Now that we’ve learned the elements and principles it takes to create great artwork, let’s apply them! These compositional techniques utilize the artistic elements and principles to make an artwork, photograph or design more captivating.
This is the third in a three part series:
- Back to basics, part I: the elements of design with printmaking
- Back to basics, part II: the principles of design with painting
Composition of design with photography
Though not as old as some of the other art forms we’ve discussed, photography has had no less of an impact on the way we visualize the art and design world. Many techniques used to create a brilliant photo can also be utilized to create engaging design. We’ve selected six of the most important techniques, but there are tons more out there!
Six compositional techniques of design are:
- Foreground, Middle ground, Background
- Lead Room
- Rule of Thirds
- Rule of Odds
Framing is the designer and artist’s way of positioning secondary objects around the subject in order to focus attention on the subject.
“Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947″ by William Gottlieb in 1947
Singer Billie Holiday is undoubtedly the subject of this portrait by William Gottlieb. The singer’s face is dominant in the picture, well-lit and framed by dark space and minor patterns in the background. The image is bold and fascinating, not only due to the subject itself, but due to the way its framing makes it seem important.
Dominance is when the artist takes a particular object in the painting and forces it to stand out to the viewer’s eye – creating the subject of the piece. This can be done by size, color, texture and almost any other element of design.
“Blinky Palermo portrayed by Lothar Wolleh” by Lothar Wolleh in 1970
German portrait photographer Lothar Wolleh creates a clear and dominant subject in his portrait of artist Blinky Palermo by isolating the figure against a simple background, and using light to make the figure of the man stand out from the background. It’s certainly clear where the reader is supposed to be looking – and allows them to connect with the figure.
Foreground, Middle Ground, Background
An artist uses lead room in order to create a sense of movement. To do this, they create more space in front of the object, rather than behind it. This gives the impression that the object could shift somewhere within the design or artwork.
“Aerial view of pedestrians walking along Wall Street in strong sunlight and building in background with large recesses” by Paul Strand in 1916.
To create a compelling image, Strand uses lead room in his depiction of a series of figures walking down the street . The work has both active and static figures: the figure on the leftmost side of the page is just a still image – someone with nowhere to go.
The rest of the figures in the image seem to be walking through the image, they have lead space in front of them, enhanced by the long shadow behind each figure. Combined, the figures give the sense of flowing street traffic against the stable and monumental building behind them.
Rule of Thirds
Rule of Odds
This simple rule states that objects in a work should be grouped in odd numbers, as this tends to be more pleasing to the eye.
“Salvador Dali A” or “Dali atomicus” by Philippe Halsman in 1948
Halsman uses a series of threes in his iconic portrait of artist Salvador Dali. Three cats, a chair with three visible legs, the trio of long dark objects – the chair the easel, and the artist himself. All of these odd numbered objects combined make the viewer see a more balanced yet still visually striking image.
Translating to Graphic Design
Two t-shirt designs from user bathi show off all of these techniques of composition.
Bathi uses framing as a tool to create the basic shape of both of these images. The ship is framed within a border of waves and banners, and the reclining figure is surrounded by the trees and moons of a caribbean island. It’s a great technique to bring attention to the main subject as well as create a space to work within for a T-shirt design.
Fell’s point is dominated by the image of the ship – achieved in the creation of a large subject depicted in contrasting colors, enhanced but not distracted by the sea in the foreground and sky in the background of the image. The rule of odds comes into play with this design as well, with the three largest sails of the ship standing out to the viewer as a trio.
The rule of thirds is put into play in the Caribbean Trading Company design, with the positioning of the two trees stretching vertically and the hammock horizontally along the lines created by an imaginary grid dividing the design into thirds. There’s also a fore, middle and background in the title, image of the island, trees, hammock and the moon. So despite the unrealistic proportions of the elements within the design, there is still a clear sense of space.
In addition, the figure in this design is given plenty of lead room to gaze off at the moon in the distance – giving the impression of a wistful gaze at the huge moon in the background and the potential for movement within the space depicted.
What essential compositional techniques do you use? Please share.
Back to basics, part I: elements of design with printmaking
Back to basics, part II: principles of design with painting
Teach yo’self! A guide to online graphic design education
15 descriptive design words you should know