Design- The Element of Success

Analyzing Composition in Artwork- Elements & Principles of Design

“No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.”

~Claude Monet

So often I find my fellow artists hitting barriers within their artwork. Barriers that have nothing to do with their talents or abilities,but rather in their understanding of compostion. Within its elements & principles of design its effect on the viewer can be either amplified, or muted. No matter how perfectly rendered an image, exquisitely detailed, or ideal a concept, without a solid understanding and application of these design elements and principles, the artist misses out on an opportunity to really capture its viewer, and keep them engaged. One of the most important parts of creating a work of art! (in my opinion)

Before we go into how to apply certain principles and elements of design within your own work, it’s always a good idea to start looking around at art that you find appealing, analyzing its successful elements. You’ll soon find that there are no accidents, when it comes to the hierarchy of visual design & composition. The fact that you can spend more than a few seconds, minutes, even hours looking at a certain drawing, painting or photograph- has to do with a pattern that subconsciously our eyes pursue. A invisible current that keeps our gaze traveling around the image to various focal points and markers, as we attempt to make sense of the whole (I’d recommend also studying Gestalt Theory ) Should our gaze torpedo out of the frame, due to a design flaw, we have already lost our audience. A good place to start formal analysis is to look at a work of art and take note of how your eye moves around the object. Where does your eye go first, and why were you attracted to that part of the image? What colors, textures, and shapes appear in the image? What did the artist include in the composition to guide your eye or to direct your gaze to a certain part of the image?

I want to show you that breaking down the composition of any photograph/drawing/painting can be accomplished by understanding the 7 elements of visual design (Line, Shape, Texture, Space, Size, Value and Color) and the 5 principles used to properly apply those elements: Balance, Contrast, Emphasis, Rhythm and Unity. I’ve included these quick reference sheets – that are easy to print and keep around for inspiration (very good for graphic designing). I’ve also included a more generic breakdown image. You can click on each image to download a high res version.

Posters from

Prior to beginning this critique, I’d like to mention, although photography is not in my specific area of study, I continually find myself inspired by the photography works of Gregory Crewdson. There is something urethral and eerie about his photography that encompasses what an entire roll of film would- in just one shot. His photos burst with emotion & drama, and then implode with a surreal story of alienation and disconnect- like an event horizon in a cinematic sense.

Let’s first talk about some specific design elements & principles that I feel are the strongest with this composition: Contrast, Isolation (space), Texture, the Golden Ratio (balance) and Repetition (pattern & rhythm)- to better understand their significance.

This one particular image that I chose is one of my favorites from his Brief Encounters collection.

(As a Good Example)


Contrast: My first read into a focal point brings me to the woman’s face, although it is not the brightest tone within the image, the juxtaposition of her pale skin surrounded by the dark water brings my eyes to her detailed expression. The dark water pulls your gaze down, but the bright figure is almost floating as in the air- so this tension in value adds to the emotion of the photo. The horizontal format of the image contributes to this eerily tranquil moment, a moment that is heavily in contrast with the dingy/flooded room.

Isolation: As the woman is floating her overall shape is cropped, with hues reflecting off her white dress like that off of a halogen light- it isolates her from the rest of the composition – that is warmer in tone.

Golden Ratio & Repetition: Is being applied again, within the main focal point- the woman’s face. This perpetuates the movement throughout the image, moving to the contrasting of shapes/colors on the table, following the lines of the couch cushioning, to the verticals of the books on the shelves, and through the implied direction/rhythm of the picture frames, down following the natural light reflecting off the water. (I’ve included a photo of some marking I made- the white is the Golden Sectioning, and the red show how the repetition of vertical rectangles that continue the rhythm)

The Texture & Implied feel also plays a big part in this photo. It engages me to really feel the moment. The water is dark, matte, and looks cold- the woman is almost blue- it must be cold! But she still remains so calm. The velvet couches and chair are soaking up the water like sponges. The warm sunlight glistens on the meticulously placed lamp, clock and vase.

Other aspects of design- Negative shapes: the dark water to the bottom of the image reflects ever so slightly the light from the room and balances in the complexity of the room.


Once you have an understanding of how to analyze art, you are then well prepared to put theory into practice by making/revising your own artwork based on the principles and elements of design. No matter if you are a sculpture, painter or graphic designer, learning how to analyze art will help you compose a more professional work of art. One that will engage and inspire your viewer in new and exciting ways!

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