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Shapes on a Page

Shapes and composition

Molly Bang was already making a living as a children’s book illustrator when she realized that she had no idea how pictures worked. She was a skilled artist but most of her experience was drawing isolated objects; when it came to entire views, she just didn’t understand picture structure. So, she decided to learn everything she could about the psychology of art and how the viewer reads, responds to and interacts with composition.

That an established artist had the humility to go back to the basics amazes me. And I think it’s an exercise that all creatives must do: revisit the fundamental principles that govern our craft and ask ourselves, do I really understand this?

In her quest to understand picture structure, Bang worked with her daughter’s grade three class to create storybook illustrations using construction paper cut-outs. During the exercise, she realized that working with simple shapes allowed her to see more clearly how compositions affect our emotions. By stripping pictures of their detail and decoration, Bang learned how to “build powerful visual statements: emotionally charged arrangements of shapes on a page.”

Bang went on to repeat this exercise with people of all ages and artistic ability and through her teaching, she developed a series of 12 principles of picture structure, which she published in her book Picture This: How Pictures Work.

Picture This is a powerful account of how we bring our experiences from the real world into the story world. It’s structured in two parts: Part one maps Bang’s revelations around composition by arranging basic shapes to create an illustration for the story Little Red Riding Hood. Page by page she builds the illustration, adding shapes and showing how different arrangements impact our emotional response. Part two organizes all the insights from part one into 12 principles of picture structure.

Well-designed things quite often disappear – they’re so perfect they feel like they were born that way, not designed at all. Bang’s deceptively simple principles feel like inevitable conclusions because they represent profound truths. Her principles don’t contradict or reimagine already well-established rules of composition. Instead, they add an indispensable emotional and psychological component, explaining how and why successful compositions work.

Below is a brief summary of Bang’s 12 principles, but I urge you to read the entire book. Without the revelations that led to their discovery, these 12 simple maxims lose a bit of their power.

  1. “Smooth, flat, horizontal objects give us a sense of calm and stability”
  2. “Vertical shapes are more exciting and more active. Vertical shapes rebel against the earth’s gravity. They imply energy and a reach toward the heights or the heavens.”
  3. “Diagonal shapes are dynamic because they imply motion or tension.”
  4. “The upper half of a picture is a place of freedom, happiness, and power; objects placed in the top half also often feel more ‘spiritual.’ The bottom half of a picture feels more threatened, heavier, sadder, or constrained; objects placed in the bottom half also feel more grounded.”
  5. “The centre of the page is the most effective ‘centre of attention.’ It is the point of greatest attraction.”
  6. “White or light backgrounds feel safer to us than dark backgrounds because we can see well during the day and only poorly at night.”
  7. “We feel more scared looking at pointed shapes; we feel more secure or comforted looking at rounded shapes or curves.”
  8. “The larger an object is in a picture, the stronger it feels.”
  9. “We associate the same or similar colors much more strongly than we associate the same or similar shapes.”
  10. “Regularity and irregularity — and their combinations — are powerful.”
  11. “We notice contrasts, or, put another way, contrast enables us to see.”
  12. “The movement and import of the picture is determined as much by the spaces between the shapes as by the shapes themselves.”
Taylor MacLean