Evgeniy Stasenko has been teaching and creating fine art for over 20 years. In this article, Evgeniy explains how composition and narrative content are often confused and how artists can make sense of the rules for composition in order to apply them in their artwork.
I’ve been working on the theory of artistic composition for many years and the most important task in this work is to show a clear separation between composition and narrative content. The term composition usually refers to the arrangement of visual elements—the lines, shapes, and colors—in a work of art. In a general sense, any piece of art—painting or sculpture—can be referred to as a composition. This is a point of confusion because speaking about a piece of art as a composition, we often discuss depicted objects.
In the old classical tradition, composition was understood as creating a sense of balance and harmony by arranging the figures into a stable overall geometric structure. Again, we see depicted objects used as elements of composition. The flaw of mixing up such terms as depicted object and element of composition is also found in the modern approach.
Among the compositional elements texture, lighting and perspective are often mentioned . But such terms relate to depicted objects, not visual elements. Depicted objects are part of narrative content. Narrative content exists only in our imagination. The visual elements such as the lines, shapes, and colors, also called compositional elements, are related to the form. Form is what exists physically, we can touch it.
On the Internet you’ll find a lot of articles and videos teaching rules of composition. Almost all of these articles tell us how to place objects inside a frame. To consider these suggestions as rules of composition is a mistake. When we speak about composition, we speak about spots on a quadrangular plane, physical characteristics of work, about its form. And when we speak about depicted three-dimensional objects in imaginary three-dimensional space inside the frame (the story the picture tells us), we speak about narrative content.
It is very important to properly organize depicted objects inside the picture frame and there are some rules that help to fulfill this task, but these rules are not rules of composition. We can call the rules of working with objects, content-related rules—or content rules—to differentiate from composition rules.
Generally, these content-related rules tell us what not to do with the objects inside the frame; about avoiding awkward looking positions. For example, it’s better to leave more space in front of a moving object so it doesn’t run into the frame. In a portrait, it’s also better to leave more space on the side with the face, otherwise, the depicted person looks punished.
The rule of thirds tells us how to avoid awkward frozen symmetry in the picture by placing objects slightly off-center. Also, we should avoid cutting off the feet, wrists and top of the head. Another rule tells us to avoid coinciding borders of different objects. Of course, all the content rules—rules related to the objects depicted in the picture—are useful and they work perfectly. But, again, these are not rules of composition.
Although the process of organizing depicted objects can be referred to as composing, we are not working on composition. In this case, we are working on the narrative content.
The comfort criteria in composition
So, when speaking about composition, we speak not about content, but form.
All the objects we see in an image consist of spots of different sizes, shapes and colors. In fact, we see only the spots and our subconscious mind does all of the hard work of gathering these spots into objects. Therefore, if we want to know the rules of composition, we need to understand how the spots on the flat surface of a picture affect our perception.
Naturally, the question may arise: is it possible to consider any combination of spots as a composition? Drops of coffee spilled on a napkin? Mold-stains on a damp wall? The answer is: yes, it can be considered a composition. But here, the key word is ‘considered’ and it implies the appearance of the viewer and his evaluation of the proposed image. Composition does not exist independently of the viewer’s perception.
Proceeding from the premise that any combination of spots on a surface may be regarded as a composition, we are facing a situation where absolutely all the compositions exist on equal footing and we don’t have any evaluation criteria.
There is a very simple solution to deal with this problem: as criteria for evaluating a composition, we can use our feelings, the impression provoked in us by the image. The simplest possible assessment is ‘like’ or ‘do not like.’ This simple criterion gives us a solid basis for building up a system. How do we feel when we are looking at the definite area with spots? How do we evaluate it? Is this space comfortable for us or not? And if it is comfortable, why?
Gestalt principles and composition rules
The answers to these questions gave us Gestalt psychology, which emerged in the early twentieth century in Austria and Germany. This school of psychology founded on works by Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka provided the foundation for the modern study of perception. The word Gestalt in German means “shape,” “form,” or “figure.” In Gestalt psychology this word is used as “configuration,” or “whole,” the way things are put together to form a whole object.
Gestalt principles sit at the foundation of modern design because they describe how people visually perceive objects. The figure-ground relationship from Gestalt psychology, describing the contrast between a focal object and the negative space around it, is one of the most important pillars in artistic composition.
How to organize narrative content
The comfort criteria allows us to formulate very clear and easy-to-use composition rules. To start with, if we consider the rules of composition in their positive aspect, the main goal is creation on a limited rectangular plane, which will be subconsciously perceived as a comfortable one. Of course, knowing the rules of creating a comfortable composition, we also have the opportunity, if necessary, to create an uncomfortable, disturbing or boring space with a clear understanding of the effect.
The narrative content should help the viewer to read the picture. It must first provide the order of the depicted objects. So, there are some tasks, or problems, needing to be solved, and ways to solve them.
The organization of the narrative content inside the frame sets the position of the viewer in relation to the depicted scene. Figures shown in full suggest a large distance, and figures that are cut by the frame are closer to the viewer.
Objects with paramount importance are highlighted by their position; they can be closer, farther, higher, lower, bigger, smaller in relation to lesser objects. Background shapes creating the entourage of the lesser objects should not stand out, so they are either cut off by the frame, or partly blocked by main shapes, or are gathered in dense groups.
The relationship and interaction between characters is shown through their position, direction of movement, gestures. The distribution of objects in depth and their visibility in relation to others helps to determine hierarchy and relationships. Distribution depicted objects in a circle, triangle or square gives stability and makes the scene static. Arrangement of figures diagonally or spiraling gives the scene dynamism.
In conclusion, the difference between composition and narrative content exists due to a number of objective reasons. Composition functions in two-dimensional space, and narrative content, in three-dimensional. Composition refers to the material structure of the work and the narrative content exists only in the imagination of the viewer. Composition is perceived at the subconscious level, and narrative content—at the level of consciousness. The composition is abstract and the narrative content refers to a figurative work.
Nevertheless, narrative content and composition merge in a picture to form an integral and harmonious whole. The two-dimensional real space of the composition serves as the basis for the imaginary three-dimensional space of the narrative content. And if the artist ignores the compositional component of the work, then the narrative content also ceases to function.
By Evgeniy Stasenko
Evgeniy Stasenko is an artist from Moscow. He graduated from Moscow Pedagogical Institute, Fine Art & Graphic Department and has practiced both fine arts and teaching ever since, simultaneously more than 20 years. As teacher, Evgeniy aims to create an integral system; a consistent range of methods that allows him to effectively teach drawing and painting to any person, regardless of skills. These methods came as the result of experience; they are tested in practice and proven to give fast results. You can find Evgeniy’s online courses at Udemy.