Follow the conventions of colour composition to create better images. Part 1: Designing with colour.

There are many conventions governing composition and layout, and all will interact with colour to produce an overall impression. The principles outlined in the following pages are not presented so that you can follow them slavishly – most are too vague for that anyway – but to provide a framework that you can bend and twist to a point where it may be close to snapping.

Perhaps that seems a little melodramatic, but once you get into the swing of designing according to certain rules, whether learned or developed intuitively, it is all too easy to fall into a rut.

This is especially true if you are working on a publication or in an environment where style is set rigidly, welded into templates that rarely shift. In such circumstances, it is worth remembering that the smallest changes can lead to exciting results.

One of the benefits of computer-based design – contrary to prejudice – is that the computer has no fixed ideas. When you sketch a layout on a pad, your brain and hand will tend to guide elements into conventional positions.

On the monitor, your mouse hand can whiz objects around much more randomly and generate new possibilities. Having produced a happy accident, you can always use your knowledge of conventions to analyze why something looks good and develop it rationally.

Negative space should perhaps be mentioned first. In page layouts, white space radically influences a reader’s perception of text and images. Opening up the leading between lines of type or surrounding a block of text with generous margins can allow a page to breathe.

In graphics and photos, negative space (not necessarily white) can add drama and influence an interpretation of the visual content. For example, in cropped photos, extra space is conventionally left at the side the subject is facing; cropping the opposite way allows political editors to show a figure with nowhere to go and a dangerously exposed rear.

Basics of composition

The way we take in a composition is rooted both in the evolution of our eyes and brains and in our cultural experience of reading texts and looking at pictures. Although it is impossible to predict how random individuals will respond to a given arrangement of elements, some useful rules of thumb are widely accepted.

The place where the viewer’s eye will land first is the ‘focal point’. Before we begin influencing the eye with colours and forms, there are certain natural focal points on a page or canvas. One is near the centre, but a little higher, and can be slightly to one side.

Others are found in a square surrounding this and can be located either by dividing the canvas into nine equal squares (the ‘rule of three’ or ‘thirds’), or by drawing diagonal lines between the corners of the canvas and bisecting them.

Try placing two or three elements of different sizes and colour values at focal points, or working out from just one focal point. You can use a focal point indirectly or negatively: forms may surround it, or lines may lead the eye to it.

Of course, you can ignore the conventional focal points altogether, as long as your composition makes some kind of visual sense. Key elements are often arranged to form a triangle, or within an imaginary circle. All of these principles can be scaled to govern smaller areas within a composition.

When laying out two-dimensional static artwork, we need to remember that our brains evolved to interpret activity in a three-dimensional scene. This has a number of consequences.

Because moving objects are of more immediate significance in the real world than still ones, we instinctively look for movement in a scene. Movement can be defined as consecutive sightings of a similar form in different positions. But even simultaneous instances can trigger a sense of movement.

A sequence of shapes scattered across a page can suggest motion, with the assumed direction being left-to-right or top-to-bottom. There is some uncertainty about whether this differs in cultures that do not write text this way.

The shapes need not be identical, or even very similar – colour is one of the cues that can encourage us to associate them. If the shapes vary consistently in size, from large to small, there will also be an impression of perspective, with smaller forms receding into the distance.

Lines often serve the functional purpose of dividing an area, but they can also be used to lead the eye. When our attention is attracted by a figure that consists of a line, we tend to follow it, again in the conventional directions. Lines or shapes radiating from a point give the impression of moving towards that point, and draw the eye to it.

A similar effect occurs wherever lines cross, while parallel lines reinforce each other. Horizontal lines make the page appear wider and give an impression of calm and expansiveness. Verticals can be elegant and imposing, but they may feel restricting. Diagonal lines appear dynamic.

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This 1930s magazine cover provides a classic example of colour composition. Both colour and form are carefully balanced. The vein of the leaf, which is depicted in flat colour fields, provides an opposing diagonal to the figure, shaded three-dimensionally in monochrome. Yellow – a stronger colour than red – is tempered by a larger neighbouring area of blue.
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