Principles of Design

In regards to any piece of art, composition can be referred to as the combined visual
elements which comprise the piece as a whole. There are distinguished, separate elements to
composition however, each one adding something different to the final product. Although there is
not a concrete formula in which one can produce a composition, there is such a thing as an
effective composition. The paining entitled Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold is a perfect example of
a piece that demonstrates an effective composition.
Unity and variety are two major components of composition. When unity is present in a
piece, all the images seem to fit together and belong. Variety on the other hand protects against
too much unity which may produce a boring piece. In Tar Beach unity is used by the grouping
together of similar figures, in this case the people eating at the table. Variety is added as well in
the color choice, which is not what we would consider normal conventional colors. Also, there
are a few images that appear to be out of place, particularly the girl and boy laying on the mattress
and the figure floating in mid-air.
Balance is another key element needed to produce an effective composition. Balance is
the condition in which acting influences are held in check by opposing forces. There are two
major types of balance, symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical is the near matching of
opposite sides of a piece, while asymmetrical refers to the offsetting of objects in order to balance
out others. In Tar Beach, symmetrical balance is used on the borders of the piece which gives it
the look of being in a picture frame. Asymmetrical balance is also used because the four people
sitting at the table are offset by the two people laying on the mattress. If it wasn’t for these two
figures the focus would all be on the people at the table. Also ,the dark blue sky is balanced out
by the thin orange lines at the bottom of the piece.
Emphasis is used to focus our attention at a specific area or object in the piece, also
known as a focal point. Subordination simply works with emphasis making sure that attention is
not drawn away from the focal point. In the painting by Ringgold, the focal point is in the center
of the piece, where the figures sitting at the table are surrounded by a mixture of warm and cool
colors, which attracts the eye of the viewer. Subordination is also crutial because aside from the
colorful border, all of the colors around the focal point are warm, dark colors, taking nothing
away from the colorful center.
Directional forces are paths for the eye to follow which can involve either actual or
implied lines. In the case of the Tar Beach there are converging lines at the focal point. These
lines direct the eye to the focal point and provide the artist with the ability to manipulate the
viewers eyes without the viewer actually becoming aware of it. In combination with directional
forces, contrasts are added to draw attention to the focal point. The figures at the table are all
dressed in different colors, while each chair at the table is not only a different style, but a different
color as well. This contrast is engaging to the eye of the viewer, thus guiding his/her eyes to the
focal point.
Repetition and rhythm can also add to the over-all composition. The repetition of the
visual elements helps to provide unity and emphasis. The borders around Tar Beach are a prime
example of repetition. They are several squares positioned next to each other to form what
appears to be a picture frame. A certain rhythm is also created with the border or the piece,
mainly because the designs in the squares are repeated once opposite of each other. This allows
our eyes to flow back and forth across the painting in recognition of the matching squares.
Scale and proportion can also figure in to the composition. Scale is the size relation of
one thing to another. In the painting scale is used to create depth in the piece. The figure floating
in the sky is very small in comparison to the other figures. This creates the image that the figure
floating in the sky is far off in the distance. Proportion is the size relationship of parts to a whole.
In this painting proportion is