February - Craft: Composition for Emotional Impact

What's the big deal about composition anyway!?

Why are artists and art critics always harping on about it?!

It's important because composition is about storytelling; it's about communicating an emotion or message to the audience/viewer. It's one of the main tools we have to make a viewer feel something.

This, for me, defines what a successful piece of artwork is.

Whether or not we stand in front of a piece of artwork and are either captivated or appalled - or worse - feel indifferent! - is a deeply personal thing and has to do with what we (the viewer) bring [emotionally and experientially] with us. However, there are some universal principles we (the artist) can put into play.

The most I remember learning about composition in art school is the rule of thirds. This means that the canvas is divided by four lines (two horizontally and two vertically) at equal distance from each other, creating nine squares or rectangles. Where the lines cross are your potential focal points of interest for your image.

The use of these focal points means your image is more "pleasing" to the eye and is given balance.  Useful stuff, but I was never taught how to use composition to elicit an emotion in the viewer. 

"Picture This: How Pictures Work" by Molly Bang answers this question directly.  Coming from an illustrator's viewpoint, she endeavours to communicate the story of Little Red Riding Hood using only three colours, basic shapes and powerful composition. 

She explains that "we see pictures as extensions of the real world. Pictures that affect us strongly use structural principles based on the way we have to react in the real world in order to survive."

Furthermore, the first basic principles come down to gravity. That's right. 

"Gravity is the strongest physical force that we're consciously aware of... [that] affects our responses to horizontal, vertical and diagonal shapes, and it affects our responses to the placement of shapes on the page"

For example, she goes on to explain some of these principles that include:

- A horizontal gives stability and calm, particularly low down on the canvas.

- A vertical shape or line feels exciting and active, rebelling against the earth's gravity, implying energy, reaching for the heavens.

- A diagonal shape or line across the canvas gives a sense of motion or tension, implies instability and falling. 

- A focal point in the top third of the canvas gives us the feeling of freedom, happiness and power. We make a spiritual connection with the notion of floating or flying; we feel stronger, looking from a place of advantage or defying gravity.

She also gives an exception to the rule of thirds suggesting a central focal point can be used to give a sense of meditation and stillness.  

It may not be something you've considered before, but the next time you're confronted with a painting you dislike, rather than dismiss it, give it a moment of your time.  Is the image making you feel something you don't want to feel?  Is it drawing you away from your current mood? For example, is the composition of the painting making you feel small or vulnerable when you need to feel strong?  Is it making you feel joyful or superior when you're simply not comfortable with that?  

I'm touching on the very basics here of course; the author of "Picture This" goes into shapes and placement in greater detail in her book, but I found the overall notion fascinating and will keep all this in mind as I continue to develop my own work.