This blog is about Graphic Design, Vector Art, and Cartoon Illustration

October 29, 2018

The difference between a snapshot and a photograph - introduction to composition

I was talking to a friend recently and we gently touched on a subject that I care deeply about, which is design, layout and composition. I've been a graphic designer all of my adult life, and it's really all I know. In fact, even when my career ended I just went into teaching graphic design, which was really more of the same. And so I've never stopped being a graphic designer. I can see it, and I can feel it, everywhere. And it all has to do with abstraction.

I will often say that it's all about structure, not content. And that means that whatever the visual is, whether it's a photo of dogs, or waves breaking on a beach, or people climbing a mountain, it's all the same to me. What I see is similar to what Piet Mondrian painted at the top of this post. In fact, I was introduced to his artwork when I first started studying graphic design, and it guided me. If you can't see it, all I can say to you is that I can't see what makes a real diamond, but there are a lot of people who can.

If you're interested in making a photo seem more visually interesting than an ordinary snapshot, you're at least pondering abstract composition. And it's something that we all recognize, because every once in a while someone who knows nothing about composition takes an incredible photo. And usually the discussion is about the content, what kind of dogs are in the photo, or the type of palm trees, or whatever. But if you know composition, you know that the content really has nothing to do with it, it's all about composition. That's why great photographers can produce masterpieces just taking a photo of something that in and of itself is really nothing.

I learned composition from the great masters - also known as the "usual gang of idiots" in Mad Magazine. I also learned composition from the great masters of Marvel comics. Their goal was to present compelling visual information with the minimum amount of raw material - mostly just lines enclosed in boxes. Mad Magazine didn't even have color when I first started studying it. After a basic education there, I went on to study composition in movies, especially the visual storytellers like Alfred Hitchcock. As I came to understand the visual language better, I started to see it everywhere, in posters, in magazines. I could see it with type, with juxtaposition of graphics, with color, with line, with texture.

It is an art form. And it's an art form that has made me a nice living, and it's something that I've done very well for a long time, and care about. It's not a formula, or some quick trick, because if it was everyone could do it, and I wouldn't be so valuable as a designer. But if you think you could learn it, that's a good start. There are no shortcuts, so begin with a single step. I recommend visiting an art museum, and looking at abstract art.

Measuring the marigolds.
You are your arithmetic,
You'll probably go far.

Measuring the marigolds.
Seems to me
You'd stop and see
How beautiful
They are.

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