Draw Better: Symmetry and Composition

Hi Guys! So today I’m talking about drawing. This is the first post of a series, in which I hope to give you tips that will help you control your medium, hone your skills, and produce more effective, convincing, and intentional works of art! I’m only going to cover one topic per post however, so keep coming back to learn more.

The subject up for grabs right now is composition. This is a humongous topic, so we’re going to attempt to simplify it for everyone.  It’s easy to see a composition and be like, “Oh yeah! that’s beautiful,” or “Wow, so cool … ” The problem for most of us is that when we look at our own work, we seem to have a disconnect between what we know looks good and producing those kind of results. Let’s be honest, most people wouldn’t hang their own work on their fridge, let alone their walls. So how can we tackle this?

Well, first, it’s important to know that there area few kinds of compositions. The first is formal symmetry, in which everything is the same on either side or on the top and bottom. In other words, one half of the image mirrors the other exactly.

an example of strict formal symmetry

The next kind is approximate symmetry, this is what most people do without really putting much thought into an image. The reason, is the focal point is usually directly in the center, and the easiest way for the brain to balance the image is to make both sides about the same, and the brain wants what it wants, so the hand follows. While this technique can and often is used to create beautiful and intelligent imagery, it is also the default composition for beginning artists because they haven’t appropriated the tools necessary create effective compositions not using symmetry.

an example of approximate symmetry

The next kind of composition is known as radial symmetry. In this type of image,the composition is based on a wheel. If you were to turn the paper the image would be the same in all directions from the center outward, think snowflake or wagon wheel. Those are both based on radial symmetry. These are often used in designing patterns, or embellishments, especially in architecture, or graphic design.

an example of radial symmetry

The fourth type of composition we are talking about is patterns or crystallographic symmetry. These are shapes or groups of shapes that repeat over and over again, creating a grid-like structure.This is ideal for decorating a flat surface. In design, if you use this kind of symmetry, it will make a 2D object more obviously flat instead of lending to the illusion of depth and weight or being “3D”. This technique again is often used in graphic design, in the development of textiles, flooring, and pretty much any art-form that utilizes a flat surface that a person wants to liven up but still appear flat.

An example of crystallographic symmetry

Now we are going to talk about asymmetry. This type of composition uses a blend of methods throughout the image to achieve a sense of balance. That balance can be dynamic or stable, depending on the composition choices.

An example of asymmetrical balance

The above picture is a famous piece by Vincent Van Gogh. This example, is asymmetrical, yet is balanced. We have a sense of equal weight on all sides as well as a comfortable space. How is this achieved? Well, we have on the right, two large trees in the mid-ground, which immediately grab out attention, but they sit up high, so even though they bear the most weight in the image, the eye wants they be feel lower and more grounded. By slowly lightening the green and creating a flow of shapes that guide the viewer down the slope and farther into the image, the viewer feels as though they on a solid surface. The bright blue and white sky acts in a contrasting way to the yellow grass and dark green trees providing approximately equal space of sky on the left as there is ground on the right. All these elements are combined masterfully to create a sense of space, balance, and movement within the piece, making it truly successful.

In an asymmetrical design, the process becomes more intuitive and intentional. This is where many artists struggle. It feels as there are these invisible laws that cannot be broken or their design will be rendered ugly and useless. While, yes, there are definitely “rules”, we should look at them as though we are pirates. They’re more like guidelines… really. No, really, they are.

In fact, the “rules of design” as they are called, rely on preconceived ideas about reality. They rely on gravity, light, color, line, flow, movement, and a myriad of other things that feel true to human perception. When we create a design that seems appears to violate rules of physics, we feel there is something wrong with the design. From here on things get a by more psychological. See, taking it a step further beyond our perception of physics and its assumed connection to art, we have to look to psychology. This is where in art we move into nuances of moods, feelings, and meaning. Placement of objects in space, the colors we assign them, object relationships, even lighting in the image, as well as flow and texture, all influence how we feel about an image. The perception of the physics occurring in the image, as well as the design elements mood and message,  should all line up with the goals of the artist in a harmonious way. When these things have all been achieved, then the artist has successfully created an intentional composition.

You might be asking, “But what do physics and psychology really have to do with art?” Well, grasshopper, all art, is technically an illusion. It creates a representation of something else. Why we connect physics and psychology to art is because, the brain is constantly attempting to make sense of the information it takes in based on its understanding of reality, which is where physics and psychology become important. Even in abstract art, the artist considers light, weight, balance, color, depth, and flow while creating their work. Certainly, on occasion an artist will “break” a rule, but it is ALWAYS for a reason. If an object doesn’t cast a shadow, there should be a reason. If a person has blue skin, there should be a reason. If a box is floating above the ground, there is a reason. Sometimes the reasons for these things are compositional, sometimes, they are metaphoric, sometimes, they are arbitrary and just because, hey, why not. But in any case, they are occurring intentionally, and are sending an intended message to the viewer.

So are you intimidated yet? Don’t be! This process is intentional, but it is also intuitive. The best way to solve problems as they arise is to start with good bones. Assign a general composition with the key components of your piece in mind. And remember to take frequent steps back throughout the process. Everyone wants to skip this process. They will say, “but I can see the whole thing from here”, or “I work best when I’m on a roll”. Well, slow your roll homeboy. You’re working yourself into a failed design. Yep, I said failure. Some professors will tell you there is no wrong in art. But there is. If you go at something without proper evaluation, you are setting yourself up to fail. It IS possible to make bad art. And you know what, anyone who’s ever drawn a picture has done it. The best way to avoid it is to take breaks throughout the process, come back, and evaluate the composition. Are the lines too bold, the apples too close together, the top of the head too close to the edge of the page? Well my friend don’t give up. But do fix it. An image is only as good as its weakest element. If you have a beautiful portrait, but didn’t plan properly and the head is cropped awkwardly at the top, then the image is still a poor one. that’s bad art. Yes, I’m speaking from experience. Never be afraid to start over if you need to. Perseverance makes art great!

Here is a link to a brief overview of what I talked about in the article.

Draw Better: Symmetry and Composition




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