This is a very VERY crude overview of the elements of composition and layout, but it will give us something to refer to til I get a proper set of guidlines together. When I first started it, I thought I could pull off at least most of it in a single post, but from the looks of it, over the next few weeks, it's gonna go at least 8 posts of extremely boring material to wade through, so...ummmm...have fun...
Composition and layout are very different things, but the same rules apply pretty much the same way to both. Composition has more to do with arranging elements in a visually pleasing way that makes the viewer want to look at something, and then guides the viewer's eye through a process of "reading" the image the way we want them to. Layout is the exact placement of elements in a very specific and precise arrangement for some appropriate reason. You could probably think of what you do with a bunch of things in your mind to turn them into a successful piece of art as composition, and a layout as the accurate placement sketch that you create to guide yourself.
Composition is more singularly a visual process dealing with one image--A painting, A drawing, AN illustration, etc.--with a bunch of stuff in it arranged to form a greater whole. Layout is more appropriately an advertising term that usually involves making a pleasant arrangement out of very different elements that you probably have no real further control over, such as an illustration, a headline, a mess of body copy and some other bits and pieces that all have to work somehow together. Composition pulls you into a painting or illustration and guides you to the important bits through subtle clues and guides. Layout tries to force you to scan a surface in a specific way so that certain things are read or seen before others, and literally may violate some basic rules of classic composition to pull this off.
Let's stay with the advertising layout thing here for minute because there are a couple of things that can help us when we're dealing with our compositions...
How people look at something is pretty much determined by how they read. Got that? Here's how...
Because we read from top to bottom, left to right, our eye goes automatically to the UPPER LEFT area FIRST, and if it doesn't find anything there, it goes to the UPPER RIGHT, then down to the LOWER LEFT, and last, to the LOWER RIGHT. This all happens in a split second unconsciously, and then we do it all over again on the next printed page or piece of art we look at. If you come from a different culture, this changes slightly. For example, Hebrew and the Arabic languages read right to left, then down the page. Classic Japanese and Chinese is stacked vertically and reads starting at the right, then down a column and back up to the top of the second column and so on (Ironically, even though a page reads right to left in Japan, if the text is set horizontally "English-style," it reads left to right line by line.) These reading patterns automatically set up a series of "hot spots" within the page we're looking at that look kind of like this...
VISUAL HOT SPOTS CREATED BY READER SCANNING HABITS
This "reader scanning" habit has traditionally been adapted to visual composition in a couple of different ways--the three-three grid, and the corner grid. They look like this and where the lines intersect (circles) are pretty close to where the average viewer will look first unless something else overpowers that urge. The first one that looks like a tic-tac-toe game is actually called "The Rule of Thirds," and is used by many artists to remind themselves NOT to bisect the canvas by placing the horizon or some other obvious break through the center of the painting, but to keep it close to one of the lines instead. The actual points are approximately where the viewer, because of his reading habits, will tend to glance first, second, etc.
This can give us a clue as to where to place important parts of our art. If a face or some other element that's important to the image falls within a fraction of an inch of one of these "hot spots," it's almost guaranteed to be noticed as long as there isn't something more powerful visually distracting us.
This refers to the overall appearance of the piece... Is it symmetrical? Asymmetrical? Ready to fall on its face in the mud. Am I gonna go to sleep lookin' at this thing, or have a nervous breakdown from the tension it inspires?
The first thing to worry about is that there is a rule never to put something dead center in your painting. Literally. Actually, there's nothing wrong with putting it there, but it should be cheated up towards the top a bit. "How come?" they ask. Because if you don't, it looks like its too far down on the page. It's an optical illusion that can really hurt a piece, and it's what causes amateurs who take pictures to shoot the person's head dead center, then wonder why everybody is so far to the bottom with all that sky above them.
I have a piece of japanese advertising art here that is actually a symmetrical composition, but if you look carefully, the one girl's eye is almost exactly in the center HORIZONTALLY, and it's there because the artist is using that eye to draw us into the art...positive proof that the rule to not smack things in the center is not always a good rule to follow slavishly.
If you put a strong element going up the center of the art that is pretty much balanced on both sides (like a human standing figure, a tall building, or a graceful tree, etc.), with an equal amount of weight on both sides in the background, you have a symmetrical composition. Move part of it to a funny place and you have an asymmetrical composition (A). This can be done for a reason, usually to increase the "tension" of the piece, but at the expense of overall balance sometimes. (B) is the same image, but moved slightly to the left so the entire page is more in balance, which many people would find more appealing. The other option is to add a third element to return the image more-or-less to "symmetry" (C).
Overall balance is not only determined by the shape and position of the elements within your piece. Color, texture and value all have a greater impact than you might think. For example, the samples below are all pretty much in balance, even though the elements (if they were in solid black) would seem to indicate they shouldn't be. The intensity of the color/value of some of the elements gives them more impact than normal, and a texture that is obvious enough can act as a mass unto itself and counter-balance a tremendous amount of visual weight
Contrast is probably the single most important thing to learn to control in a piece of art. Either too much or too little variation in value can overpower all the other elements and turn the piece into a disjointed erratic pattern or murky piece of mud-smeared toast. Contrast and values determines what part of the art is the background, middle and foreground, as well as what the important elements are that we should be paying attention to. It can be subtle when we need it, and hard-edged and in your face when necessary. Low contrast elements all done in light low-punch colors give a feeling of tranquility and peace usually, and low value darks and muted color often conveys a feeling of moodiness or even terror. It's possible, and sometimes fun, to switch these two arrangements and shock the viewer a bit. A pastel werewolf with his victim in a bright sunny "Norman Rockwell" meadow full of flowers would be a real mind bender...
These are some very basic examples of a pattern of circles that go from bland "wallpaper" to something at least a bit more exciting just by controlling the values (or adding a spot of color).
Here's an exquisite little illustration I picked up a few years ago (artist unknown) that literally depends on values and contrast for it's impact, and it's also a near perfect example of the Rule of Three I mentioned above. Your eye goes exactly where the artist wanted it to--the face--something hard to pull off when your subject is missing most of her clothes...
And here's another of a young lady and her cat that is a nearly perfect example of a symmetrical composition that actually depends on the contrast between the carefully placed shadows and the primary figure, and subtle color shadings to make it work. This is the goal you're working toward--whether you use black and white or color.
MOVEMENT AND LINE
RHYTHM AND ACTION