Monday, March 13, 2017

Composition Is...Like An Aquarium

Composition is a word we hear frequently in the art world. It is a word to help describe what is and isn’t working in a piece of artwork.

I have felt, for many years, that composition is an elusive little creature that looks more like intuition than an idea. When creating a piece of artwork I often step back to see if the image in process “feels right”. Is any part of my image cut off that shouldn’t be? Does my image look static? Is there anything I can move around to make it more exciting? These questions are a natural part of my process; however, I never connect them back to the word “composition”. For me, that colossal word never had a solid definition outside of: the act of combining parts or elements to create a whole

The implementation of the idea was still unclear by this definition alone; but recent exploration and experimentation have helped to break this complex idea into bite sized pieces for me. When I think of composition now I think of it like a walk through an aquarium (or other attraction that brings guests). A visitor needs a focal point, a map to follow, and a place to rest.

What are people coming to see? In the case of children’s books a character is what/who people come to visit. They are the reason people turn the pages again and again. They are the focal point, the main attraction and should be given lots of attention.

The next thing that needs to be addressed is the map. Visual maps in images direct people to the main attraction and are essential to its success. There are plenty of existing templates for maps such as:

These templates are tried and true for generations of creators; but it is possible to create an even simpler map than this. Using simple methods such as symmetry, asymmetry, diagonal lines, straight lines, pattern, and rhythm any artist can build a solid map that is tailor made for visitors.

When creating an map, it is important to ask: Do I want my map to be strong, stable, and calming or do I want it to be dynamic and seem like it is in motion? Strong, stable maps often use symmetry and rhythm to create a sense of security and peace while asymmetry and diagonal lines are used to create dynamic images that seem to leap into life!

Lastly, it is important that visitors have a place to rest to digest the amazing sights experienced! At an aquarium this resting place might be a bench or the dining area. In an image it needs to be an element that adds balance or negative space that has been created so viewer’s eyes have a place to pause.  

If you are looking for more information on composition, I highly recommend Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang.

 ~Jeslyn Kate
Jeslyn Kate writes/illustrates for children and teaches art.
You can find her work at 
these different locations:
Twitter: @jeslynkate

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