Hierarchy in Composition
Obtaining a visual hierarchy in a composition is a major step in creating a masterful design. As humans, we have the ability to view an entire picture at once, but we can't focus on every element at the same time. For example, if we were to look at a landscape painting, we might start by looking at a large tree in the foreground. Then our eyes will move to another element near the tree in the middle ground, then continue to look further off into the background, and then back to the tree in the foreground. Our eyes are always striving to seek order.
In composition, a visual hierarchy can be created by using theme and variation through the use of line and value. For this reason, artists use a limited number of directions in a drawing or painting, also known as a gamut. Artists achieve a gamut by enhancing one direction while suppressing another. As Andre Lhote once said, "Exaggeration, diminution, and suppression are the three operations which the artist must constantly practice whether it is a matter of lines, values, colors, or surfaces."
In most works of art, there is a dominant vertical, dominant horizontal, and a dominant diagonal line. These dominant lines define the highest level of a hierarchy in a composition. In the painting below, you can see how Anna Rose Bain is creating a simple hierarchy in her design as indicated by the vertical (red), diagonal (yellow), and horizontal (green) lines.
“The placing of a certain thing in a picture or on the stage, which, at first glance, holds our attention, should be the principal object; the eye should then be led to other things which take us from this principal object to other forms that are associated in a minor key, and which help to express the idea, to be in harmony or act as foils or opposition, and which give to our mind the sense of completeness. Whistler once said, "Nature was made to select from." A work of art is not merely a rendering of nature's planning, but an adaptation by which, in a comparatively small area, one can convey the impression that nature takes the universe to express.“
- Michel Jacobs
- Michel Jacobs
Painting above by Mary Cassatt establishing a hierarchy with three dominant lines.
Painting above by Vincent van Gogh establishing a hierarchy with three dominant lines.