The 8 Elements of Composition in Art

Artist painting in his studio
The way you arrange things in a painting helps lead the viewer's eye across the composition. Read article on rhythm in composition.... Tom Werner / Getty Images

Composition is the term used to describe the arrangement of the visual elements in a painting or other artwork. It is how the Elements of Art and Design - line, shape, color, value, texture, form, and space - are organized or composed according to the Principles of Art and Design - balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, unity/variety -  and other Elements of Composition, to give the painting structure and convey the intent of the artist.

Composition is different from the subject matter of a painting. Every painting, whether abstract or representational, regardless of subject matter, has a composition. Good composition is essential to the success of a painting. Done successfully, good composition draws the viewer in and then moves the viewer's eye across the whole painting so that everything is taken in, finally settling on the main subject of the painting.

In his Notes of a Painter, Henri Matisse defined it this way: "Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings."

Elements of Composition

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. They help give structure to the layout of the painting and the way the subject is presented. They can also encourage or lead the viewer's eye to wander around the whole painting, taking in everything and ultimately coming back to rest on the focal point.

In Western art the Elements of Composition are generally considered to be:

  • Unity: Do all the parts of the composition feel as if they belong together, or does something feel stuck on, awkwardly out of place?
  • Balance: Balance is the sense that the painting "feels right" and not heavier on one side. Having a symmetrical arrangement adds a sense of calm, whereas an asymmetrical arrangement creates a more dynamic feeling. A painting that is not balanced creates a sense of unease. (See example)
  • Movement: There are many ways to give a sense of movement in a painting, such as the arrangement of objects, the position of figures, the flow of a river. (See example) You can use leading lines (a photography term applicable to painting) to direct the viewer's eye into and around the painting. Leading lines can be actual lines, such as the lines of a fence or railroad, or they can be implied lines, such as a row of trees or curve of stones or circles.
  • Rhythm: In much the same way music does, a piece of art can have a rhythm or underlying beat that leads your eye to view the artwork at a certain pace. Look for the large underlying shapes (squares, triangles, etc.) and repeated color. (See example)
  • Focus (or Emphasis): The viewer's eye ultimately wants to rest on the "most important" thing or focal point in the painting, otherwise the eye feels lost, wandering around in space. (See example)
  • Contrast: Paintings with high contrast - strong differences between light and dark, for example - have a different feel than paintings with minimal contrast in light and dark, such as in Whistler Nocturne series. (See example) In addition to light and dark,  contrast can be differences in shape, color, size, texture, type of line, etc.  
  • Pattern: A regular repetition of lines, shapes, colors, or values in a composition.
  • Proportion: How things fit together and relate to each other in terms of size and scale; whether big or small, nearby or distant.

The Elements of Composition are not the same as the Elements of Art, though composition is sometimes included as one of the latter.

Further Reading 

Updated by Lisa Marder 7/20/16