Composition in Art: Definition and the 10 elements of Composition + Examples

Composition in Art

You probably know the word composition from music. A composer is someone who combines individual parts to a piece. He puts them together in a certain order and harmony. It is the same with composition in the visual arts.

In visual arts, the composition is the structure of a sculpture, the wall arrangement of a building, or the visual layout of a painting. The term “componere” originates from Latin and can be translated as “to put together” and “to position”. If auxiliary lines indicate the composition of a realistic painting, it is often easier to understand the content of the work, as well as the intention and the emphasis of the artist.

The artist determines the arrangement of the individual pictorial elements and their relationship to each other. The initial considerations are fundamental to the result.

Definition of Composition in Art

In visual art, composition describes the arrangement of visual elements in a pictorial space.

This composition can be examined utilizing a few principles that we are going to discuss in this post.

How to analyze the composition of an artwork

There is no one way to make a statement regarding the composition of an artwork. You can, however, use different qualities or elements to describe it.

The elements of composition in art are used to arrange or organize the visual components in a way that is pleasing to the artist and, one hopes, the viewer. 


The essential task of composition is the structuring of visual elements on the picture plane. The structure can be ordered or disordered.

Geometric forms and planarity

Shapes such as the square, rectangle, triangle, pyramid, and circle are among the basic compositional forms.

As well as their extensions in space: cube, cone, and sphere.

Symmetry and Asymmetry

Leonardo da Vinci, The last Supper, from 1495 until 1498
An example for strong symmetry: Leonardo da Vinci, The last Supper, from 1495 until 1498

Visual elements that face each other on a symmetry axis have a balanced effect. This can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. Symmetry makes your picture look harmonious.

Your work becomes more interesting if you choose an asymmetrical composition and use diagonals. Due to the irregular arrangement, the effect of the painting is more vibrant and less foreseeable.

Contrasts as a fundamental element of composition in art

If you want to create tension in your painting, contrasts are one of the most effective ordering principles of composition. Through contrasting forms, light conditions, and color differences, you add more expressiveness to the composition in art.

Light – Dark – Contrasts

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600
Chiaroscuro like no other: Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600

Light and shadow areas are essential compositional elements. If a color is added, you can use them to influence the atmosphere of your picture.

Color contrasts

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Grove: Orange Sky, 1889
Bold color contrasts: Vincent van Gogh, Olive Grove (Orange Sky), 1889

Choose colors that harmonize together or contrast each other. The strongest color contrasts are those created by complementary colors. For example: yellow and blue, green and red, blue and orange.

Dynamics and statics

Asymmetrical and contrasting shapes and lines can create a sense of movement. If you draw curved lines or alternating larger and smaller parts of the picture, your picture becomes more dynamic.

With solid visual elements, you can create stillness and make your work more static: Clear horizontal and vertical lines, for example, weigh heavy and look less dynamic.

Composition in Art Piet Mondrian
Finding the perfect balance and stillness with lines and color fields: Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930

Agglomeration and scattering

By bundling similar elements, you can also create dynamics or tranquility. Place the shapes very close together or overlap them, creating a greater concentration in one part of the painting and adding stillness. Just as effective as bundling is the targeted scattering of different visual elements to make it more dynamic.


Select the center of attention to bring individual elements of the image into the viewer’s focus. To do this, condense picture elements or highlight parts of the picture in color.

A decentralized center of attention at the edge of the image creates a gravitational pull and seems more unbalanced, but is often more interesting.

Creating a Narrative in Painting: Closed vs. open compositions

A composition that shows a picture motif in its entirety is considered closed. The content can be read from left to right in a narrative manner.

See Also
How to paint a bookmark

If you only reveal a section of the picture that extends beyond the frame, we refer to an open composition. For an interpretation, this version is much more exciting.

Sequence and rhythm

A sequence is when you repeat related picture elements at a constant distance.

You can follow a rhythm here, as in music: e.g., two horizontal, three vertical, and again two horizontal lines. These can be real or imaginary lines.


Composition in Art: Perspective
Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799

The logical arrangement is one of the most important compositional elements in the visual arts. Vanishing points and the adherence to perspective principles (like the atmospheric perspective in David’s painting above) are essential to create a sense of depth.

This visual logic is foundational to the composition in art, especially in realistic drawing and painting.


Since the format of your painting surface has a significant impact on how the artwork is perceived by the viewer, it also has a critical influence on the composition of the work.

Portrait and landscape formats

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man, 1433
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man, 1433

A vertical format is particularly suitable for portraits and picture details.

A horizontal format is ideal for a closed composition that follows a narrative: For example, a landscape or history painting.

Square and elongated formats

Square formats are particularly popular for abstract representations.

Lengthy arrangements, in a ratio of 2:4 or even more extreme, are rarer and therefore very exciting.

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