First rule of composition: the narrative lines

Here is a video that you should not miss because it describes the first rule of composition which conditions ALL the other techniques of composition.

1 - Narrative lignes of painters

Here is THE chapter that you should not miss!

Indeed, the functioning of these lines of interest conditions all the other rules and techniques of the art of the composition of painters.

The revelation of this line of interest is very simple:

You just have to extend a visible straight line in a work and note what this line will point to.

The straight lines visible in a work are for example a cane, a sword, a scepter, a chisel, a cross, etc.

Most of the time the extension of these visible lines points to a part of a character's body.


These lines are often observed from ancient Greece and more frequently among the Romans. This use then continued for centuries without ever being misused or forgotten.

Pompeï fresco on which Cupid holds a sword  whose extension points to the woman's index finger

Pompeï fresco on which Cupid holds a sword

whose extension points to the woman's index finger

I suggest that you observe these lines yourself, by moving your mouse over the illustrations below:

3 cups


3 cups


3 cups


3 cups


From this essential work, it emerges from these plots that on more than 300 rectilinear objects (sticks, swords, strings, scepters, ...) listed in my database, their extensions point the eye first, then the thumb, index, ... :

The different reference points for the narrative lines

It is not surprising that the eye is placed first since we are in a visual art. It seems that the origin of this process dates back to the ancient period, when we considered that "Vision is the first of the senses" according to Plato.


Eye and mouth for speech are the two senses to be mentioned by this list. The ear is rarely pointed, only when the theme of the painting is music. The nose is exceptionally pointed in the scenes which evoke ... sexuality, or religion.


This database makes it possible to pass from the hypothesis to a theory on the composition:

DURING Jesus in the Doctors - Narrative Lines

Albrecht Dürer - Jesus and the Doctors - 1506

The extensions of the books point to the eyes and fingers.


Lucas Cranach - Venus and Cupid (detail) -

The rope points to the cock of cupid and the curious finger of Venus

With this aesthetic system, it is a point of PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION :

it is a question of harmony and giving a sense of reading by creating links in order to be able to tell.

Objection your honor !

"Yes OBJECTION!" : all visible objects do not necessarily point to a point in the first rule.

For example in this painting by Angola Bronzino the arrow held by Venus points nothing at all. By extending the line of this arrow, it encounters nothing significant.

DURER - Jesus in the Doctors - The narrative Lines

Agnolo Bronzino - Venus and Cupid - 1540 -

The arrow of Venus does not point anything particular in this composition. The same for Cupid!

Indeed, these two arrows do not point to anything particular that is visible in the composition.

But if we consider that the painters did nothing at random as Plutarch pointed out, it is by looking for other compositional rules that we can objectively discover how this arrow takes on a particular meaning.

It is in particular with the technique of parallel oblique lines and also with the technique of harmonic grids that we can observe the composition choices of Bronzino

BRONZINO Venus and Cupid composition grid and Venus arrow

Agnolo Bronzino - The arrow of Venus is parallel to the grid of ½ diagonals. This grid conditions an eye and a navel.

BRONZINO Composition les obliques parallèles

Agnolo Bronzino - Obliques parallel to the arrow of Venus conditioned by the 1st rule of composition.

The points highlighted by the obliques of the arrow and the points of the grid belong to the first rule of composition and are congruent with the theme of the table.

This Venus arrow fits well into the composition with the obliques, it even gives the rhythm while it is the grid of the semi-diagonals that gives the inclination.


Conclusion: when a visible object does not point anything particular in a composition, it is certainly that it responds in an invisible way to a construction of invisible composition which is detectable only by a work of "recomposition".


Do not hesitate to leave your comment, your questions at the bottom of the page, my pleasure is to be able to exchange with you on the pictorial composition. Thank you.


Guy Mauchamp

Work protected by copyright © guymauchamp U79J1B9 and a deposit at SGDL Paris.