Print Picks: Picture This

by Taylor Slattery | January 22, 2021

Print Picks - Picture This

Composition is a divisive subject matter. Whether through dynamic symmetry used by the likes of Andrew Loomis, or the hidden usage of the golden ratio by the old masters, there are many schools of thought as to how it should be approached. Many have dissected the works of the great masters, attempting to uncover their inner workings and discover some secret knowledge behind their success. Part of what makes composition so complex is that it can also be deceptively simple, so much so that children can do it without much thought at all. Ask an adult why they’ve chosen an arrangement and they may give you a number of reasons to justify their choices, but ask a child, and you’ll receive a much simpler answer. They placed things where they did simply because they felt like it.

Whether a composition is born from intuition or diligent planning, the goal is the same, to have an emotional impact upon the viewer. And it’s from this unique angle that Molly Bang explores composition in her book, Picture This: How Pictures Work. Rather than rigid adherence to an underlying structure based on math, like those often taught in more traditional approaches to composition, Bang attempts to demystify the subject by examining its effects from a purely abstract viewpoint.

Using simple geometric shapes, and limiting herself to a palette of only 4 colors, Bang demonstrates how simple manipulations of even crude shapes can have a profound emotional impact on the way viewers perceive an image. With one of its sides planted firmly on the ground plane, a triangle feels strong and stable, but rotate it slightly and suddenly it feels dynamic as if caught in mid-motion. Even something as simple as placing an object in the top half of the image rather than the bottom can make the composition feel weightless and free rather than heavy and constrained.

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Bang explores how we as the viewer treat the image both as an extension of our world and a world in and of itself. This relationship between viewer and image can be exploited for emotional effect. Viewers self insert into the composition, so arranging shapes in a way that calls to memory feelings and experiences rooted in our interactions with the world is an effective way to tap into the psyche of the viewer and the raw emotional potential within.

Once the compositional principles have been thoroughly defined using abstract shapes, Bang provides some practical examples highlighting the principles in some of her own work. Bang’s examples come from her illustrated children’s book, When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry, which features a simple style of illustration. Her examples demonstrate the strength and flexibility of the previously outlined principles and their ability to lend themself to different styles of image-making.

If you struggle with composition or are looking to understand the emotional components of image-making, be sure to give Picture This a read.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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