Composition 101

I’ve been reviewing my fundamentals recently, which led me to digging out some videos on composition. While I’m under no illusion that some of them are pitched at a very low level, practice is always worthwhile, though, so I knocked out a few examples to help cement my understanding.

 Basic concepts


  • The focal point is positioned in the centre
  • One point perspective directs the eye to the focal point
  • Keeping the upper region simple enables the eye to move freely
  • Foreground elements block in the shot and direct the eye

Rule of thirds

  • The horizon line often correlates with one of the horizontal thirds
  • The eye will tend towards lines or intersections, so objects of interest should be placed on or near them
  • When blocking out areas, use the thirds to create a balanced composition

Background, midground, foreground

  • Each element supports the others, giving context, tension and narrative
  • Elements complement each other
  • Aerial/environmental perspective can play a significant part in this composition type

Focal point (contrast) and focal point (detail)

  • Focal points indicate the area of most importance in a painting
  • The eye goes to areas of highest contrast and fine detail


  • Symmetry indicates unity and balance
  • Asymmetry creates feelings of tension and unease
  • A tilted horizon line, off-centre or unbalanced subjects are discomforting

More advanced concepts


The arrangement of structured importance in an image.
Faces and hands usually come top of the list, IIRC, but other elements can supersede them is you work it right. In these cases, the artist should downplay the face/hands as required.

Rhythm and movement

Position and spacing of objects to create a sense of movement.
The suggestion of literal movement (forces and overall eye movement through the piece). Repeated objects, subliminal lines.


Similar elements with different characteristics, lacking uniformity.
Natural variation between organic objects. Not a total difference (circles vs. triangles), but differences in size, rotation and proportion between similar objects.


A feeling of wholeness.
A harmony with the vision of an image and its elements. Everything in the scene feels like it belongs and supports the overall feeling of the picture. Items can be made dissonant on purpose (focal point?)


Even distributions within the image plane while retaining the necessary Hierarchy.
Non-focal elements should balance the composition.


Markings or edges creating strong directions.
Vertical lines suggest strength, structure, height. Man-made, powerful. Horizontal lines imply natural, landscape, horizon, calmness and stability. Diagonals indicate chaos, disquiet, movement and the unnatural.


Opposing ideas used together to add interest.
Contrast isn’t just to do with value, but can include edges (hard vs. soft/hidden), colour (warm vs. cool), shape (round vs. square), line (curved vs. straight), scale (small vs. large), detail (heavily detailed vs. lightly detailed), alignment (good vs. evil, or narrative contrast) and structure (simple vs. complex).