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Composition in Art

Composition in Art

Author: Lucy Lamp

Composition in art includes the elements of art--like line, shape and color--which are the ABC's of art; and principles of design, which take the elements--the ABC's--and arrange them into the "sentences" of art. These comprise the completed work and support the meaning behind the artwork.

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ABC's of Art

Art speaks a different language. When we talk, write, or read we are using verbal language. The language of art is visual language. Understanding visual language is referred to as visual literacy. Just as we learn--step by step--how to speak, write and read verbal language; we must learn--step by step--how to read and use visual language.

Both verbal and visual language are made up of individual parts. These individual parts are arranged together in different ways to create different meanings. Verbal language begins with individual letters--the alphabet--which form individual words. Each word has a different meaning. These words, when put together, become sentences that have more complex meanings than individual words. The possibilities are endless. The same is true with visual language.

Composition can be thought of as the ABC's of art . Composition refers to aspects of the physical form of the art object. In other words, as we analyze art we ask the question: What elements or qualities are used to build the form of the art work?

Composition in visual art is divided into two categories: the elements of art, and principles of design.

In other words, composition = elements of art + principles of design.

The elements of art are the individual basic qualities of visual art, such as line, shape, and color. Elements of art are like the individual words that make up a sentence.

Principles of design are like sentences. The elements of art are arranged in various ways using principles of design.

Composition uses elements of art and principles of design to create meaning in an artwork. An artist uses them as tools to help them express their ideas.


Elements of Art

The elements of art are:

Line: a moving path created by a point on a surface

Shape: an enclosed line

Volume and Mass: volume--a shape in three dimensions, space within that form; mass--density of an object, actual or perceived weight

Color: hues and their tints and shades, and their relationship to each other

Light: the effect of light on an artwork; incorporation of light into the artwork;  the use of light as an artistic medium; or the illusion of light in a two-dimensional artwork

Movement and Time: kinetic art; actual or implied movement; time-based arts, the time it takes to experience an artwork, or the illusion of time passing or a moment in time

Space: where an object is situated and how it relates to its surroundings; also, the illusion of three dimensions in two-dimensional art

Texture: the surface quality of an object, or the illusion of texture in two-dimensional art

Principles of Design

The principles of design are:

Repetition, Pattern, and Rhythm: repetition--one object or shape repeated; pattern--a combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular arrangement; rhythm--a combination of elements repeated, but with variations

Balance: a sense that the object or composition is stable; including symmetical and asymmetrical arrangement

Contrast: a distinct difference between elements of a form or composition; either visually or in subject matter

Scale and Proportion: scale--the size of an object (a whole) in relationship to another object (another whole), including the size relationship between and object and the human body; proportion--the relative size of parts of a whole (elements within an object)

Directional Force: paths created or implied within an artwork that lead the eye through the composition

Unity and Variety: unity--harmony, similar elements within an artwork, a sense of wholeness; variety--contrasting elements within the composition that add interest

Emphasis and Subordination: emphasis--an area or object within the artwork that draws attention and becomes a focal point; subordination--the toning down of other compositional elements in order to bring attention to the focal point

Analysis of an artwork

Analysis of compositional elements of an artwork Now I will apply all of the elements and principles to a specific artwork. Keep in mind that all art works contain all of the elements in some way, however, only a few are emphasized, in order to most effectively communicate the artist's idea.


Claude Monet: Water Lilies

Claude Monet: Nymphéas, installation view. 1920-26    Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris

86.2 "  (7.18 ft) x  237 " (19.75 ft).  (219 × 602 cm)   Oil on canvas

image source: New York Times (  From the article "Paris's Jewel-like Orangerie, Home to Monet's Waterlilies, Reopens, Polished and Renovated"  Published: May 16, 2006

Claude Monet: Nymphéas, detail.  1920-26    Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris

86.2 "  (7.18 ft) x  237 " (19.75 ft).  (219 × 602 cm)   Oil on canvas

image source: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

You have probably seen or are familiar with Monet's paintings of water lilies. He had a beautiful garden and used that as his inspiration.He made many paintings of his garden and of water lilies especially. Eventually Monet came up with the idea of creating two oval rooms to display his paintings of water lilies. The walls would be lined with the paintings, and the viewer would be surrounded by them on all sides. The Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris agreed to construct the rooms.

The idea was ahead of its time in the incorporation of three-dimensional space as an aspect of two-dimensional art. This became a precursor to installation art.


Initial feeling upon seeing the artwork; gut reaction  peace, calm, surrounded by beauty, a transcendent experience

Elements of art   (I will focus my analysis on the detail above).

Line: organic, flowing, gestural lines subtly define the lilies, the water, and the reflections. The gestural quality of the lines reveal the movement of the artist

Shape: Shapes are organic and subtly defined. They tend to flow into one another

Volume and Mass: There is a suggestion of the depth (volume) of the water; mass (density) is not emphasized; appears extremely light in weight, almost ethereal

Color:  The use of mostly cool and analogous colors (blues and greens) gives a sense of refreshing calm and peace.  This is contrasted by the lilies and flower elements, which are warmer in color . Since cool colors appear to recede and warm colors appear to advance, the effect gives the illusion of the flowers floating on the surface of the water

Light: Light is implied by the reflections in the water and the highlights on the flowers. Depth and shadow are suggested by the use of darker colors on the right edge and corner of the painting.

Time and Movement: Time appears to be suspended by the use of cool colors which impart a sense of peace. No time elements are included to give us any information that this is any particular period in history. The circular nature of the rooms suggest a view of time that is cyclical rather than linear, which also gives it a timeless quality. Movement is suggested by the gestural lines; because they are not dramatic (diagonal), but mostly horizontal, a sense of gentle movement of the water is imparted. In addition, the paintings all flow into one another with no beginning and no end, which suggests a sense of the flowing of water.

Space: Within the paintings there is sense of depth because of the contrast between the cool, darker  colors of the water and the warm, lighter colors of the flowers. The space in which the paintings exist is remarkably effective in conveying a sense of being surrounded by the water and the lilies. This enhances the timeless quality.

Texture: Implied texture reflects the fluidity of water and the softness of the flowers; however the texture is is subtly suggested and not detailed. This emphasizes the sense of gentle movement of the water.


Principles of Design

Repetition, Rhythm and Pattern: There is repetition of the shapes and lines; and a sense of rhythm in their placement.

Balance: The use of horizontal lines and the exagerrated horizontal nature of the paintings themselves impart a sense of comfortable balance.

Contrast: Contrast is minimal; its main use is in the contrast between the cool colors of the water and the warmer colors of the flowers. This gives a sense of depth in the water.

Scale and Porportion: The scale of the actual paintings and the incorporation of the space surrounding them is large enough to surround and overwhem the viewer so that a simple portrayal of a garden pond gives it a  monumental quality. Proportion within the paintings between the flowers and other elements is similar to the porportions found in the physical world.

Directional Force: Directional force is used within the paintings by the use of lines and repetition of colors which lead the eye from one painting to another. It is also apparent in the way the paintings are displayed since they flow into one another in a circular space; the viewer is continually drawn from one space in the room to another .

Unity and Variety: Unity is suggested by the repetition of colors, lines, and subject matter; and also in the way the paintings exist within the space in the room, using all of the wall space. Variety is created by differences within the individual flowers and subtle shifts in color throughout the paintings.

Emphasis: Individual flowers and groups of flowers are emphasized by the use of slightly more instense and warmer colors in the flowers.

What are the most significant compositional elements in this artwork? I would suggest space, color, movement, and time.

How the compositional elements support the meaning behind the artwork: They impart a sense of peace, and a timeless, transcendent experience, apart from the outside world. They elevate simple subject matter into something monumental.


Your turn to analyze a work of art:

Now that you have seen the example above, you can try it on your own. Analyzing art can include its formal composition, its meaning, its cultural context, or how it fits within art history or critical theory.

Keep in mind that the effective analysis of art requires an informed opinion. Opinion varies from person to person, so there can be many interpretations of a single artwork. Considering all of these opinions and thinking of your own makes the analysis of art exciting and engaging.

You don't have to be an expert to analyze art. Learn as much as you can about it and don't be afraid to form your own interpretation. There are no right or wrong answers. Everyone owns their own opinion and everyone can use it to come up with their own ideas about an artwork.  Don't be afraid to discuss what you think with others. You may bring up something others hadn't considered before.

The emphasis in this series of learning packets is on composition--the elements that  make up the physical form of the artwork--and how they are used to support the meaning of the work.


Vincent Van Gogh: Bedroom in Arles

Vincent Van Gogh Bedroom in Arles  Third version, September 1889.

Oil on canvas, 57.5 x 74 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

image source

Vian Gogh struggled with recurring episodes of mental illness and during the time that he painted the three versions of this bedroom, he was ordered by his doctor to rest and recuperate. One of Van Gogh's intentions was to create a sense of rest. As you analyze the painting, consider whether or not you think that the painting conveys a sense of rest. Why or why not?

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the paintings:

"This time it simply reproduces my bedroom; but colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream. Well, I have thought that on watching the composition we stop thinking and imagining. I have painted the walls pale violet. The ground with checked material. The wooden bed and the chairs, yellow like fresh butter; the sheet and the pillows, lemon light green. The bedspread, scarlet coloured. The window, green. The washbasin, orangey; the tank, blue. The doors, lilac. And, that is all. There is not anything else in this room with closed shutters. The square pieces of furniture must express unswerving rest; also the portraits on the wall, the mirror, the bottle, and some costumes. The white colour has not been applied to the picture, so its frame will be white, aimed to get me even with the compulsory rest recommended for me. I have depicted no type of shade or shadow; I have only applied simple plain colours, like those in crêpes."
Vincent Van Gogh, from a letter to his brother Theo in 1888,  as quoted in wikipedia.com


Initial feeling upon seeing it; gut reaction


Elements of art



Volume and Mass



Time and Movement




Principles of Design

Repetition, Rhythm and Pattern



Scale and Porportion

Directional Force

Unity and Variety

Emphasis and Subordination


How the compositional elements support the meaning behind the artwork:


What are the most significant compositional elements in this artwork? Pick 2-3 elements that you think are emphasized in the work.


Your own idea for an artwork  Think of something you would like to make or an idea you would like to convery in an artwork. (If you need inspiration, look at the packet called Inspiration in Art). This can be in any medium: drawing or painting, photography, printmaking, collage, sculpture, installation art, earth works, landscape, architecture.  What elements would you choose to emphasize? What would be most effective in conveying your idea and evoking a certain reaction or feeling from the viewer?