How to See Linear Composition in Art

Linear composition is one of the main tools used by artists to create works that are visually pleasing. And it’s not just limited to traditional art – photography, architecture, interior design and graphic design all borrow this technique.

There are 3 main types of linear composition: The grid, diagonals and curvilinear. Here’s a small crash course on each.

1. The Grid

You probably know that a steady beat or rhythm is used to compose any piece of music. That basic “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” count is one of the first things you’re taught when you learn an instrument. The evenly-timed cadence is pleasing to the ear.

Your eye works in much the same way. Just as a composer or musician uses beat and rhythm to divide sound, an artist uses vertical and horizontal lines of a grid to divide a visual space because equal divisions of space are pleasing to the eye.

Let’s use Georges Seurat’s famous Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as an example.

What makes this painting so remarkable is the grid composition underpinning the placement of all of the elements. To the casual observer, the scene looks like randomly-placed people, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s start by overlaying 3 vertical lines, dividing the painting up into 4 equal parts:

The vertical lines show the woman in red is purposefully placed in the center, giving us the focal point of the painting. The line on the left is used to place the tree and provide a compositional guide for the placement of the men sitting on the ground. Also take note of how the right vertical line is used to place both the couple in the foreground and the couple walking off in the distance.

In this painting, Seurat ultimately divided the painting up into twelve parts. Look closely and see if you can spot all of the elements and edges that fall along these lines:

But we’re not quite finished. Not only can the space from left to right be divided, we can also find horizontal lines of composition. Again, pay attention to the elements that are placed along these equally-spaced lines:

And here’s the complete grid overlay:

2. Diagonals

The second type of compositional line is the diagonal, the two most common lie from the top left corner to the bottom right corner and from the bottom left corner to the top right. Any square or rectangle naturally has this X composition and you’ll see artists throughout history employ it.

But the natural X isn’t always the strongest compositional line, as we’ll see in Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware:

Washington Crossing the Delaware has one of the most iconic lines of composition in all of American painting, uniting Washington and the American flag in a dramatic effect:

This single diagonal dominates the composition of the painting. The line runs through the staff of the flag, provides a compositional placement for Washington (almost like he’s sitting on this diagonal) and then terminates where the paddle hits the water at the edge of the painting.

A secondary diagonal is one of the two corner diagonals:

Notice how this line guides the pose of the man in red rowing the boat and provides the angle for the flow of Washington’s red cape. The intersection of these two diagonals is intentional, not only to make the grouping of Washington, James Monroe and the flag the painting’s focus, but also to serve as an intersection point for the horizon of the landscape (which also happens to be the center line):

3. Curvilinear

The third and final type of linear composition is the curve. This is by far the hardest to spot, but it is no less important to composition. Almost always, this curve enters from the left side of the painting, loops once, sometimes more, and exits to the right. If a piece of art or design has a “flow” to it, it’s most likely the result of a curvilinear composition.

Let’s take a look at an easy example of a curvilinear composition with Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna:

In typical Renaissance fashion, the centered, restrained pose of the Madonna and Child is achieved using a single looping curve. This curve guides the tilt of the heads, the placement of the Madonna’s shoulder, hands, and blanket, and contains the Child to the mother:

Now compare the quiet, restrained Renaissance curve above with a more dramatic Romantic period double curve composition such as David’s The Death of Socrates:

The next time you find yourself looking at a painting, building or design that you like, try to pick out its linear composition. It’s there, doing its work by giving form and purpose to what you see. You’d be surprised how often it’s used.

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