Demystifying composition

By Brett Barker

“Composition” has become a somewhat controversial subject in the art quilting world, and in the art world in general. From artists who espouse precise compositional “formulas” to those who say they do no composing, designing solely by intuition, ideas about composition run the gamut of experience. It’s hard for a quilter to know what to believe or where to begin.

Let’s start with some definitions. Webster describes composition as “the artistic arrangement of the parts of a picture.” I also like their alternate definition, “a thing composed of various elements.” When I teach quilters, I say that composition is “the arrangement of line, shape, and color.” This is the definition Katie Pasquini Masopust and I used in our book, Color and Composition for the Creative Quilter. We then described nine different ways that a quilt can be composed. While I have found this to be an extremely easy and useful way to create an art quilt, I have now expanded my definition to include the ways in which composition requires both intellect and intuition.

When beginning an art quilt, the artist (that’s YOU!) first has an idea or concept that he or she wishes to communicate through art. Then the “thinking” begins — how will you translate this idea into a quilt? Right from the beginning, you are confronted with a series of questions or problems to solve. What size and proportion will best fit the idea? How will the space be divided? How will the elements fit within the arrangement? How can balance, movement, and variety be incorporated? How can the idea be communicated in a clear and harmonious way?

When I first sit down to create a piece, I like to simplify these questions; otherwise, I get so bogged down in the formal considerations (the “stuff” I learned in art school) that I can hardly get started! There are numerous approaches for artists to explore; however, I recommend “playing around” with only one approach at a time. It is a great way to master composition without becoming overwhelmed.

One approach is to consider composition as a mixture of right and left-brain thinking, or your intellect coupled with your instinct. Almost everyone has a good sense of intuitive composition. Think about how you arrange your furniture, how you choose and arrange flowers, even how you “doodle” when talking on the phone. When teaching art to children, I often notice they have an intuitive sense about what should go where and how elements should be put together to form a cohesive whole. It’s only later that we talk ourselves out of our instinctual sense of good design. So how do you keep this “gut instinct” alive while composing?

The answer is counter to what you might believe: by knowing and understanding some basic tenets of good design, you are then free to compose more intuitively. These tenets should be thought of not as rules, but as guidelines for good design.

The first thing I do when preparing for an art quilt, thread painting, or mixed media piece is to freely sketch out my elements, such as a face, a tree, or a flower, without any thought about the composition as a whole. This refines my idea about what I want in the piece and helps me decide how to divide the space later. I draw my elements several times and in several different ways (think DaVinci’s notebook). Often my first rendering is not my best; it is only after I’ve sketched an element four or five times that my idea becomes clear. If you compose on the computer, save each version as you go. Once my central elements have been more clearly defined, I move on to think about my format.

The square is a compositional format that has been used throughout the ages. This symmetrical format was used extensively during the Renaissance and continues to this day. It produces a strong center of interest; if you have an element that you want to stand out, to be given primary emphasis, consider using a square format.

Most 2-D artworks follow a rectangular format. This is an easy-on-the eye arrangement that people all over the world respond to. However, consider modifying this often-used shape. What if you greatly elongated the rectangle? What if you put together a series of rectangles, either horizontally or vertically? Finally, if your idea or main elements are unusual, you might want to consider an even more radical format. What about an oval quilt? A circular piece? An amorphous shape? Whatever you choose, think about how your idea, your sketched-out elements, will be incorporated into your format.

After I have my central idea and my format, I start to think about how I will divide my space within the chosen format. This is where most artists get bogged down. From scientific arrangements such as the Golden Mean, to dynamic symmetry, to modern graphic designs, there are a million different ways to consider this important aspect of art creation. When teaching, I often rely on a simple 9-patch of compositional arrangements in order to divide space. This is a good place to begin, offering ease and great results. However, I also teach artists to divide their space freely, without too much thought. The easiest way to do this is to draw your format, say, a rectangle, several times on paper. Then divide each rectangle with 5-7 straight lines.

Finally, simply choose the one you like the best. This sounds “too easy” to many people, but it often yields fantastic results. I also recommend looking at The Graphic Design Cookbook by Koren and Meckler. This book is an excellent resource of copyright-free space divisions and although it is primarily used in graphic design, I find it produces beautiful results for fine artists as well. No matter how you choose to achieve your compositional structure, I find that in many cases, the simpler, more straightforward designs work extremely well as opposed to a copied or contrived arrangement. Trust yourself and allow your innate sense of composition to shine through.