Composition – Comparing Painting & Photography

Before we start on the details of composition, I’d like to provide a comparison of composition between painting and photography. (My painting experience, watercolors, was fairly brief and not exceptional. After a year or two I finally made a “wall hanger”, declared victory, and moved on. Unfortunately I didn’t understand how paint & paper choices affected longevity and my “prize” is rapidly fading away.)

First – some observations regarding craftsmanship. There is virtually no comparison between what constitutes the elements of craftsmanship between the two disciplines. Both strive to create a visual design on a 2-dimensional surface, but the craftsmanship comparison ends there. The means of creating the image have no similarities. I won’t get into an argument over which craft is more difficult or takes more skill. Suffice to say that when it comes to elements of craftsmanship they are completely different.
However, there is absolutely no difference in the principles of composition (visual design) between painting and photography. None. BUT – there is a huge difference in applying these principles.

  • The painter starts with a blank canvas and can choose what to place on the canvas (what visual design symbols) as well as the placement and arrangement of these symbols (the grammar of visual design).
  • The photographer starts with a full canvas and must endeavor (through craftsmanship and creativity) to use what is there before her in the best possible way to convey her message. An arranged still life is the photographer’s closest match to the relative ease of creating a composition in a painting.

The photographer’s composition task is much more difficult than that of the painter! So – when your painter friend looks down his nose at you…..
A third category of 2-dimensional visual art is graphics design. Today’s graphic designer uses software to create the visual design symbols (mostly automated) and to compose the final image. Just as in the comparison between painting & photography the designer uses a different skill set & tools to create his symbols. However, the principles of composition – once again – are identical. The application of these principles is analogous to their application when painting – you have complete freedom as to what, where & how.
If you’d like to experiment with the visual design concepts presented in this course, try using a program similar to Photoshop (any variant) or most word processing software to practice and experiment with visual design. Many other software programs offer simple graphic symbol creation and layout capabilities also. It helps to see the composition lessons & concepts on your monitor or on paper much more so than in your imagination.

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