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Essentials of Image Composition

Entire art movements, countless books, endless lectures, and numerous courses of study have addressed the laws, rules, guidelines, and reasoning of good image composition. Digital compositing relies on and combines design principles from painting and drawing, graphic design and typography, photography and filmmaking, and sculpture and 3D modeling. The best way to learn the fundamental design principles is to take classes in a variety of the listed concentrations and to look at many different types of art.

Image making is the art of creating visual relationships, which the viewer can conceptualize and appreciate. Many of these concepts rely on how our visual perception system perceives and processes information:

  • Our eyes move from dark to light. Lightening the important aspects of an image and darkening the less important will guide the viewer’s eye through the image. Avoid light splotches near the edge of the image frame, because they will draw the viewer’s eye out of the image.
  • Our eyes move from soft to sharp. Use selective softening and sharpening with layers and layer masks to focus on important image areas more than unimportant ones.
  • Our eyes move away from less detail to more detail. To attract a viewer’s eye, enhance or add detail and texture.
  • Our eyes are attracted to color. By reducing color in less essential image areas, our eyes will not dwell on them for very long.

The next time you are in a gallery or looking at an art book, relax your eyes a bit and notice how they move through an image. Do they keep coming back to the subject? Or do they “fall” out of the frame because the edge of the image is too light? Noticing how your eyes look at an image is a useful exercise for appreciating image composition.

Creating Visual Relationships

Sometimes we stare at the screen and spend countless hours moving layers and objects around; other times the images seem to flow together and find the right placement almost on their own. Working intuitively is the result of practice and confidence in your visual abilities.

Understanding the following elements of composition will help you create images that viewers will appreciate more easily.


The position of an image element in relation to the overall image, other elements, and the frame plays a role in the perceived value of the element. Placing subjects off center, for example, creates a pleasing visual tension that lets the viewer’s eye move through the image and return to the subject.

You can create visual tension by placing subjects just within kissing distance of one another, which makes the space between the two vibrate with an intriguing relationship. You can also use the frame of the image as part of the composition. In the poster for the opera Mourning Becomes Electra (Figure 12.61), digital collage artist Diane Fenster placed the arms close together, but not touching, and in a way that breaks the frame, leading the viewer’s eye directly to the bottle of poison. Because of the resulting visual tension and the subject matter, there’s no question that this opera is not a lighthearted romp.

Figure 12.61

Figure 12.61. In this poster for the opera Mourning Becomes Electra, the layer and framing draws your eye into the scene.© Diane Fenster


The size of the image element connotes importance—larger subjects are more important than smaller ones. Size can also convey spatial relationships, because smaller objects recede. Overlapping, repeating, and varying the size of objects are all exciting image composition schemes with which to experiment.

One approach to sizing elements that can produce interesting results is exaggerating their size relationships. Think of the visual tension that images from Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels have. Alice can barely fit into the house, and Gulliver is tied down by hundreds of Lilliputians. These examples play with our perception of reality and are intriguing because they bring into question what we know and feel to be real (Figure 12.62).

Figure 12.62

Figure 12.62. By exaggerating the size of objects, you can create surreal scenes that play with your perception of reality.© SD

Shape and form

Two-dimensional attributes, from mechanical geometric to natural abstract, define the shape of an object. The more unusual the shape, the more our eyes are attracted to it. Whenever you separate a subject from its environment, you draw attention to it. Use layer and vector masks to refine the shape and flatter the image composition.

Form is the dimensional quality of an image. You can insinuate depth using shadow, lighting, and perspective to add dimension to the subjects in the image.

Figure 12.63, an image by Lyn Bishop, is based on shape, texture, and color. Gyotaku is the ancient Japanese folk art of creating fish rubbings. Gyo means fish, taku means rubbing. In Japan, gyotaku is practiced by anglers to make a record of their catch. Lyn’s piece “Talking Fish” plays off this ancient artform. Initially, Lyn began the piece traditionally by inking the fish with sumi ink and then tried to make a print impression onto thin washi paper. She was unhappy with the results after repeated tries, so she washed the ink off the fish and scanned it instead. As Lyn explains, “The simple act of scanning the fish created surprising color and intriguing textures in the fish.”

Figure 12.63

Figure 12.63. Repeating and contrasting shapes add to the visual interest in this collage.© Lyn Bishop

Texture and details

The surface quality of an image or subject can add tremendous visual interest to an image, and we enjoy looking at the details, as shown in an opera poster for Percival by Diane Fenster (Figure 12.64).

Figure 12.64

Figure 12.64. The variety of color, details, texture, and lines creates an intriguing visual construction for the viewer.© Diane Fenster

Subjects that are too smooth and perfect seem artificial, cold, and computery. Adding texture mimics natural media, such as painting, drawing, and even photography, where the film grain or flaws like light leaks and uneven exposure can be an integral aspect of the image.


Making less important image areas softer and more important ones sharper focuses the viewer’s attention on the sharper of the two, as shown in Figure 12.65.

Figure 12.65

Figure 12.65. The soft background contrasts beautifully with the texture of the woman’s skirt.© Maggie Taylor

By blurring the background, Maggie Taylor pushes it further back, which in turn brings your eye to the woman in the foreground. Our visual system is a comparative one, so by softening less important image areas, the sharper ones will look even sharper as the contrast between soft and sharp is accentuated.

Negative space

The space of the image is defined by the object’s shape, size, and placement. But just as important is the space that is not full—also referred to as the negative space—because it sets the stage for the subject. Negative space supports the image and allows the eye to leave the subject, rest for a moment, and find its way back to the subject. For this reason, the negative space, or background, should not compete with the subject.

In graphic design, negative space is often a blank white surface; in compositing, it is more likely to be a blurred photograph or a subtle color or texture.

Figure 12.66, another beautiful image by Maggie Taylor, makes wonderful use of negative space. The seemingly empty space of the sky on the right carries the small butterfly that the figure on the ladder is watching. Notice how your eye moves back and forth between the two? That is good use of negative space and visual tension.

Figure 12.66

Figure 12.66. Empty space can be just as important as the subject.© Maggie Taylor

Tone and color

The tone of an image is the value from black to white. Our eyes are attracted to contrast, but too much contrast results in loss of shadow and highlight detail, and can become tedious to view. To quickly see how the tonal values of your composite are working, add a Black & White adjustment layer (Figure 12.67). Leave this layer at the top of your layer stack, and turn it on and off to see how the tonal values of your image are working.

Figure 12.67

Figure 12.67. Check the tonality of your image using a Black & White adjustment layer.© Mark Beckelman

Color is one of the most essential imaging attributes with which we work. Full of cultural, psychological, and emotional references, color can attract or repel a viewer’s eye. Too much color or chaotic use of color is deemed incomprehensible, and too little color is deemed unstimulating by our visual system.

Color is a three-dimensional entity and is broken down into the following:

  • Hue. The color an object is—red, green, chartreuse, and so on
  • Saturation. How much color there is
  • Luminosity. How light or dark the color is

Colors can contrast or harmonize, and the best way to learn about color is to take a painting class. It was during Katrin’s early attempts to paint that she first saw and appreciated how color bounces from the environment into the subject and varies from shadow to highlight. French Impressionist Claude Monet studied the ways that colors interact, which is reflected in a series of haystacks he painted in 1890 and in a series of the Rouen Cathedral he painted in 1894, which shows the façade changing color and character, depending on the change of seasons, weather, and times of day.

Lines and grids

A line connects two points and is often employed as a graphical or typographic element that leads the eye through an image. Lines can vary in length, width, texture, direction, and curve. They can be one of five varieties: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved, and zigzag.

Dividing an image into a grid creates an “image in an image” effect, as shown in Figure 12.68, in which Julieanne Kost explores the artifacts of memory. The shadowed dimension that Julieanne added to the image suggests that the image may have been folded and carried in someone’s pocket for a long time.

Figure 12.68

Figure 12.68. The balanced grid structures the image harmoniously and creates the look of a much folded memory.© Julieanne Kost

Creating a Body of Work

Creating one good image in Photoshop is easy; creating two or three more takes a bit of effort; and creating an entire body of work is the sign of a true artist.

A body of work is a series of images that form a coherent collection signified by a unity of theme and subject matter. It is a thorough artistic investigation of an idea, concept, perception, or style. Visual signifiers, such as the format, size, color palette, style, output media, and technique, are all used to tie a series together. Artists may create a body of work over a short period of time or over the course of a lifetime as they veer in and out of artistic inspiration.

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