Composition and the Principles of Art

When I’m trying to get across a piece of imagery, I start with, well, an image. I don’t mean just getting a basic mental picture; I mean taking the time to take that picture and compose it, as if it were a piece of artwork or a short piece of film, then take the important parts of that and turn them into my description.

But to really do that, we first have to understand how to put a picture together, and to do that we need to understand what makes these images work. That, in turn, brings us to that common thread of just about every art class that considers theory at all, the principles of art. (Yes: it’s time to go cross-discipline!) Note: these work on all the arts, but since we’re dealing with visual imagery, I’m going to focus on their visual applications.

  • Rhythm and repetition. Technically, these are two separate principles; repetition is the use of recurring elements, but rhythm, the patterns of the work, depends on the repetition to make it obvious that there is something to get a pattern from. (If you don’t believe me, think about most of the stripe patterns you’ve seen. Would they make sense without stripes?) My lizard-picture, for instance, is awash with both; the scales on its sides, the emeralds down its back, the stripes on its tail.
  • Similarly, balance and symmetry tend to operate as a pair. Symmetry is the more explicit of the two, a clear identical arrangement around an axis (whether it’s one axis, as in most people’s faces, or more than one, as with regular polygons); while it’s aesthetically pleasing, it also creates a certain static feel to the piece, as there’s not as much room for change. Balance, on the other hand, is a lot harder to quantify; what it boils down to is not overwhelming the image with any one element: balancing hard, clearly defined shapes with softer, fuzzier ones so as not to overexert the eye, for instance, or lots of detail in one place with very little in another. Consider the Pigeon, with the mostly symmetrical gargoyle framing the somewhat off-centered pigeon, and the outlines, light(er) colors and penciling of the foreground balancing out the hazy watercolor of the background.
  • Then we have dominance and its facilitator, contrast. Conceptually, dominance is pretty straightforward; it’s how a part of the picture stands out. Contrast, the use of differences to draw attention, is what’s usually used to create dominance—think about how a large patch of light in an overall dark picture will draw the eye to that point. As my commentary on the post notes, I designed Aisling’s Gambit around the use of two points of contrast—dark/light at the cross, and the use of more vivid hues on Aisling herself than on her surroundings.
  • Next is movement, both the suggestion and use of motion. In a static picture, it’s usually done by setting things off-balance—take the use of billowing cloth in the picture of Vega, or the off-balance posture in my sketch of Solace.
  • Unity brings the whole piece together—this isn’t as blatantly obvious in visual descriptions as it is in actual visuals, but it does help a lot in deciding which details to describe and which to leave out. In artwork, it’s the similarities in elements that make it clear that these do belong in the same picture. Consider all the curving lines for the vines in the Hat-Topus picture; something metallic and sharp-edged wouldn’t fit at all!

What does this have to do with descriptions? Tomorrow, I’ll tie it all together!

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