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Pictorial Composition: An Introduction

Pictorial Composition: An Introduction

by Henry Rankin Poore

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A painting's technique, color, and perspective may all be excellent, yet the painting will fail unless its composition succeeds. Composition is the harmonious arranging of the component parts of a work of art into a unified whole. Henry Poore examines the works of old masters and moderns in this book and uses these examples to explain the principles of compositions


A painting's technique, color, and perspective may all be excellent, yet the painting will fail unless its composition succeeds. Composition is the harmonious arranging of the component parts of a work of art into a unified whole. Henry Poore examines the works of old masters and moderns in this book and uses these examples to explain the principles of compositions in art.
All the paintings that the author analyzes are illustrated in the text — 166 illustrations, including 9 in full color. Thirty-two diagrams by the author accompany his textural discussion of such topics as the importance of balance, entrance and exit, circular observation, angular composition, composition with one or more units, and light and shade. Balance is the most important of these topics, and it is considered in the greatest detail — balance of the steelyard, vertical and horizontal balance, and so on. A complete index enables the reader to locate his own specific areas of interest.
To see how a painting by Cézanne, Goya, or Hopper, for example, follows definite principles of composition allows the practicing artist or art student to learn composition from the finest instructors — the artists themselves. This book is also very useful to the art devotee, who will find his appreciation of the subject greatly enhanced.

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Composition in Art

By Henry Rankin Poore

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1967 Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13575-5


The Importance of Balance

AN ARTIST AT WORK usually stands at his easel and views his picture at various distances, looks at it over his shoulder, looks at it in reverse through a mirror, turns it upside-down at times, develops it with dots or spots of color here and there. He puts in points of accent carefully and often changes them.

Why does he do all this? He is striving for BALANCE or equipoise. The sensitive eye of artist and viewer tests every picture for balance, a judgment usually rendered naturally by everyone, with or without knowledge of artistic laws.

After the picture has been finished, why does an artist often feel compelled to create an accent on one side or weaken an obtrusive point on the other side of his canvas?

Take a painting which has lived long enough to be considered good by everyone. Subject it to the following test: Find the actual middle of the picture and pass a vertical and horizontal line through it. The vertical division is the more important, as the natural balance is on the sides of a central support. The central point of the canvas is also the actual pivot of the picture, and round such a point the various components group themselves, pulling and battling for their share of attention. The satisfactory picture shows as much design of balance on one side as the other, and the completely balanced picture displays this equipoise above and below the horizontal line as well.

Every item of a picture has a degree of PULLING POWER, as though each object were a magnet of some potency or strength. Each has attraction for the eye. While each draws attention to itself, it detracts from every other part proportionately. On the principle of the STEELYARD (which we will discuss in detail later), the farther from the middle and more isolated an object is, the greater its weight or attraction. In the balance of a picture, you will find that a very important object placed but a short distance from the middle will be balanced by a very small object on the other side of this central point and further removed from it. The whole pictorial interest may be on one side of a picture. The other side may be practically useless, may have no picturesqueness or story to tell. Its reason for existing will be for balance alone.

The very small object we spoke of may be an accent or line of attraction, or may be no more than a spiritual quality. A strong feeling of gloom, or light or dark, can be enough for the eye to dwell on. But if all of the subject is on one side of the middle and the other side depends for its existence on only a balancing space or accent, why not cut it off? Try! You will have the entire subject in one-half the former space, but its harmony or balance will depend on its equipoise when pivoted on a new central point.

Balance of the steelyard

Make this test on any painting: Cut away everything on one side in an attempt to place the main subject in the exact middle. See if the picture composes well in this shape. Then re-add to the side and see how the central point has shifted. Note whether the subject is close to the pivot point and whether it demands more balance now that the side is added back. If the main subject has weight enough, leave it alone—the over-scientific enthusiast might err here. The artist will often add a vertical figure to oppose a horizontal, or will catch and turn the line of a shadow on a wall into the line of the floor. The governing principle here is: Where the subject of a picture is on one side of the middle, it must be close to the pivot point. If it departs from the middle, it must show positive anchorage to the other side.

Not every good picture can show complete balance, but when the artist striving for balance achieves it, the picture is that much better. By applying the simple test of elimination of overweighted parts (adding items where needed), you will find whether or not the composition will improve. The small balancing weight of the steelyard should not become a point that causes divided interest.

It is easy to recognize a good composition. To tell why it is good may be difficult. To tell how it could be made better is what the artist wants to know. When in doubt, weigh out your picture in balances, keeping in mind the principle of the steelyard to cover the items in the depth as well as across the breadth of your picture, as in Brueghel's "Hunters in the Snow."


• Every picture is a collection of units or items.

• Every unit has a given value.

• The value of a unit depends on its attraction, and its attraction varies according to placement.

• A unit near the edge has more attraction than the same unit at the middle.

• Every part of the picture space has some attraction.

• Space without detail may possess attraction by gradation and by suggestion.

• A unit of attraction in an otherwise empty space has more weight through isolation than when placed with other units.

• A black unit on white or a white unit on black has more attraction than the same unit on grey.

• The value of a black or a white unit is proportionate also to the size of the space that contrasts with it.

• A unit in the foreground has less weight than the same one in the distance.

• Two or more associated units may be reckoned as one. Their UNITED CENTRAL POINT is the point on which they balance with others.

Scale of attraction

There is balance of Line (Illustration 7), of Mass (Illustration 8), of Light and Dark (Illustration 9), and of Measure (Illustration 10). A scale of attraction measures how much each possesses. Many pictures exhibit these balances in combination.

In every composition the eye should cross the central division at least once. This creates equipoise or balance of parts. In the survey of a picture, the eye naturally shifts from the focus of interest, which may be on one side, to the other side of the canvas. If something is there to receive it, the balance which the eye seeks is gratified. If it finds nothing, the artist must create something.

In a landscape, the eye may be attracted from trees to houses and rest there, or it may move to the other half of the picture if something has been created to draw it there. What is known as DIVIDED INTEREST in a picture is nothing more than the doubt created by a false arrangement, in which too great an attraction is used where less weight is required. The artist must be the judge, but no one can ignore the threat of divided interest when trying to obtain unity.

The question of degree is important. In an attempt to create a balance on the opposite side of a vertical, the tendency is to use too heavy a weight. A subject can sometimes take its place well to one side, making another item seem redundant. A two-part test can be used: If the questionable half is either cut off or greatly elongated, will the picture still survive without damage?

In filling a vase with flowers you strive for both unity and balance in the arrangement. If, however, color combination, massing or accent is lacking, the result is disturbing and disharmonious. To be effective in a frame, a picture needs balance and unity, just as much as a flower arrangement. The eye finds repose and delight in a perfect balance of elements, brought into combination and bound together by the girdle of the frame.

A picture should be able to hang from its exact middle. A perfect composition will not cause the viewer to turn his head to a false angle in the picture. Pictures that stand the test of time demand this.

Just as the BALANCE OF THE FIGURE dominates all other considerations in sculpting or painting the human form, so does the equipoise (balance of parts) of the picture become the chief consideration in composition. In the same way that the sculpture balances its weight over its point of support, so the picture balances upon a fulcrum or pivot point from which large and small masses spread with the same delicate adjustment.

Vertical and horizontal balance

LATERAL (HORIZONTAL) BALANCE is all-important to the upright subject. The significance of horizontal balance is best understood, however, in the example of a landscape, because it has extended perspective: Here the balance is like a see-saw. When you have a long space from foreground to distance, filled with varying degrees of interest, it is apparent how easily one end may become too heavy for the other. The artist must temper such a chain of items until equipoise is attained.

The importance of balance varies according to the number of units to be composed. Much greater liberty may be taken in settling a single figure into its picture-space than when the composition involves many figures. The mind hardly considers balance until it notes a complication of many units.

Two main lines will start a composition, if they touch or cross. After that you must work in the balances as the picture hangs. However, not until you have brought the picture to the last stage of finished detail, can you complete the balance. What you conceived of originally in general outline may end up all askew. The scheme of light and dark in one or two flat tones without a BALANCE OF GRADATION will as many times prove false as true before the picture is complete. Some artists paint important pictures from notebook sketches, put down "hot," that is, when the impression is fresh. These often convey more of the essence of the subject than the faithful "study" done at leisure.

The natural axis

In varying degrees, pictures express what may be termed a NATURAL AXIS, an axis on which the picture components are arranged in a balanced composition. This axis is the visible or imaginary line which the eye accepts. If, for instance, there is only one figure or group with an opening or point of attraction through the background diverting the eye to it, then this line of direction becomes the axis. The axis not only connects two points within the picture, but pierces it. The near end of the shaft has much to do with this balance.

Balance across the middle creates unity in the picture, limiting it within its frame. We can see it easily where the subject has little depth of background. We recognize balance of movement on the axis when the axis reaches far in. We can feel the subject revolving on its pivot, perhaps stretching one arm towards us while the other arm penetrates the visible or invisible distance.

Balance constructed over this axis will bring the artist to as unified a result as will the use of the steelyard on the central vertical line. In the axis method there is less restraint, so when the axis is well marked, it is best to take it. Not every subject develops it. But when the axis is found, its force should be modified by opposed lines or measures on one or both sides.

Apparent or formal balance

Raphael is a convenient master with whom to begin a study of composition. His style was influenced by certain considerations—he heeded the warning provided by the pitfalls of composition into which his predecessors had fallen, and he had confidence that absolutely formal balance was utterly safe. He was influenced too by the environment for which most of his works were produced. His was an architectural plan of arrangement, and this well suited the dignity of his subjects.

Raphael was, therefore, the chief exponent of FORMAL COMPOSITION. His plan involved placing the figure of greatest importance in the middle—with balancing figures on either side. He deliberately weakened his set formality with objects which slightly changed the balance in kind or degree. The whole arrangement resembled that of an army in battle array, with its middle, flanks and skirmishers. The BALANCE OF EQUAL MEASURES, seen in his "Sistine Madonna" (Illustration 2), is conspicuous in early ecclesiastical works, notably "The Last Supper" of Leonardo, in which two groups of three persons each are posed on either side of the pivotal figure.

This has become the standard arrangement for all classical balanced pictorial composition. The doubling of objects on either side of a central figure not only gives the main subject importance, but contributes the peace, symmetry and solemnity appropriate to religious feeling and decorum. One objection to this plan of balance is that it divides the picture into equal parts, neither one having precedence, and often the subdivisions are continued indefinitely. For this reason this arrangement has no place in genre art.

A more objectionable form of central balance is that in which the middle is of little importance—this results in cutting the picture into two parts for no reason. Donatello's "Herod's Feast" is a good example. In this composition the formality of the structure is not appropriate to the theme. In all forms except classic, the artist should try to conceal the balance over the middle.

Points equidistant from any two sides are also weak points. Inequalities in distance should bear a mathematical ratio to each other, as one-third and two-thirds, or two-fifths and three-fifths.

A canvas can also be divided according to the "golden mean." The principle of the golden mean was developed by the ancient Greeks who applied it to the designing of their temples.

On a rectangular canvas, connect two opposing corners with a diagonal. From this diagonal connect one of the remaining corners to the diagonal by a line that is perpendicular to the diagonal. Through the point on the diagonal where the perpendicular line meets it, draw two lines, each connecting two sides of the rectangle and meeting the sides at right angles. The divisions that result are excellent bases for construction. In addition, they each, in turn, can be divided by the same means, and a painting so conceived will inevitably contain the most pleasing and balanced proportions possible.

This proportional division of the picture can be seen in the best of Claude Lorraine's landscapes, as it was one of his principal methods of construction. (See Illustration 22.)

Balance by opposition of line

A series of oppositional lines has variety and is therefore picturesque. In this sense, picturesqueness is variety in unity. The lines of a long road in perspective offer an easy path for the eye. However, the eye is far more interested in threading its way over a track lost then found, lost and found again. In time, you arrive from a to z by one route as surely as by the other, but in one the journey has been more intriguing.

Imagine a hillside and sky as a picture. The hillside is without detail, the sky a blank. The first item introduced attracts the eye, The second and third are joined with the first. If they parallel the line of the hillside they do nothing towards the development of the picture. Rather, they harm it by creating a feeling of monotony. On the other hand, if they are placed in sky and land in such a manner as to oppose this line, they help send the eye on its travels.

Compare for instance the artist with the fencer. The fencer makes long, sweeping strokes that simply must be parried, or opposed, quite decisively; the riposte must also be parried. Such a bout is a striking composition of two men and two minds in which the unity of the whole and the unity of the parts are both maintained by the BALANCE OF OPPOSED MEASURES. To the fencer, a feeling of opposition is second nature. The painter in turn stands off, brush in hand, and fights his subject to the finish, the force of one stroke neutralizing and parrying another. This is true, not only of color composition where the scheme is to produce harmony by opposition of colors, but also of linear composition.


Excerpted from Composition in Art by Henry Rankin Poore. Copyright © 1967 Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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