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.
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.
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
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 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 (nytimes.com) From the article "Paris's Jewel-like Orangerie, Home to Monet's Waterlilies, Reopens, Polished and Renovated" Published: May 16, 2006 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/16/arts/design/16oran.html
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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_038.jpg. 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.