional elements like points, lines, spaces and shapes must be ordered by perspective in order to visually make sense. The composition has always been present in art starting from primitive art. The same cannot be said for the perspective which formed only in the 14th century thanks to Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi did the first research to determine the laws that rigorously regulate it.  The first painter that applied those laws in painting was Tommaso Masaccio. Before the Renaissance were already known empirical and simplified forms of perspective in greek and roman art but generally most pre-renaissance art was done without the perspective as does a lot of modern art. Therefore is it true to say that a piece of art can be done without perspective but not without composition? However, if your goal is to produce piece of art that represent the world as perceive by human eye, then the perspective becomes an indispensable tool. The theory on composition can be compared to the foundations of a house. You cannot build a solid house without solid foundations, and in the same way there cannot be a beautiful piece of art without a good composition. Many artists over the centuries have always been a little reluctant to follow strict rules, as do i. But I have found the perfect quote from Leonardo. From his notes on painting the great master writes a short paragraph about perspective, but his principle sums up what I have been looking at in these last two bloggs:

“Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this Perspective is the guide and the gateway; and without this nothing can be done well in the matter of drawing.”

Also a great point was made in his subsequent notes, that an artist should not limit themselves or specialise in just one subject such as landscape or figure drawing:

“Some may distinctly assert that those persons are under a delusion who call that painter a good master who can do nothing well but a head or a figure. Certainly this is no great achievement; after studying one single thing for a lifetime who would not have attained some perfection in it? But, since we know that painting embraces and includes in itself every object produced by nature or resulting from the fortuitous actions of men, in short, all that the eye can see, he seems to me but a poor master who can only do a figure well. For do you not perceive how many and various actions are performed by men only; how many different animals there are, as well as trees, plants, flowers, with many mountainous regions and plains, springs and rivers, cities with public and private buildings, machines, too, fit for the purposes of men, diverse costumes, decorations and arts? And all these things ought to be regarded as of equal importance and value, by the man who can be termed a good painter.”

I will try to explain all I know about composition and how I use it in my drawing. As I have shown composition is a invaluable tool artist must use, but to use it correctly you need to know the different rules. The rule of thirds is not really a rule as such but more of a great idea that makes your drawings look more balanced. Basically you split the scene you are looking at through your view finder into thirds, vertically, and horizontally, so that you have an imaginary grid over your scene. You then build the drawing so that the main features in your scene such as horizon lie roughly along one of these lines or at an intersection. Hopefully this should make the composition more pleasing to the eye. As with all ‘rules’ there are always times where they don’t tend to work so well. So maybe it should be called the ‘Guide of Thirds’! I use it more as a guide than a strict rule. If you are in to landscape photography, then usually you will want to compose your images in this way. Really it’s a matter of knowing when to compose in this way which comes with practice.

In a landscape the horizon often coincides with the line that separates the sky from the land. The first choice that i must make is decide where to place the horizon in his drawing. Usually I won’t place this line exactly in the middle, to avoid symmetry between sky and land in the landscape. To avoid this symmetry there are two alternatives. Either the horizon line is placed in the top half of the drawing sheet, or the horizon line is placed in the bottom half of the drawing sheet where the sky will dominate the scene, this is called a skyscape.
When a viewer looks at your painting his eyes will travel different paths on the canvas. Having the right knowledge you can map out exactly when the eye should travel. I have tried to show what I know through a few small drawings:



In image one the eye wanders without reference points. In image two the dot in the bottom right is the focal point. In image three, the biggest dot in the lower right corner is the initial focal point, the second dot should draw your attention away down the page finally to the farthest third dot. I want to add before I move on that a focal point can also be a line, a complex object or even a region. In the fourth image the eyes go from the big house in the lower left corner, to the small  house in the upper right corner. The road is the path that helps the viewer’s eyes to go from a point of interest to another. The road I think in this drawing is too straight and the eye moves too quickly from a point of interest to another. So…in the fifth image I have tried to stop this problem by using a zig zag road. The new road allows to the viewer’s eyes a slower journey so you will also have time to look at the tree between the two houses.
A have made a last simple improvement in in the last sketch, where the road drops down onto different levels. This creates depth in the drawing and helps perspective make the drawing look three dimensional. I found these simple principles from the book Drawing Scenery: landscapes and seascapes which I took from the library and since bought. The book contains lot of info on landscapes composition and perspective. It is a great read if you love to draw and paint landscapes.