Basic rules of composition

From TOI-Pedia

In the visual arts composition is the pleasant placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a frame which give the most powerful ability to attract the eye, and to keep it exploring within the frame for as long as possible. The term "composition" literally means 'putting together', and can apply to any work of art, from music to writing, that is arranges or put together using conscious thought. In the visual arts, composition is often used interchangeably with various terms such as design, form, visual ordering, or formal structure, depending on the context. In graphic design composition is commonly referred to as page layout. In the more recent digital arts - 3D Rendering - the same basic rules apply whereas, due to the lack of most of the forces of nature, the possibilities can be considered endless. This article presents an overview of the widely acknowledged "rules" of composition. It is up to the designer to pick the rules that he or she feel most applicable in their project.

Some Background information

The Focal Point

Wherever the eye tends to focus in an image is called the "focal points". It is the point or points that immediately draw the observers attention. Every picture should have one or more focus points, also the badly composed ones. Without a focus point the viewer will be lost (1), adding one simple point already grasps the viewers attention, he has no choice but to look at the point (2). Varying in size and weight we can create a hierarchy and thereby control the "route" the eye takes looking at the image (3 and 4)

The importance of a focal point [1]

They don't always have to be a point, a focal point can come in many forms: dots, lines, shapes (both 2D and 3D) or light vs. dark. The basic characteristic is that a focal point grabs the observers attention and anchors its view to the image.

Different kinds of focal points [2]

Guiding the eye

Controlling the flow of the image [3]

Now that you can grab your viewers attentions you need to hold and use the time he spends looking at your image to tell the story you want to tell. Guiding the viewers eye is like direction a movie, you determine what and in which order the viewer views your work. What route to follow and what the viewer will see during its journey depend on the message you want to send. In photography you most likely want to end the journey with a "bang". With diagonals, lines, curves, people’s hand gestures and other elements that can be incorporated into the picture. The place where the eye finally settles is called the “anchor”. Every good photo must have an anchor, otherwise the eye will wonder endlessly without a place to settle down. The anchor point will, hopefully, contain the subject of the photograph. Compare this to poster for a rock concert. The first to notice will be the name of the band, this is the most important message you want your viewer to get. After that you want to give some more information of when, where and how to get tickets. The information becomes of less importance.

Example of flow on the TUDelft Website

An Overview of Composition Techniques

Rule of Thirds

Rule Of Thirds

The rule of thirds is possible the most known and widely used method. Although most know in photography the Rule of Thirds is not a rule simply limited to photography, but has been used in all compositional art since the Renaissance. Renaissance painters realized that the human eye doesn’t rest on the center of a photograph, but instead scans the edges, and so the rule of thirds was developed. For film photography enthusiasts, the rule of thirds is fairly simple, it aims to create a photograph that puts the subject of the image off center to create a sense of balance and draw the viewer’s eye to the subject.

Rule Of Thirds in Vermeer

The basic idea behind the rule of thirds is to break down the frame, or image, into vertical and horizontal thirds – as depicted in the example. Much like the Renaissance painters discovered, studies have shown that the human eye focuses on one of these four intersecting points (highlighted in the image) first before anything else. Naturally, it only makes sense to place your subject at one of those four points. While composing your image, keep this grid in mind and you can identify the four important parts of the frame following the rule of thirds.


  1. Jack Hamm - Drawing Scenery - p.2
  2. Jack Hamm - Drawing Scenery - p.2
  3. Jack Hamm - Drawing Scenery - p.7
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