2: Abstraction

Approaches to Design and Composition

Design and composition are a subject of much debate, with both overlaps and differences between different disciplines like graphic design, fine art and photography. These ideas have underpinned all my printmaking work on this course and have been explicitly explored in:

See also:

What follows in this post presents some of the main approaches, elements and principles underlying print design and composition.

Design approaches: rules, exploration and experiment

Rule-based approaches

Conventionally design is seen as the application of rules of composition, based partly on cultural tradition – with very different conventions for example between Western and Eastern art. More recently use of graphic design in advertising has led to a lot of psychological research on viewer reactions to elements like line, shape, colour and texture. And the degree to which these reactions may be hard-wired in the human brain, and how far they are learned and hence culturally variable and changeable over time.

Breaking the rules: design as exploration and experiment

de Sausmarez, principles of art and design

Design should be:

  • A an attitude of mind, not a method
  • B primarily a form of enquiry, not a new art form
  • C not only an enquiry about the marks and structures which appear out of the materials used, but also enquiry about the sources and terms of personal expression and reaction to the world around us
  • D concerned with form in a fundamental sense in every field, it is not exclusively abstract or non-figurative; there is as much a need for intensive rethinking and reshaping of our attitude to ‘realism’ and figural studies
  • E emphatically not an end in itself but a means of making the individual more acutely aware of the expressive resources at his [sic] command; a fostering of inquisitiveness about phenomena, great and small, on the paper or canvas, in the external world or the internal world of visions, personal reactions and preferences.

de Sausamrez Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form 1964 p15

Basic Elements of Design

Design elements can be explored in their own right as part of markmaking and media experiments. The following are just some dimensions for exploration, taken from a range of sources and experience/thoughts on previous courses in art and photography.

  • Point: a simple dot – but think about positioning on the page, size, shape and relationship, colour etc
  • Line: the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece – think about edges, quality of line, direction and relation to the frame
  • Shape: areas defined by edges within the piece, whether geometric or organic
  • Form: 3-D length, width, or depth
  • Colour: hues with their various values (brightness) and intensities (saturation) See post on Colour
  • Tone: shading used to emphasize form (See Chiaroscuro )
  • Texture: surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
  • Space: the space taken up by (positive) or in between (negative) objects (See Notan)
  • Depth: perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground.

Combining these insights gives a very exciting set of visual elements to experiment with and explore in search of one’s own approach and style.


“The simplest unit, a spot, not only indicates location  but is felt to have within itself potential energies of expansion and contraction which activate the surrounding area. When two spots occur there is a statement of measurement and implied direction and the ‘inner’ energies create a specific tension between them which directly affects the intervening space. Freely used spots, in clusters or spread out, create a variety of energies and tensions activating the entire area over which they occur. All sensations are increased if difference in the size of the spots is allowed to enter” de Sausmarez ‘Basic Design’  p25

Placement options for one point:

  • Central: this tends to be very static and dull, and needs clear justification.
  • Slightly off-centre eg on the thirds lines is moderately dynamic, without being extreme and can feel balanced. The choice being in what direction. This is affected by the type of movement in relation to the aim of the image.
  • Close to the edge: markedly eccentric and needs justification.

There are two important relations:

  • movement – created by drawing attention towards the point from the sides. The strength of this sense of movement is in proportion to the distance from each side.
  • division – a point implies a division. This is easier to see if you draw horizontal and vertical lines through the point.
  • Line: the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece
  • Shape: areas defined by edges within the piece, whether geometric or organic
  • Form: 3-D length, width, or depth
  • Colour: hues with their various values (brightness) and intensities (saturation)
  • Tone: shading used to emphasize form
  • Texture: surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
  • Space: the space taken up by (positive) or in between (negative) objects
  • Depth: perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground

With several points relationships and also predictable. A group of objects implies a network of lines, and can also create a shape – again by implication.


“A line can be thought of as a chain of spots joined together. It indicates position and direction and has within itself a certain energy; the energy appears to travel along its length and to be intensified at the other end, speed is implied and the space around it is activated. In a limited way it is capable of expression emotions.”
de Sausmarez ‘Basic Design’  p25

Lines as edges: Literal lines do not exist in nature, but are the optical phenomena created when objects curve away from the viewer. Straight lines add affection and can make it look more detailed and challenging. It is the quality of lines that makes them stand out. This may be because of: the type of line itself eg delicate, ragged, torn etc. and what this says about the object of the image. It may be because of contrast eg the edge of something bright against a dark background or vice versa. Or contrast of colour, textures, between shapes etc.

Lines in relation to the frame: Particularly when the frame of an image is itself constructed of lines, these invite a natural comparison of angle and length. Lines can also direct attention towards the main subject of picture, or contribute to organization by dividing it into compartments. Horizontal, vertical, and angled lines often contribute to creating different moods of a picture. The angle and the relationship to the size of the frame both work to determine the influence the line has on the image. They are also strongly influenced by tone, colour, and repetition in relation to the rest of the image.

  • Horizontal lines are the baseline in composition – explicit or as an implicit reference. This is partly because of associations with the horizon/gravity. Our frame of vision is horizontal and our eyes see more easily from side to side. Horizontal lines tend to give a sense of stability, weight, calm, restfulness and space.
  • Vertical lines are the second primary component of the frame. A vertical line is naturally seen in terms of alignment with the frame. Without horizontal lines to give a supporting base, a vertical line usually has more of a sense of speed and movement, either up or down. Several vertical lines may have the sense of a barrier. They can express strength, power, height and grandeur. A single vertical line sits more comfortably in a vertical format. A series of verticals may require a horizontal format which allows more to be made of the series.
  • Perpendicular lines: energies are perpendicular and each one acts as a stop to the other. Can create a primary sense of balance because of the underlying association with standing upright supported by a level surface. If used strongly this can produce a solid, satisfying feeling. Alignment to the reference point of the frame is important.
  • Diagonals and zigzags  give a sense of motion and tension. Of all lines they introduce the most dynamism into a picture and are highly active, with greater expression of direction and speed than verticals. Represent unresolved tension and lead the eye along most easily. They have associations of depth and distance which can be manipulated to increase depth. By changing the perspective only by some degrees or some centimetres lines in images can change tremendously and a totally different feeling can be transported. Tightly angled convergent lines give a dynamic, lively, and active effect to the image whereas strongly angled, almost diagonal lines generally produce tension in the image.
  • Tangents force the eye to look at the point of contact.
  • Curved lines are generally used to create a sense of flow within an image. Compared to straight lines, curves provide a greater dynamic influence in a picture. Curves are inherently attractive to most people, particularly when they undulate. They carry the eye along. Curves make a more substantial contrast with straight lines than do the different types of straight lines amongst themselves. Useful contrasts can be made.
    Curves have associations with smoothness, grace and elegance.
  • Lines by implication : Lines are often by implication, our imagination making connections between points. The brain often unconsciously reads near continuous lines between different elements and subjects at varying distances. Even irregular groupings of things can become resolved into lines when seen at a distance.
  • Counterpoint: don’t have lines leading out of the frame that are not led back, if all lines are in the same direction a composition can look dull. Futurist movement versus balance.


A shape is defined as a two or more dimensional area that stands out from the space next to or around it due to a defined or implied boundary, or because of differences of value, colour, or texture. A shape is therefore both an outline and an enclosure, although the extent to which it appears as one or the other depends very much on the subject and the lighting. Contrast either of tone or colour, also helps to decide whether shape will be important in that picture. Definable shapes organise part of the picture and provide structure to an image. It helps groups of things to cohere. All objects are composed of shapes and all other ‘Elements of Design’ are shapes in some way.

Regular, mechanical or geometric shapes are the shapes that can be drawn using a ruler or compass. Mechanical shapes, whether simple or complex, produce a feeling of control or order.

Triangles occur more frequently than other any other shape because they are the simplest shape of all. Because they always have at least two diagonals, they tend to create a sensation of activity and dynamism. Even two sides will give the impression of a triangle, provided they penetrate far enough into the picture. The natural tendency of linear perspective is for lines to converge on the vanishing point and form two sides of a triangle. Distinction between:

  • real triangles – actual triangular objects all triangles created by perspective.
  • implied triangles where planes encourage the eye to imagine a line to connect them. Emphasising the triangular structure is principally a matter of removing from view other distracting points, lines and the sidelines.

Irregular or organic shapes are freehand drawn shapes that are complex and normally found in nature. Organic shapes produce a natural feel.

Turbulent shape arrangements.

Repetition with variety: pattern, rhythm

Active, passive mix giving a place for the eye to rest. Notan

Odd number groups – maybe we like to see things in pairs, so we look for completion? Variety in threes.


In design, space is concerned with the area deep within the moment of designated design, the design will take place on. For a two-dimensional design, space concerns creating the illusion of a third dimension on a flat surface:

  • Overlap is the effect where objects appear to be on top of each other. This illusion makes the top element look closer to the observer. There is no way to determine the depth of the space, only the order of closeness.
  • Shading adds gradation marks to make an object of a two-dimensional surface seem three-dimensional.
  • Highlight, Transitional Light, Core of the Shadow, Reflected Light, and Cast Shadow give an object a three-dimensional look.
  • Linear Perspective is the concept relating to how an object seems smaller the farther away it gets.
  • Atmospheric Perspective is based on how air acts as a filter to change the appearance of distance objects.


Form may be described as any three-dimensional object. Form can be measured, from top to bottom (height), side to side (width), and from back to front (depth). Form is also defined by light and dark. It can be defined by the presence of shadows on surfaces or faces of an object. There are two types of form, geometric (man-made) and natural (organic form). Form may be created by the combining of two or more shapes. It may be enhanced by tone, texture and color. It can be illustrated or constructed.


Meaning the way a surface feels or is perceived to feel. Texture can be added to attract or repel interest to an element, depending on the pleasantness of the texture. Types of texture:

  • Tactile texture is the actual three-dimension feel of a surface that can be touched. Painter can use impasto to build peaks and create texture.
  • Visual texture is the illusion of the surfaces peaks and valleys, like the tree pictured. Any texture shown in a photo is a visual texture, meaning the paper is smooth no matter how rough the image perceives it to be.

Most textures have a natural touch but still seem to repeat a motif in some way. Regularly repeating a motif will result in a texture appearing as a pattern.

Design elements may be explored in their own right, but are generally considered in terms of relationships between one or more element. The following are just some things to think about, taken from a range of sources and experience/thoughts on previous courses in art and photography.

Principles of relationship between elements

Design elements may be explored in their own right, but are generally considered in terms of relationships between one or more element.

  • Unity/Harmony 
  • Hierarchy
  • Scale/proportion
  • Dominance/emphasis
  • Similarity and contrast
  • Repetition, Rhythm and Pattern: 
  • Viewpoint (leading the eye) and perspective
  • Creating movement
  • Simplification

Unity/harmony:When all elements are in agreement, a design is considered unified. No individual part is viewed as more important than the whole design.

  • Symmetry
  • Asymmetrical produces an informal balance that is attention attracting and dynamic.
  • Balance: It is a state of equalized tension and equilibrium, which may not always be calm.
  • Radial balance is arranged around a central element. The elements placed in a radial balance seem to ‘radiate’ out from a central point in a circular fashion.
  • Mosaic form of balance which normally arises from many elements being put on a page. Due to the lack of hierarchy and contrast, this form of balance can look noisy but sometimes quiet.

Hierarchy: A good design contains elements that lead the reader through each element in order of its significance. The type and images should be expressed starting from most important to the least important.

Scale/proportion: Using the relative size of elements against each other can attract attention to a focal point. When elements are designed larger than life, scale is being used to show drama.A subject can be rendered more dramatic when it fills the frame. There exists a tendency to perceive things as larger than they actually are, and filling the frame full fills this psychological mechanism. This can be used to eliminate distractions from the background.

  • Cropping
  • distant cropping, close cropping
  • boundary  relationships

Dominance/emphasis: Dominance is created by contrasting size, positioning, colour, style, or shape. The focal point should dominate the design with scale and contrast without sacrificing the unity of the whole.

Similarity and contrast: Planning a consistent and similar design is an important aspect of a designer’s work to make their focal point visible. Too much similarity is boring but without similarity important elements will not exist and an image without contrast is uneventful so the key is to find the balance between similarity and contrast.

Similar environment: There are several ways to develop a similar environment:

  • Build a unique internal organization structure.
  • Manipulate shapes of images and text to correlate together.

Perspective: sense of distance between elements.
Similarity: ability to seem repeatable with other elements.
Continuation: the sense of having a line or pattern extend.
Repetition: elements being copied or mimicked numerous times.
Rhythm: is achieved when recurring position, size, color, and use of a graphic element has a focal point interruption.

Negative space: Give the eye somewhere to rest

Color: Contrast: the value, or degree of lightness and darkness, used within the picture.


Repetition has a peculiar but generally very strong appeal, particularly when it is unfamiliar to the viewer:

  • rhythm or dynamic repetition: the movement across a picture (or more properly, the movement of the eye through a picture). Rhythm can be made more dynamic by encouraging a figure or point to break the rhythm. As the eye in Western culture naturally follows a rhythmical structure from right to left to right, it is often best to place a point on the right so that the eye has time to establish the rhythm before noticing it.
  • pattern or spatial repetition: essentially static and concerned with area. Ordered rows of large numbers of things produce regular patterns, but the slight variations in detail maintain interest. If the placing is irregular, the framing needs to be tight on the objects if they are to form a pattern.

Viewpoint (leading the eye): The position of the viewer can strongly influence the aesthetics of an image, even if the subject is entirely imaginary and viewed “within the mind’s eye”. Not only does it influence the elements within the picture, but it also influences the viewer’s interpretation of the subject.

Division of space

informal subdivision

high low horizons

Rule of thirds, golden mean, rebatement of the rectangle: The objective is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest (such as the horizon) from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines. The rule of thirds is thought to be a simplification of the golden mean. The golden mean is a ratio that has been used by visual artists for centuries as an aid to composition. When two things are in the proportion of 1:1.618 (approximately 3 to 5), they are said to be in the golden mean. Dividing the parts of an image according to this proportion helps to create a pleasing, balanced composition. The intersection points on a golden mean grid appear at 3/8 in and 3/8 down/up, rather than at 1/3 in and 1/3 down/up on the grid of thirds.

Rule of odds: The “rule of odds” states that by framing the object of interest with an even number of surrounding objects, it becomes more comforting to the eye, thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure. The “rule of odds” suggests that an odd number of subjects in an image is more interesting than an even number. An even number of subjects produces symmetries in the image, which can appear less natural for a naturalistic, informal composition. Related to the rule of odds is the observation that triangles are an aesthetically pleasing implied shape within an image.

Baselines and ground contour: foreground, middle ground and background division.ensure that you indicate the contours of the land, even if it appears flat. Use variations such as differences in soil colour, texture, vegetation, wind in grass etc. Light and shadow on land.

Overlapping forms: overlapping forms give a feeling of depth to space. If forms do not overlap there is no depth.

Tie together: If you have a distinct division of space that extends from one side of the painting to the other, tie the two divisions together by crossing the division with something in the foreground.


Images with clutter can distract from the main elements within the picture and make it difficult to identify the subject. By decreasing the extraneous content, the viewer is more likely to focus on the primary objects. Clutter can also be reduced through the use of lighting, as the brighter areas of the image tend to draw the eye, as do lines, squares and colour. In painting, the artist may use less detailed and defined brushwork towards the edges of the picture. Removing the elements to the focus of the object, taking only the needed components.Merge shapes that have similar values into larger shapes of one value.


  1. Law of Proximity. Visual elements are grouped in the mind according to how close they are to each other.
  2. Law of Similarity. Elements that are similar in some way, by form or content, tend to be grouped.
  3. Law of Closure. Elements roughly arranged together are seen to complete an outline shape. The mind seeks completeness.
  4. Law of Simplicity. The mind tends towards visual explanations that are simple; simple lines, curves, and shapes are preferred, as is symmetry and balance.
  5. Law of Common Fate. Grouped elements are assumed to move together and behave as one.
  6. Law of Good Continuation. Similar to the above, this states that the mind tends to continue shapes and lines beyond their ending points .
  7. Law of Segregation. In order for a figure to be perceived, it must stand out from its background. Figure-ground images exploit the uncertainty of deciding which is the figure and which is the background, for creative interest.

‘Grouping plays a large part in Gestalt thinking, and this is known as “chunking.”


  1.  Emergence. Parts of an image that do not contain sufficient information to explain them suddenly pop out as a result of looking long enough and finally grasping the sense .
  2.  Reification. The mind fills in a shape or area due to inadequate visual input. This includes closure (above).
  3. Multistability. ln some instances, when there are insufficient depth clues, objects can be seen to invert spontaneously. This has been explolted more in art (M. C. Escher, Salvador Dali) than in photography.
  4. Invariance. Objects can be recognized regardless of orientation, rotation, aspect, scale, or other factors.

Michael Freeman The Photographer’s Eye p38

Creating movement

Movement is the path the viewer’s eye takes through the artwork, often to focal areas. Such movement can be directed along lines edges, shape and colour within the artwork.


  • turbulent shape arrangements.
  • variety in division of space.
  • repetition with variety: pattern, rhythm
  • active, passive mix. Need place for the eye to rest. But depends on overall aim of picture.
  • odd number groups – maybe we like to see things in pairs, so we look for completion? Variety in threes.

Rule of space: The rule of space aims to give the illusion of movement, or which is supposed to create a contextual bubble in the viewer’s mind. This can be achieved, for instance, by leaving white space in the direction the eyes of a portrayed person are looking, or, when picturing a runner, adding white space in front of them rather than behind them to indicate movement.

Other techniques that can act together:

  • There should be a centre of interest or focus in the work, to prevent it becoming a pattern in itself;
  • The direction followed by the viewer’s eye should lead the viewer’s gaze around all elements in the work before leading out of the picture;
  • The subject should not be facing out of the image;
  • Exact bisections of the picture space should be avoided;
  • Small, high contrast, elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements;
  • The prominent subject should be off-centre, unless a symmetrical or formal composition is desired, and can be balanced by smaller satellite elements
    the horizon line should not divide the art work in two equal parts but be positioned to emphasize either the sky or ground; showing more sky if painting is of clouds, sun rise/set, and more ground if a landscape
  • Variety: no spaces between the objects should be the same. They should vary in shape and size. That creates a much more interesting image.

Focal point:

  • staccato focal point: a small point or line that the viewer’s eye gravitates to
  • focal area: a specific area of colour or value

focus may be achieved by:

  • directing lines,/intersection of lines or implied lines,
  • contrast in colour, saturation, temperature,
  • texture, moves to areas of high density and detail.
  • shape or relation of shape to boundary, value. Isolation. rule of thirds.

A composition may have primary and secondary focus of interest. Not all images have to have a focal point or focal area. Or focal area may be large. Or there can be more than one and the interest is in the relationship between the two.

Eye movement

the aim is to keep the interest of the viewer and keep their attention in the frame.

  • types of path: C forms, S forms, I forms.
  • entry point, often in bottom left . Avoid splitting painting in two.
  • avoid leading eye into a corner, take it back in and around.
  • avoid trapping the eye in one part of the frame.
  • repeat colour spots. Linking lights, guiding darks and lights
  • let the brain fill the gaps.



  • de Sausmarez, M. (1964). Basic Design: The Dynamics of Visual Form. London: A&C Black.
  • Dow, A. W. (1997). Composition: A series of exercises in art structure for the use of students and teachers. California, USA: University of California Press.
  • Freeman, M. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye: composition and design for better digital photos. Lewes, East Sussex: ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2008). Mastering Digital Photography. Lewes, East Sussex: ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2010). The Photographer’s Mind: Creative thinking for better digital photos. Lewes, East Susse: ILEX.
  • Kandinsky, W. (1979). Point and Line to Plane. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Kandinsky, W. (1977). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Pipes, A. (2008). Foundations of Art and Design. London, UK: Laurence King Publishing.
  • Poore, H. R. (1967). Pictorial Composition, An Introduction. New York: Dover Publications Inc.
  • Roberts, I. (2007). Mastering composition: techniques and principles to dramatically improve your painting. Cincinnati, Ohio: Northlight Books.