More about composition: Visual Hierarchy

My interest in making art was very much awakened by museums and art history classes.  I just found the work so stunning and interesting that I had to do it myself. But I was not one who could just pick up a brush and play and come out the other end with something I liked. I was very confused by this because I loved art but I just hated the stuff I made. For this reason I really set out to learn what makes art or design… work.  I found the basic principles of art/design and this really gave me a way to understand what I was trying to do.  I am not trying, so much, to express a story or ideas with my work. Foremost, I am trying to make something I love to look at. And I want to share with you the ideas that I think about and try to use in that pursuit.  The last two posts were about Unity vs Variety, and Visual Weight. Now I want to go back to that Rauschenberg painting and talk about Visual Hierarchy.

So the idea with visual hierarchy, as I think of it in relation to art making, is about creating levels of dominance within your composition. There are major players, supporting players, background, and even some accents to liven things up.  Now, not all abstract art engages this principle, but Rauschenberg does in this picture and I think it is worth studying. Because often when you work in collage you just lay a bunch of stuff down that you like, and your picture is all boldness, all major players and maybe a few dead spots. How do you bring the whole picture to life, but create a sense of order that leads the eye on a fun and interesting journey?


Its good to think about a base or background that sets the stage. The beige and white set up a base layer for this painting. They are large, general shapes, not much detail. Into this I can imagine all the elements of the middle column going in, full strength. Also the word that’s next to our black “S” was originally, I am guessing, full contrast as well. That word is way too strong and dominates the painting so he pushes it back to mid-ground by painting over it with a transparent white. The same with the red “S”, it has been painted over with a brown/black glaze to bring down its contrast and intensity. The stars have also been toned down and their sharpness blunted by different overlapping strokes of paint.

So now, imagine that the middle column is mostly toned down and brown. Its a little dull. He has to bring back some excitement, so the light blue drips are painted in. They integrate the tie, echo the shapes in the skyline, and become a focal point, a foreground element.  (This is a good trick, when you can unify but also bring more interest). The piece of dark brown wood is a very interesting addition. You barely notice it at first, but the way it limits the chaos with its strong straight line, is very reassuring. From there we can move right to a field of creamy white that is calming and restful. The painting is still pretty monochromatic so he brings in bits of color, small strokes of yellow and green, to bring energy and interest to areas that would otherwise be too quiet. These accents draw the eye to explore that area of the painting.  These spots of color, in an otherwise muted painting, tend to connect, to form a ring that your eye follows, again, creating unity.

This business of emphasizing and de-emphasizing areas of your picture to create a unified and compelling work is really a very intuitive process, but I think this idea of levels of dominance can sometimes be a useful tool. Let me know what you think.

Happy Creating



Composition Ideas to Make Your Art Stronger: Visual Weight

In the last post I mentioned that when we explore Unity vs. Variety, it kind of leads us to looking at something called Visual Hierarchy. As I thought about it, maybe we should talk first about visual weight. The elements of your composition can be said to have different visual weights, that is, the heavier an element, the more the eye is drawn there, the lighter the element the more it is in the background.

Qualities that make elements heavy can be: High contrast, sharp edges, big, vibrant color, darker color, unusual/intricate shape, pattern.

Qualities that make element light are like: low contrast, soft edges, smaller, less distinctive shapes, muted colors, lighter colors, flat color.

One of the most fun parts of composition is balancing visual weight and activating the entire space of the picture. Lets look at one of my pieces since I actually know how it came together.

I began with a black and white design with a weird shape, some bold type, and some skewed black lines in the middle. There is some unity because of the color scheme.   The two pieces of text sort of connect from similarity in size and shape, color. The lower left corner is very heavy, with all the black, and the high contrast type. The lower right is less heavy. The middle bars of black, overlapping, is my favorite part. I like the balance of shapes and slants. The two upper corners feel bare without any reason. Sometimes negative space is balancing positive space and it completely works. But not here.


I did not take a bunch of shots in between, unfortunately, so please try to visualize this progression.

The first thing I wanted to do was get something in the upper half of the frame. Stripes make me happy so I pasted a patch of wobbly, hand painted black stripes. That got the piece moving. Then I decided the text was just too problematic so I covered the RD with a piece of sanded book cover. The KOO was then way too bold, but I liked those shapes, so I obscured it mostly with some cloth.

In the upper right corner I found a piece of black that could wrap around the corner (a nice relief from all the vertical rectangles) and I cut its inside corner to be rounded, and uneven. The curve connects, visually, to the black shape in the lower left creating more unity. The wobbliness of the cut contrasts the perfect straight lines and gives us more variety, thus energy.

So now the black is moving around the whole picture and making connections. But the picture still felt like it could have more life,  so I looked at adding color. The light aqua blue made that corner much more interesting than just the sanded book cover (most of which I covered, sorry I don’t have a picture to show you how dull it was!). There was also some dark red on my table that offset and energized the aqua even more. Paste it down!

My upper left corner was still a little weak so I repeated the red shape, in a different material. And now I was mostly done. I had a nice balance of darks and lights distributed over the picture, but not too evenly. A balance of materials, the odd shape here and there. But I kept noticing that hint of yellow in the sanded book cover and wanted just a bit more of it. The gold and black stripe arrived as a fun afterthought.


Notice that keyword “fun”.  Keeping this work fun is a great goal.  And as we are looking at design principles I want to caution everyone, myself especially, to not get overly uptight about them. They are guidelines and I think really helpful, but if they are all you have, your work feels empty and stuck. Use materials that are fun for you, colors you like, shapes and textures that give you a little buzz. The playful energy that you communicate in your work is really valuable to your audience. As adults, I at least, really want to return to the sense of abandon and naturalness we had as kids. A little adult design principles and a lot of childish playfulness is a good balance to aim for.

Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or thoughts about Visual Weight in your own work. Its great to hear from you.

Happy Creating,