The Elements of Composition in Art

Elements of Composition in ArtThe first thing to know is that the Elements of Composition are not the same as the Elements of Art, it’s different concept (though composition is one of the Elements of Art). The second thing to know is what is meant by “composition”. It’s the overall arrangement of what’s in a painting, its subject matter and elements (abstract art of course not having a ‘subject’).

The aim is to get the viewer pulled into the painting, their eye drawn across the whole composition, enjoying the scenery, before returning to the focal point. A successful composition does this subtly, without us being aware of it. Henri Matisse, in his Notes of a Painter, said: “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.”

The Elements of Composition are, in Western art, generally considered to be: Balance, Contrast, Focus, Motion, Pattern, Proportion, Rhythm and Unity.

Balance: Is there a symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangement? Symmetry can add a sense of calm, orderliness, whereas asymmetry can lend a sense of unease, imbalance.

Contrast: Are the dramatic differences in tones, strong darks and intense lights, or is it minimal?

Focus or Emphasis: Is there a focal point, somewhere that the “most important bit” where the viewer’s eye will ultimately pause and rest, rather than wandering around and around.

Motion or Movement: Is the composition static or is there a sense of movement? This can be done in many different ways, including through suggested movement with soft edges.

Pattern: If you look at the fundamental lines and shapes, is there an underlying structure that is pleasing or intriguing, or is it chaotic?

Proportion: Do the things in the painting relate to one another, do they fit together? If it’s realism, does it follow the rules of perspective, are nearby things bigger than things further away for instance.

Rhythm: Find the beat, as you would in a piece of music. Its job is to lead and pace the eye across the composition. Look at the fundamental shapes as well as colour, repetitions and echoes.

Unity: Is there anything in the painting that feels it doesn’t belong, something sitting awkwardly, out of place?

It can feel like a lot to consider in each and every painting, and through practice it becomes more intuitive. Checking each is a part of self-critiquing. If you find it hard remember the Elements of Composition, here’s a mnemonic:

Before Considering Final Mark, Ponder Painting Rightside Up.
Balance, Contrast, Focus, Motion, Pattern, Proportion, Rhythm and Unity.

or perhaps

Before Considering Final Mark, Ponder Painting wRongside Up.
Balance, Contrast, Focus, Motion, Pattern, Proportion, Rhythm and Unity.

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