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What is Composition in painting?

Composing literally means “putting together”. Composition refers to the way different elements are arranged to form a whole. We can appreciate the balance, harmony or even the vitality that emerges from a composition, whether poetic, musical, architectural or pictorial. The study of the composition of a painting focuses on the organization of the various elements represented (characters, objects, scene, void, etc.) and its main lines of "construction" (central axis, lines of force, symmetries...). It would be wrong to summarize composition with the rules in force in “academic” Art. It constitutes a key to understanding the language of the visual arts, and any representation presupposes choices, and therefore a more or less thoughtful composition. This article reveals the main points of composition in painting.

The art of diagonals to attract attention

In general, the composition of a painting tends to focus the viewer's attention on a main figure, a key character or even a revealing detail. This is why we owe the classic triangle layout, with the frequent use of devices such as the pedestal or the stairs. The main character thus finds himself in the center of the image slightly above the horizontal median line, at the point of convergence of the perspective lines. Creators of advertising posters are well aware of the principles of circularity of the gaze, and still use what was formerly called "the art of diagonals". Perhaps you yourself, when you crop one of your photographs, are applying, without necessarily being aware of it, a certain “visual grammar”, like the rule of thirds. If composition techniques in Western painting have varied over time, many are based on mathematical relationships linked to the golden ratio. Used to define harmonious proportions since Ancient Greece, it was even described as "divine proportion" during the Renaissance. Beyond geometric principles, the way of "distributing" the figurative elements on the canvas is to be correlated with the iconographic tradition and with the desire (sometimes imposed by the sponsor) to highlight certain elements.

Composition, a vector of emotions

The art of composition does not stop there, it also results from the talent and imagination of the Artist. The development of original structures that are pleasing to the eye is one of the distinctive characteristics of the style of the great painters. Certain Artists have gone down in history for having dared to create compositions radically different from the standards in force. The painter Henri Matisse defines pictorial composition as “the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements available to the painter to express his feelings”. The wind of modernity which blew over Western painting in the 20th century with the reduction, or even disappearance, of recognizable figurative elements, did not leave the art of composition in museums. The interest in the rhythm of the composition was even increased. By analogy with musical terminology, the painters Kandinsky and Mondrian titled some of their works "Composition". Colors and shapes can be “arranged” like musical chords to evoke emotions, ideas, a feeling of harmony or balance. We often admire the stroke of an Artist's pencil, or his mastery of colors and his play of light, but we often forget to applaud his ability to "orchestrate" all of this. For what ? Perhaps because a successful composition seems self-evident!

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