A Design Learning Module by Craft Labrador
Photos on this page by Jamie Pye, for the Coastal Heritage Collection.


Composition: A Definition

According to Wikipedia, the word composition means putting together. Composition in a work of art or craft refers to the arrangement of design elements to create an image – a picture. The way the image is put together, the composition, is different from the subject of the work. The subject is what the work is about. The composition is how the work is put together. Sometimes the word design is used instead of composition.

An image might be made ups of shapes, lines and colour, but it’s the way each person puts those elements together that makes the work unique. Every individual artist or craft maker adds their own skills, techniques, imagination and feelings to their work. The colours, shapes and images we choose are influenced by our experiences and traditions. Another person looking at the work, the viewer, will interpret the picture based on their experiences and traditions. A particular shade of blue might have a religious meaning to one person, represent the colour of the sky to another, and be the colour of a flag to a third.

Subject Matter

Artists distinguish between image and subject. The image is the complete work. The subject is what the work is about. For example, hills and trees might be the subject matter of a landscape painting. A memory of your mother hanging clothes on the line might be the subject matter for a hooked rug.

These three different images have the same subject – a boat – yet each one tells a different story.

Pictures tell a story. What story does your work tell? Is it a traditional pattern that tells someone who sees it about who you are and where you come from? Is it a design that is specific to you or traditional to your community? Is it drawn from your imagination – or from what you see in your environment?

Visual Language

Snowshoe tracks
What is this picture about? Labradorians will know, but would someone from another culture understand what it is?

The way we read pictures is similar to the way we read books. Design elements are like the words and the way we put them together, design principles, are like sentences and paragraphs that tell a story. Cultural traditions affect the way we read and understand pictures. For example, in the western world we read books from left to right, top to bottom. We also tend to look at pictures from top left to bottom right. If you look at a comic book, you know to look at the pictures from top left to bottom right. In Japan, where words are read from right to left, the pictures in a comic book start at the top right and end at the bottom left.

Learning about the elements and principals of design can help us to understand how our choices affect our artwork, our crafts and the photographs we take.


Our choices for design and composition can be influenced by the world around us, by our culture and traditions, and by the feelings, memories and imagination within us. Where can you find inspiration?

  • Something you see.
  • Something you feel. Images can evoke a feeling, or give a sense of time and place, even a memory.
  • The natural world or an abstract image? An image can be abstract and still be inspired by what you see and feel.
  • A pattern – repeating a line or shape.
  • Something inspired by your collection of photos, objects, sketches, ideas.
  • Traditional patterns that you, your family, or your community have used. Patterns can be used in other ways to create new designs.
  • Iconic shapes and images. Often in Labrador we use the shape of traditional objects or northern natural elements to create an image that represents Labrador. The twig on the Labrador flag is an iconic image that represents the people of Labrador.
  • Materials and techniques used to create the work are also part of the composition and affect how the work looks and feels. The materials also affect the design decisions you make.

In this module we will talk about separate design elements and design principles that we use in composition and we will see how several Labrador artists and craft makers approach composition in their work – where they get their inspiration, and what process they use.