The greatest artists make their craft look easy, like they grabbed some brushes and a canvas and instantly knew how to create a masterpiece. But even though their natural talent helped them along the way, these artists make use of a concept called composition.

What is composition in art? In this guide, we’ll show you how to define composition in art, the different elements to consider, and how to apply these techniques to your work. 

It can seem a bit technical and daunting at first, but we’re here to show you that once you understand the basics of composition in art, you’ll start to notice a difference in your finished pieces.

What Does Composition Mean in Relation to Art?

To get started, let’s look at how we define composition in art. Composition literally means “to put together,” and that’s no different in the art world. But it’s important to remember that composition isn’t about a single technique or something that should only be applied to one style of painting, drawing, design, or even photography

Thinking about the composition in art definition, we can take this beyond the visual arts to writing and music. It’s all about arranging your work in a carefully considered way to have the impact that you’re looking for.

If there’s one thing you should remember when it comes to answering the question “what does composition mean in art?”, it’s that composition is not about what the subject matter of your work is, but instead how you arrange the various components to create the final look.

How you choose to put your work together is entirely up to you, but there are a few basic principles to think about. All pieces of visual art are built from essential blocks. These are:

  • Line: The path that the viewer’s eye follows
  • Shape: What the different sections of the piece are made up of
  • Color: The hues that make up the piece
  • Texture: The often tangible surface type that a viewer can feel on the artwork
  • Tone: The lightness or darkness in a color
  • Space: The area that is either taken up by or in between objects in a visual artwork
  • Depth: How the viewer perceives the different parts of the picture

While every finished piece of artwork looks distinct, they all contain these seven design elements. Each building block comes together to create your final work, and the composition decisions that you make will be what shapes your viewer’s experience of your creation.

Make Composition Simple

Composition in Art

Elements of Composition

There are eight elements of composition that all artists should become familiar with. We’ll cover each of them in detail. 

1. Unity

Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies
When thinking about what is the most common purpose for composition in art, unity is a key aspect to consider. 

When you look at your piece, does everything appear to work well together? That’s what unity is about. You can throw off the entire feel and mood of a painting or photograph by placing the wrong elements in the wrong places. If something seems out of place, it’s your job as the artist to recognize that and fix it. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t be creative with your placements, colors, or shapes, but you should get an instinctual feel for whether a piece feels cohesive and complete.

2. Balance

train station
Symmetrical lines, like the ones in this photo, are a great way to give your work balance.

Balance—or the equilibrium of different elements in a piece—is crucial to consider when you’re thinking about what is a composition in art, because even the smallest change here can completely alter the final outcome of your work.

Balance could be about making sure that your artwork is symmetrical, but it doesn’t have to be. Asymmetrical shapes and lines can be just as beautiful and tell the story you’re looking for. 

Think about the mood you’re trying to strike. Symmetry typically gives a more calming feel than asymmetry, which can often feel chaotic or jumbled. Is there too much on one side of the work that’s weighing it down visually? If disorder and unease are what you want a viewer to take from your final piece, this is fine—but if not, you may want to address the unbalance.

3. Focus

road
The focal point of this photo isn’t perfectly central, but the curving road automatically leads the eye away from the front of the picture.

Focal points are crucial when thinking about composition in art, no matter the medium that you’re using. Our eyes naturally want to find something to concentrate on, so your viewers will look for a defined focal point that they can find quickly and interpret the rest of the artwork around this. 

The focal point doesn’t need to be the direct center of your piece, though. What’s important to remember here is that you need to give your viewer something clear to visually focus on so that their eyes aren’t wandering around the work and getting lost.

4. Contrast

painting
Contrast using light and dark colors can create a striking mood in your paintings. 

High and low contrast can create entirely different moods, depending on the final look you’re going for. Reflecting back on our composition in art definition, it’s all about how you put different elements together, and contrast in color and tone is one of the best ways to draw out various emotions or reactions in your viewer.

Contrast doesn’t only need to be found in color, though. Using opposing shapes (like circles and triangles), textures, sizes, and lines can also create the same effect.

5. Movement

painting of piano
Movement can be conveyed in all kinds of ways using identifiable moving elements like water or air.

Yes, it might seem strange to be talking about movement in a static artwork or photograph, but there are plenty of ways to add this illusion to your pieces when they aren’t actually moving at all. You’ll have seen plenty of examples of this before—like hair or leaves blowing to suggest a breezy day.

Lead lines are a great technique to draw your viewer’s eye around a painting or photograph. This could be a tangible line, like a fence or row of trees, or it could be in how you place elements of your subject matter around the canvas to create an implied line. 

6. Pattern

flowers
Patterns are typically repeating, either within a fixed frame or endlessly like this example.

The human brain and eye loves repetition. It’s easy for us to understand, and it’s somewhat comforting to see the same elements over and over again. But it doesn’t mean you have to have the exact same design repeated everywhere.

Nearly anything can be made into a pattern, whether it’s the colors you’re using, the shapes that make up your subject matter, or the individual elements that you use throughout. 

7. Rhythm

trees
Unlike patterns, rhythms don’t have to be exact duplicates. Instead, it’s about the underlying feel that they give to the artwork.

Like movement, all great artwork has a unique rhythm to it that’s been deliberately created by the artist. Rhythm can sometimes be confused with pattern, but the differentiating element here is that rhythm doesn’t need to be the same element repeating throughout.

Variety is important with rhythm, and it’s usually an underlying piece to the final creation, rather than something that’s more obvious (like with a pattern). 

8. Proportion

paintinng
Even the shape and size of your canvas can create proportions that make your viewer look at your painting differently.

Have you ever looked at a painting or drawing but gotten the feeling that something isn’t quite right? In plenty of cases, that comes down to a particular element being entirely out of proportion to everything else.

How objects or subjects in the piece work together in terms of their size and scale is important when you want to convey a certain message. Again, this is a crucial aspect to come back to when we think about: what is composition in art? The way that you arrange everything matters, so make sure you scale each element appropriately to the message you’re looking to send.

Examples of Art Composition

When you’re learning how to describe composition in art, it’s often helpful to take a look at examples of classic paintings or famous photographs to see how experts use composition techniques in their work.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

the last supper
Source: Britannica
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the world’s most famous classical paintings.

The Last Supper is a favorite of art teachers worldwide as a fantastic example of how composition can tell a story through the use of negative space, symmetry, and repeating patterns.

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

lady brushing hair
Source: The Met
Pre-Raphaelite paintings are known for their expert use of composition techniques.

The Pre-Raphaelites (a group of young artists founded in 1848 in London) were known for using bright paint pigments to give their paintings a light and airy feel, almost appearing luminous. Lady Lilith is a good example of movement and unity, with an off-center focal point to draw in the viewer.

Queen Elizabeth II by Annie Leibovitz

the queen
Source: Art net
Annie Leibovitz’s use of composition has seen her rise to the top of the photography profession.

As a notable portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz has taken pictures of some of the world’s most celebrated names. Her signature style has evolved from her use of specific composition elements like contrast and focus. 

How to Apply Composition Techniques to Your Own Art

Now that you have a better understanding of what composition actually is, let’s turn our attention to answering the question, “what is the most common purpose for composition in art?” 

Ultimately, how you decide to arrange the elements of your piece is up to you. But there are some basic rules and techniques of composition that can help to improve the experience for your viewer. 

Let’s take a look at what some of those techniques are and how you can apply them to your own projects.

Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds
The Rule of Thirds is one of the mostly commonly used composition techniques.

The well-known Rule of Thirds is used to avoid a central focal point but still give overall unity to the composition. This makes the artwork more visually appealing for the viewer.

How to Apply the Rule of Thirds

Start by dividing your canvas with two equally spaced vertical and horizontal lines to give you a nine-part grid. Place your focal point subject matter at one of the intersections of these nine segments. This creates a carefully planned “design imbalance” that, while off-center, still looks impactful.

Rule of Odds

cake
Keeping your focal point subjects as an odd number is more visually appealing to viewers.

Odd numbers may feel strange to most of us, but in the art world, they’re perfect. Even numbers of subjects in a painting can create too much symmetry and feel overly engineered, but using odd numbers helps to avoid this.

How to Apply the Rule of Odds

Whether you’re working on a painting, drawing, or photograph, try to keep your focal elements to odd numbers. For example, your main subject could be surrounded by two other subjects, to create an overall odd number.

Negative Space

shell
Negative space around an object helps to focus the attention of the main subject of your work.

Negative space is the space around or between the subject of your work. Using negative space helps to create a sense of balance and unity in a piece, rather than it being overly cluttered.

How to Apply Negative Space

When you’re thinking about your composition, don’t fill every inch of your canvas or frame with something to look at. This can be distracting for the viewer and take their eyes away from the focal point. Instead, plan for negative space between and around the focal point to give the illusion of openness. 

Simplification

drawing
Simplify your work by removing anything unnecessary that could be distracting to the viewer.

As with negative space, avoiding clutter and making room for a little bit of nothing is an important skill to learn as an artist. That’s where simplifying your composition can help.

How to Apply Simplification

There are a number of different ways to simplify your piece, whether that be using a limited color palette, removing subjects from the work, or keeping brush strokes large and loose.

When you’re working on your next piece of art, think about your composition and some of the techniques you’ve learned before getting started. From there? Let your creativity do the rest.

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