The 6 C’s of Composition

Posted on April 15th, 2013 at 4:09 pm by


Been talking to a friend a while ago about what exactly makes an image stand out. What are the unique ingredients of a great picture and why a DSLR photo looks better than one taken with a point and shoot camera? The whole discussion started with photography, but then after a while it transitioned into illustration and digital art or any other visual field for that matter. It seemed these visual building blocks were Universal.

So, what are these ingredients? Been thinking about it for some months now and they finally distilled into something that I call “The 6 C’s of Composition”.
Ok, but what do they do?
They’re essentially tools of communication, having the sole purpose of aesthetically drawing the attention of the viewer(to the subject) and conveying a message.

Of course I’m guilty of shamelessly plugging images of other artists on the web without giving due credit(which would have taken too long), but guys I only wanted to showcase brilliant pictures, so take it as a compliment. I didn’t want to upload my own stuff since it’s already on this site and would have been way too narcissistic, even for me.

I realize we’re living in the 21st century and will try to keep this as short as possible.

Thing is, most of these factors act on an subconscious level, so if you’re going to ask an artist what makes a masterpiece, most of the time he will tell you, it’s a matter of taste, you have to have a good eye, it just looks cool, etc. But essentially, if you approach it systematically it boils down to these 6.


The most basic tool of bringing out a subject is through the use of COLOR. There are a couple of ways it can be used, for example in photography(and not only) you can enhance the subject matter by desaturating the background and increasing the intensity of colors of the subject itself. This is a basic technique and it also has a flip side, desaturating the subject and saturating the background. Of course this will make it look a bit lifeless, so choose according to the mood you’re going after.

Let me illustrate -> DESATURATED BACKGROUND.

Instead of a colorless background you can instead use a Complementary Color, it will do the same thing. Draw focus to the subject by contrasting with the background. Think of a WARM/COOL combination. RED/CYAN, ORANGE/BLUE work well together.

That Red is working its magic. I bet I know where you’re looking.

Eye goes straight to nose, cheeks and eyes.

A bit of black for contrast, but essentially an ORANGE/CYAN color scheme.

MAGENTA/GREEN -> Complementary Colors

ORANGE/CYAN -> Complementary Colors

Aaaah, San Francisco, I love that city -> ORANGE/BLUE.

BUT, it doesn’t always have to be a saturated/desaturated, complementary color approach, a subject can stand out from the environment even if two warm colors are used, it’s just that the difference between the two has to be big enough for the eye to notice. Say a light ORANGE and a vibrant RED.

How can you tell it’s mainly COLOR that makes for a beautiful image? Just desaturate the image and you will probably see there isn’t a lot of variation in luminosity.


This one is a biggie. Contrast is all about LIGHT. Main focus is still the subject, but this time instead of COLOR, the tool is Luminosity. So, again, we can lighten the background and darken the subject(contre-jour or backlighting technique) or lighting(overexposing) the subject and darkening(underexposing) the background. Contre-jour is sometimes used if you want to add mystery to your scene. Usually a lot of details are missing behind silhouettes that leave a lot of room to imagination.



Sometimes even though the subject and environment are evenly lit, CONTRAST can still be achieved by means of MATERIAL. Such as a dark object on a white background. But, material is still bounced LIGHT, so we’re back to square 1.

Some other great images with good contrast.

How can you tell it’s mainly CONTRAST that makes for a beautiful image? Again, desaturate it. You should have big differences in luminosity throughout the picture.


You see this used mostly in photography, because camera lenses have different optics than the human eye and the high quality glass has a certain blur to it, associated with the Depth of Field. From what I’ve seen artists rarely use it in digital painting and illustration because they would blur details they worked so hard creating. That said, it’s a very effective way of isolating your subject and focusing attention. Coming from a photographic background, I love it.


Construction is all about GEOMETRY, that is patterns found in Nature that your brain recognizes and interprets according to what it has seen in the world. These patterns are influenced by a lot of factors: Gravity, facial expressions(which our brains are wired to recognize) and primitive shapes(circles, lines, spirals, rectangles in other words ORDER). When we detect them in an image, we immediately project a meaning onto them.

For example everybody knows that horizontal lines express Balance and Stillness, diagonal lines Motion and Imbalance, according to the law of Gravity. The only reason we have and Up or Down is Gravity. So, your mind takes these line patterns found in an image and interprets them.

Quasi horizontal lines, slow movement.

Fast paced action.

What about converging lines? Sometimes things look like they radiate from a focal point(Vanishing Point) with all the lines being emitted in all directions. It’s called PERSPECTIVE and it’s the way our eyes see the world. It always adds DEPTH to your images. The real-world is a 3 point perspective(3 dimensions) entity, but for simplification purposes artists sometime use 1,2 or 3 point perspective depending on the image.


2 POINT PERSPECTIVE – points are converging outside the image

3 POINT PERSPECTIVE – real world perspective

There are also other patterns. For example when dealing with a landscape/structure the A shape pervades stability and stillness versus the V shape perceived as unstable and unbalanced.

Now let’s talk about OPEN/CLOSED composition. In most cases an image is a rectangle and what happens to the boundaries determines if it’s Open or Closed. If there are no objects around the edges and it seems that the subject can extend/move indefinitely we have an OPEN composition, versus cluttered and confined which is a CLOSED composition. These should be used according to the mood.



A number of shapes are hardwired into our brains and we use them to simplify the world around and put ORDER into what we see. These are called Primitives and they consist of basic shapes such as: rectangles, circles, spirals, triangles or if we move to 3d, cylinders, spheres, pyramids, cubes, etc. Some of these can be found in Nature, but never in their Perfect form, just an approximation. The fact that we can easily measure and control them makes us humans use them a lot in daily life. Why do you think all the buildings are essentially square?




Back to the A and V shapes. If these are associated to a face the composition takes on a whole different meaning. The V is commonly interpreted as Aggresion and Force, Selfishness and Determination whereas A is a symbol for Weakness and Defense, Empathy and Conciliation. The 2 sides of the same coin.
Of course there is also Neutral, most commonly depicted by straight lines(lack of expression).





COMPLEXITY refers directly to the amount of DETAILS. An image is generally perceived as more beautiful or RICHER if it’s more detailed, but Sometimes it’s the lack of details, the clean look, that makes it stand out. SIMPLICITY is the other end of the COMPLEXITY gamut. If we look at a very detailed image our eye will tend to migrate to the section that is cleaner and less intricate, whereas with a clean image the eye will detect the portions that are more detailed. It’s all about differences, variation and contrast.

Back in the traditional art days, it used to be really hard to add richness to an image, since they all had to be created manually, but nowadays with application such as Photoshop and Zbrush things have changed quite a bit. We can add textures, grooves, indents, patterns to any image/3d geometry, on the fly.

A “world” of details.

And finally.


CONTENT a.k.a. MEANING is the ultimate level of visual sophistication. It’s all about IDEAS here and as we all know these are sometimes hard to come by.

What is the Story behind the picture? What does it try to represent?
These are the main questions an artist should strive to answer, while imbuing the picture with his personal interpretation/message.

Unfortunately, nowadays with the avalanche of cool pictures we see on a daily basis, it’s hard to remember any of them for more than a day(hour?). One has really got to stand out to be remembered and at the same time most are empty, meaningless matrices of vivid color.

But, what most artists don’t realize is that Memory remembers things based on Meaning rather than colorful pixels. The difference is in the message.

So, if you want to create that Timeless Grand Oeuvre, that Memorable Masterpiece, better put a message behind those pixels.


That kind of sums up the 6 C’s of Composition and the building blocks of a great image.
Now that I’ve completely lost your attention, let me just say thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope you found something useful in here.