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How composition changes everything

Nikusha Beatty
September 30, 2022

Composition is the first step to any artwork. Composition is the way you, as an artist, visually communicate to your viewers. In this article, you’ll learn what composition is and why it's so important.

Composition is how you organize your pictorial elements on your substrate. This process takes time. A well-composed piece does not happen spontaneously - it is a deliberate process. It requires thoughtful decisions on the placement of your subject matter. The artist has to choose whether the object is cropped or not cropped, large or small, centered or off-centered, how that object is placed in relation to other things.

Classic Compositions

Classic compositions are typically what first comes to mind when we talk about composition - centered, nothing unusually cropped, and balanced: those are the three ingredients of a classic composition. If you look at art before the 19th century, you’re looking at classic compositions. Classic compositions are great for learning proportions and creating classic-looking paintings.

A classic composition that is balanced and centered, without cropping.
This classic composition has the subject centered and balanced, without any cropping.
A cropped, classic composition.
A cropped classic composition. Why is this considered classic if its cropped? Because the figure is still balanced and centered. The crop doesn't change the message besides having the viewer focus more on the face that the rest of the figure.
A classic composition with the rose included.
This composition now includes the rose. With the rose, the message now has a deeper meaning. The model looks pensive and sinks into the chair, with a rose in hand. Was a lover lost? We have now made up a story, and it was from how we decided to crop the image.

Contemporary Compositions

It wasn’t until the invention of the camera did artists begin to experiment with composition. Check out how our message can change when we crop one of the poses we had during a live model session at the studio.

A contemporary composition, in which most of the image is cropped.
By cropping most of the image, we have left ourselves fractions of everything: her face, shoulder, chest, chair, and background. Although the model is cropped, the picture is perfectly balanced with color. The reds are centered in the image, and the white colors are hugging the image from top and bottom. The model's hair interrupts the symmetry, and it calls for an interestingly composed image.
A contemporary composition where almost everything is cropped.
The composition where almost everything is barely cropped, in this case, the face, legs, chairs, hands, and the background create a different feel from all the other compositions we have. The rose is the only part of this image that is not cropped. What kind of message does that give.
A contemporary composition
We can change the message of the painting by shifting the focus elsewhere - like the rose. We've now taken the model away by cropping her face out. Shifting the focus away from the model now gives the rose significance.
A contemporary composition in which negative space plays a key part.
Negative space plays a key role in this composition. By leaving the negative space on the left side, the viewer can't see what the model is looking at. This kind of composition can also make the viewer a bit uncomfortable because of its close and unusual crop.

These few examples can give you an idea of how much fun you can have with only one subject. What's more is that we haven't even done all the compositions you can do with this image, and you still have enough material to do more than half a dozen paintings! If you've ever come to a live model session, and you're not feeling the whole model set up, try to focus on a key point that captures your interest. Maybe it's the models ruffles on her wrists, or her makeup. The message your composition displays can also be a reflection of how you feel. Maybe you want to practice drawing hands, and that's why you chose to crop everything but the hands.

Your composition is an opportunity to talk to the viewer. It's a powerful and often underrated and underappreciated aspect of an artwork, but it's composition that seperates masters from naïve artists.

"A well composed piece is half way finished." -Pierre Bonnard