Composition: A Definition Proposal Using Patterns

Rule of thirds in portrait
Rule of thirds in portrait

We’ve heard the term «composition» all around in Visual Arts, such as painting, drawing or photography. Composition in those disciplines is about the content, or the design of the content, in the visual piece. It’s about the elements within the image, their positions, and their relations. But what interest us is not to describe empirically this content, but the aesthetic «rules» of the disposition of the subjects within it. What are the rules or principles of a good composition? What are the design patterns of the composition? I plan to write several posts about the subject, following some traditional advises along with my own experiences in painting, drawing and photographing. Let’s start with de description format I will adopt to draw the «design patterns» of visual images.

The use of the word «rule» referring to patterns doesn’t mean that they are laws that must be enforced. In this, I made the concession to tradition. When I use the term «rule», I mean the «guideline» or de solution description of the pattern.

Pattern Language and Design Patterns

I will use a similar definition that was used by famous architect Christopher Alexander under the term «pattern language», followed later by the term «design pattern», coined in the canonical book Design Patterns. A «pattern language» or a «design pattern» is a way to describe a good practice in a discipline. It’s one of the definitive structures of the «secrets of the trade», with a phrase-name, that allow us to enclose in one short term a complete set of proven knowledge.

Technically, there are differences between both terms. A language pattern is the vocabulary, the syntax, the morphological structures, the grammar we use to describe the practice or element, while the design patterns are the instances of the patterns themselves. It’s the same distinction we used between a language or idiom, with the speech we articulate using that idiom. Obviously, there are mutual dependencies between them, because the instances—the design patterns—create the vocabulary corpus of the language, transforming it, materializing it. But also, the instanced patterns, the «words» and their relations are based on the rules of the pre-established pattern language.

While the corpus of patterns increase, new vocabulary emerges, and new sentences or complex structures could be developed and build. In computer programming is very common to hear discussions like this: «let’s do some factory methods, to instantiate the façades and commands for the controllers». An experienced programmer should know by heart what all that phrase means, and could implemented as it is said. An ambitious goal should be to use similar expressions to accomplish a photography task.

Pattern description format

To describe a pattern I will use the following layout:

  • The pattern name
  • The problem statement or question the pattern must solve or answer
  • The visual elements or structure that represents the framework of the solution
  • The guideline, rule phrase, description or solution, that solves the problem or answer the question
  • The technical, exposure requirements, implementation
  • The concrete examples

Those items should describe basically what it’s a good guideline, rule or practice in visual arts. The name is very useful to point directly in a short phrase or word all the concepts the pattern encloses. The problem or question is the context that inspires the pattern solution. What is the pattern for? What it tries to solve or answer?

The concept of visual elements or structure is more difficult to describe. All compositional patterns refer to visual content. Then, all the pattern structure is supported by visual elements that are directly present in the image or implicit, supporting it.

The description of the pattern is the proposed solution or answer to the problem we face. The description or «rule» is the explanation of the solution of the pattern. Remember that the use of the term «rule» is only by tradition and convenience. The solutions aren’t laws, but guidelines or mechanisms to solve common visual problems.

The technical, or exposure implementation, should describe the best options or requirements to achieve the goals of the pattern. It will concern about depth-of-field, freezing or showing motion, and the image quality in general.

I will use mainly photographs examples as the main source for implementations and concrete instances.

Let’s see one example:

  • Pattern Name: Rule of thirds
  • Problem or question: What is the main elements-distribution guideline to avoid static, dull, too symmetrical, visual compositions?
  • Visual elements: A grid of equally distributed parallel horizontal lines, crossed by two similar vertical lines on four points, marks the ideal positions of the visual elements in a picture.
  • Solution: Put the subjects of the image under one of the cross marks, or distribute the content using the planes formed by the parallel lines.
  • Technical implementation: As a general rule, this pattern have a wide field of action. There is no good or bad aperture or shutter speed. But, take into account that if the distribution of content in planes or crossed points comprises distance between subjects it is required a closed aperture as f/8 or more.

Secrets of the trade

If you have read some of my previous post about the subject, I’m a true believer of using the pattern structure as a learning tool. They register knowledge in a simple format that can be understood, remembered and transmitted easily. You might, as a conscious effort, to re-structure any discipline in the patterns that describe the good, mastered, proven practices. Then, you build a whole body of knowledge as capsules you can refer in your speech, store them, and communicate to your peers.

An important note is that the patterns aren’t mutually exclusives. The use of a pattern doesn’t exclude the use of many other patterns. However, there are patterns that are opposites. Also you must treat the patterns as guidelines alternatives: you don’t have to select all of them, or use them as axioms. The selection of a pattern depends mostly on the visual genre and content you want to convey or display.

 

 

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