Clumping and Grouping
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Sept 3rd 2012
Updated On: Aug 29th 2020

Go here to read this tutorial in Russian.

This tutorial discusses a number of things you should consider when clumping details together (also called "Grouping"). Clumping can take an otherwise boring image and make it more dynamic. Clumping happens a lot in nature, with plants, rocks, mountain ranges, etc.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

Does the grass look more visually interesting all uniform like this?

Or all clumped together like this?

Hopefully, you like the 2nd picture more.

Clumping can also be used for mechanical things, placing a number of similar items together in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, even stuff like placement of spaceships in a space scene.

Before reading this tutorial, you may want to check out these other three tutorials that discuss similar compositional issues: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Shapes, Contrasts In Composition, and Areas Of Visual Detail, Areas Of Visual Rest.

What Is Clumping?

When the eye sees objects that are related to each other, like the objects are near each other, they're all of a similar size, they're all of a similar color, etc, the eye tends to lump all of those objects into a single shape or group or clump. Clumping or grouping helps organize an image for the viewer, and tends to be more aesthetically pleasing. Like this example...

This image has all the object almost the same distance away from each other, whereas this image...

has the objects clumped together. When the eye sees this image, it tends to create single object of the clumps, grouping multiple objects into a single larger object.

Like for example this image...

If you ask someone what this is, they'll probably say "It's a square made up of little lines". They won't just say "It's a bunch of lines". Because their vision system groups together the lines into one object, and then compares that object with known objects to give its answer.

Our visual system enjoys grouping objects together into larger more manageable objects, and so clumping can make an image more brain friendly, hence, makes it more aesthetically pleasing. This is due to the "fight or flight" portion of our development, our visual system has become good at taking various visual clues and grouping them together so our brain can easily recognize what the object is. This has helped us evade predators in the distant past, for example, if there's a tiger hiding in the grass, ready to eat us, our visual system will take the little portions of the tiger it can see, group them together, and figure out it's a tiger, so we can get the heck out of there before its too late. So our visual system needed to become good at grouping things in order to keep us alive. Now we can use the same tricks to help us make more enjoyable artwork :)

Clumping Tips And Tricks

Some here's a number of tips you should consider when grouping details. Remember, there are always times when these rules should be broken, but following some of these rules will tend to lead to better compositions.

1) Avoid Repetition (Number Of Elements): If you have a clump of 2 objects, there shouldn't be another clump of 2 nearby (this is called avoiding "Twining", since the duplicate clumps look like twins).

2) Avoid Repetition (Size): Don't have two objects in a clump that are the same size, or two clumps that are the same size, they will compete for each other.

3) Avoid Repetition (Spacing): There should be an irregular distribution of details, make sure you have uneven spaces between objects in your clump, and between the clumps themselves.

4) Odd Number Of Elements: Frequently, clumps look better when they contain 3, 5, 7, etc elements, Clumps with 2, 4, 6 elements tend to not feel as balanced. This principal is even found in Bonsai plant grouping, this is from the Bonsai Empire Website: "Although Bonsai are often planted solitary, trees in nature are more commonly found in groups. Creating a Bonsai forest (or group planting) requires an odd number of trees (that is, in case only a few trees are used, to provide asymmetry), usually belonging to the same botanical family."

5) Overlapping Objects: provides visual interest by creating depth.

6) Small, Medium, Large: Each clump should have small, medium and large objects in it.

7) Small Outside, Big Inside: smaller details should generally be on the edge of the clump, larger details in the middle of the clump

8) Clumping Using Color or Value: As well as just being near each other, 2 or more objects can form a clump if they have the same color, or the same brightness (like using lighting to make clumps). It helps simplify busy backgrounds.

9) The Whole Is Important: the viewer should not be looking at a single item that makes up the clump, they should be seeing the whole made up of all the items.

10) Standout Items: Even though the whole is most important, don't forget to add a standout item or two inside your clumps to keep things varied, nothing so overpowering as to destroy the group, just a little enhancement.

An Example

Here's a quick example of some of these principals, my image Planetary Defense from 2007.

Here's a few of the principals:
• None of the cannons are the same size as each other (tip 2).
• The spacing between each cannon is slightly different (tip 3).
• While there are 4 objects in the clump of cannons, the 4th one is almost completely obscured by the dust, so you have 3 standout elements in the clump (tip 4).
• Small, Medium and large cannons are present (tip 6)
• The largest cannon is on the inside, and the smallest on the outside (tip 7)
• The background cannons are clumped together because they have a generally similar value thanks to the dust, making the closest cannon standout as the focal point (tip 8)
• To avoid monotony of 4 identical cannons, I rotated each slightly differently (tip 1), and added the people near the closest cannon to give it a little something different to offer (tip 10).
Again, these tips are not hard and fast rules, plenty of spectacular images violate many of these rules, but using a few of them in your composition can help make it stronger.

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