What Is Composition in Art? Master Compositions from Examples!

what is composition ini art?

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When you look at your paintings, do you feel they’re too flat? Maybe, it always feels like there’s something wrong somewhere. Or, that you’re just a little bit short on … something that will give your artwork a new breath of life.

Well! No matter what you’re struggling with in your art, would you believe it if you were told that all your problems can be solved by mastering composition?

What is composition in art and how important is understanding it to your art career?

Continue reading to find out!

What is Composition in Art?

First, let’s clarify … What is composition in art? Well, generally speaking, the word “composition” is used in order to describe a complete work of art. However, to be more specific, artists used the word composition to describe the way in which all the different elements of a certain artwork are put together in order to create the overall effect.

what is composition in art?
“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

Just like how in music, you can have an endless number of compositions that are made up of the same notes by adding different lyrics and using different rhythms, the arrangement of a composition in art works the same way.

By adjusting visual elements, playing with balance or contrast, changing the focal point, etc., you can create a composition that is unique to you.

Why is Mastering Composition Important in Art?

Mastering composition is important for every artist because poor composition can have a great negative impact for the artwork as a whole. No matter how perfect your painting techniques are, if the composition is not arranged carefully, it’ll be difficult to grab the viewer’s attention and tell the story that you want to tell.

Most beginner artists may not think it’s all that important to master composition or, perhaps, prefer to draw and paint based on their gut instincts.

But, while it’s true that there are naturally talented artists out there who can instinctively create a good composition based on feeling, you shouldn’t rely on having that kind of talent if you want to take your art to the next level.

Instead, you should take it upon yourself to master the rules of composition in art and familiarize yourself with the basic principles and elements of art and design so that you can continue making progress.

why is mastering composition important in art?
Mastering Art & Design

Once you’ve grasped a certain understanding of composition, you’ll find that the ‘secrets’ of the art world that you might have not been able to understand previously will be unveiled.

And you’ll notice that many seemingly superfluous elements in a masterwork of art actually come together to create a good composition that not only delights the viewer’s eye but also evokes a certain experience that makes it unforgettable both to those who don’t understand and those who do.

The 7 Basic Principles of Composition in Art

Alright, so far, we’ve talked about the visual elements that make up a good composition a bit too vaguely. We’ve yet to actually touch the main crux of the subject, that is, what exactly are those elements that make up a complete artwork?

Well, the first step in understanding what is composition in art is to understand the 7 basic principles of art & design:

1. Balance

Balance refers to the weight of the visual elements of a composition.

If a composition has a good sense of balance, it will give off the feeling of stability and will evoke pleasant and, even, comforting feelings. In contrast, if a composition is purposefully drawn with poor balance, it can cause a subconscious feeling of discomfort in the viewer. In short, the use of balance in composition vary.

An artist can create balance in three different ways:

  • Symmetry: In which both sides of the composition are mirrored.
  • Asymmetry: In which the two sides of a composition are in sharp contrast (e.g., one side has curvy lines and the other has sharp, straight lines.)
  • Radial Symmetry: In which the visual elements radiate from a central focal point.
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Pablo Picasso (Asymmetrical Painting)

2. Movement

A painting can be given a sense of ‘action’ with the use of energetic mark-making or composition arrangement that implies movement.

As for the purpose of introducing movement in a composition, it can lead the viewer’s line of sight to the focal point or evoke a certain emotion that is otherwise difficult to inspire if a subject is too stiff.

3. Contrast

Contrast in visual arts can greatly impact the object that grabs the viewer’s attention. Basically, when one object in a painting is designed to be ‘stronger’ than the other, it can lead the viewer’s eye to that object.

A popular example is the use of negative space and positive space. One can also use complementary colors or extreme darks and lights to provide contrast.

“The Calling of St Matthew” by Caravaggio (High-Contrast)

4. Emphasis

Often achieved by providing contrast, an artist can put emphasis on a certain element in a piece of work in order to create visual dominance that can keep the viewer’s attention.

5. Rhythm

Just like how rhythm in music can make a song either orderly or disorderly, introducing a sense of rhythm by organizing the distribution of visual elements of a composition can change the resulting effect.

6. Patterns

“Composition VIII” by Wassily Kandinsky (Patterns)

The human eye is inherently attracted to patterns. By taking advantage of this instinct and introducing patterns in your composition design, you can evoke an array of surprising reactions in your viewers and guide them throughout the painting.

7. Unity/Variety

In art, unity can make a good composition fit comfortably. But, too much unity might make it look too monotonous. The same thing goes for introducing variety in your artwork. Variety can spark interest, but too much may instead lead to a chaotic mess.

Depending on the emotions that you want to evoke in the viewer, you can introduce both unity and variety in different ratios to achieve a certain effect.

How to Arrange a Composition in Art?

By putting together these different elements, you can arrange dozens, if not hundreds of thousands of unique and beautiful compositions. The world is your oyster!

how to arrange a composition in art?

As for the steps to arranging a composition, you can think of it as follows:

  • Step 1: Choose a Subject – Arranging a composition will require quite a bit of planning. The first thing that should be decided is the main subject of your artwork. It can be a person’s face, their figure, a small flower on the road, a particularly good-looking tree, whatever! Just make sure you have a main subject.
  • Step 2: Choose a Compositional Arrangement – There are various available arrangements for unique compositions out there. You can choose one and place your subject at the focal point. Or, if you prefer to be more free, you can do everything from scratch and create an arrangement of your own.
  • Step 3: Create a Strong Focal Point – You need to have a strong focal point in your composition. You can use high contrast and play with lights and shadows to distinguish your main subject from the background. You can also introduce patterns or movement in other elements to draw attention to your subject. Whatever you decide to do, make sure that your main subject stays centered in the viewer’s eye.

To fully let all of this sink in, we’ve prepared examples of some of the most famous classical art in the world in the following section where we discuss the major composition rules that are widely accepted by artists worldwide:

5 Master Composition Rules for Artists

When people talk about what is composition in art, the things that are most discussed are the major rules of composition, which are as follows:

1. Rule of Thirds

The most basic composition rule is the “Rule of Thirds”. As can be expected from the name, this rule divides the composition into thirds, creating a 9×9 grid.

The composition principle that is at most play here is the principle of balance. Dividing the allover composition into thirds creates a balanced arrangement that both looks very stable and is striking in the viewer’s eye.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

the persistence of memory
“The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali

In Salvador Dali’s most famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory”, an arrangement of bizarre visual elements and negative space are combined with the classic rule of thirds to create an engaging composition that is both striking and pleasing to the eye.

Note, although in this particular painting, there are actual lines used to guide the line of sight, this is not a hard rule. So long as the focal point lies on the horizontal or vertical lines, the sense of balance that makes the rule of thirds work can be created.

2. The Golden Triangle Rule

The next rule is the “Golden Triangle”. It’s similar to the rule of thirds in that it relies on lines. But, rather than placing the subject along the vertical or horizontal line, the golden triangle rule places the focal point along a diagonal line.

To be more specific, with the “Golden Triangle”, the composition is cut into two by a diagonal line, and along that line, at 90 degree angles, two triangles are created.

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix

the death of sardanapalus
“The Death of Sardanapalus” by Eugène Delacroix

The “Death of Sardanapalus” is a painting that was inspired by a rather chaotic scene of King Sardanapalus destroying all of his ‘possessions’ before his death.

If even a little bit clumsily handled, this scene could have become a mess where no one would be the wiser about what was going on. However, by applying the “Golden Triangle” rule, Eugene Delacroix was able to set up the bed in which Sardanapalus rested as the main focal point.

This was further emphasized by providing contrast — with the dark background and the important elements in bright colors acting as leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye to the leisurely Sardanapalus watching with indifference as everything around him was turned into chaos.

3. Rule of The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio, also called the “Golden Spiral” or the “Fibonacci Sequence” is perhaps the most mysterious rule. At least, it looks very mysterious! However, even if it looks difficult at first glance, there’s no denying the appeal of the naturally created pattern of this arrangement.

It’s a bit hard to describe it in words, but the basic gist of this composition relies on the spiral that sparks movement. It brings energy to the composition and draws the line of sight towards the central point of the arrangement.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

the great wave off kanagawa
“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai

The “Great Wave off Kanagawa” is perhaps the best example of the potential of the golden ratio. Here, the spiral is represented by the great waves, which look wild and spontaneous at first glance, but actually mimic the curves of the golden spiral very closely.

Note, the use of the golden ratio composition in art varies depending on your subject. Sometimes, the leading lines do not have to be so straightforward. It can also be subtly introduced with the use of negative space or patterns that lead the eye.

4. Rule of Odds

The “Rule of Odds” does not follow a specific composition map like the previous three. As a compositional rule, it simply specifies that a composition with odd numbers is better than an arrangement that is formed from even-numbered objects.

It sounds contrary, but it’s true that odd number elements in your paintings can create a mysterious sense of balance.

The Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

the three musicians
“The Three Musicians” by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s “The Three Musicians” is just one of his paintings that follow the “Rule of Odds” compositional arrangement. Here, three musicians holding different instruments are portrayed very simply, creating a perfect balance that unifies all the most important elements without any sense of disharmony.

5. Rule of Space

The next rule is the “Rule of Space”. Its purpose is to give paintings a sense of movement with the use of negative space. The most common use of this rule is to use a subject and arrange that subject to look toward a certain direction where negative space is available.

This gives the illusion that there is ‘space’ to move. Think of it another way, if the gaze of the subject leads to an enclosed area or other elements, such an arrangement will seem restricted or closed off, implying that movement is not possible.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

washington crossing the delaware
“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze

“Washington Crossing the Deleware” is a painting with a huge sense of momentum. This is made possible with its careful compositional arrangement, which includes the use of the “Rule of Space” to lead the direction in which the boat is stirring.

More specifically, George Washington stands at the helm with his gaze pointing towards the direction where the boat is moving. To facilitate the momentum of the boat and the waves, negative space was left in order to mark the destination. As for the opposite direction, the middle ground is filled with shadowy figures of other boats to provide a sense of balance.

Is Mastering Composition in Art Really Necessary?

Mastering composition is essential for any artist who wants to go further on their journey and create better artwork. When learning to paint, it’s easy to forget about composition in the face of various painting techniques and styles.

is mastering composition in art really necessary?

However, composition in art is a cornerstone that cannot be replaced. With it, you can create stories without words that grasp the viewer’s heart and stay etched in their minds forever.

Of course, art is not so constricted as to rely on the compositional rules that are currently known. There are master artists out there, like Jackson Pollock — who is well-known for his abstract, drip paintings — that can create highly impactful paintings even after breaking all the generally accepted rules of composition.

Composition in art is like this: It can help you find a direction to tell your story more easily and in a way that is easier for the viewer to swallow. However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t create great paintings if you don’t follow the convention!

Take Your Art to the Next Step Up!

What is composition in art but another way to take your paintings to the next step up? Although it is generally considered a more advanced subject for an artist, there’s no denying its value as a foundational skill that can be improved as you practice.

In short! The earlier you know it, the better! So, why not start today?

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