The Elements of Composition in Art

The 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 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:


Symmetrical Balance

Symmetrical balance is a very formal and stable type of balance. It keeps both sides of the vertical axis in almost complete harmony with each other by creating a mirror effect that causes both sides to have almost the exact same elements.





This painting above “Grim reflection” is an example of symmetrical balance because the elements on both sides of the vertical axis are almost identical. The picture is very balanced, calming and easy on the eyes due to this type of balance.


Asymmetrical Balance

Asymmetrical balance is quite the opposite of symmetrical balance. Also known as informal balance, has different elements on either side of the vertical axis but these elements carry equal visual weight. It can also be said that the elements are in contrast with each other.




The painting “Nothing lasts but gold” is good example of asymmetrical balance. The tall dark structure on the right is equally balanced out by a completely different element on the on the left. The contrast of balance can also be seen by the arrangement of the elements. The dark structure starts out very heavy from the bottom but becomes less as it goes up, which creates not only a symmetrical balance but a shape and color contrast as well.



Contrast is everything in art. Without it, you may as well leave the canvas blank.

It is one of the principles of art which refers to the striking difference between two elements. For example, there is a strong contrast when you place a vivid red next to a dull green, or a rough texture next to a smooth texture, or a hard edge next to a soft edge, and so on.

With clever use of contrast, you can focus attention on your key features in a painting. Knowing when to create a stunning contrast and when to leave an area slightly uninviting is a powerful skill which separates good artists from great artists.


  • Color Contrast

When most people think of color contrast, they think of a clash of red against green, or purple against yellow. This is what you would call hue contrast. But you can also break color contrast into value contrast and saturation contrast.

 Value Contrast

Refers to the contrast between light and dark colors. Every color has an underlying level of lightness. A saturated yellow is lighter than a saturated blue. So, when you place a yellow next to blue, there is a contrast in hue and value.

Our eyes are very responsive to value contrast, much more so than hue or saturation contrast. That is why value is widely considered by artists to be the most important aspect of color.

This painting by Claude Monet also comes to mind when I think of a sharp value contrast:




Hue Contrast:

Hue contrast refers to the contrast between different colors on the color wheel. It is independent of value and saturation (though they often play a part). Colors which are on opposing sides of the color wheel have a strong contrast. These are referred to as 



Saturation Contrast

Refers to a contrast between saturated and dull colors. For example, a saturated yellow against a dull yellow. Many people overlook this kind of contrast, but it can add a very powerful element to your painting.




In this painting I relied mostly on saturation contrast to give the yellow the intensity it needed for the sunset. A cadmium yellow straight from the tube, which has a sharp contrast against the dull oranges, blues and purples in the rest of the painting. There is of course some hue contrast, but it is not as significant.

The image below demonstrates value contrast, hue contrast and saturation contrast in that order.



Focus or Emphasis:

Emphasis is a principal of art which refers to the use of visual elements to draw attention to a certain area, usually a focal point, in an artwork.

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.

What Should You Emphasize?

Before you try to use emphasis in your art, you need to ask yourself what am I going to emphasize? It would be counter-productive to draw attention to unimportant areas in your painting.

Consider what your focal point is and what you are trying to communicate through your painting. What is your big idea?

Starting with a painting by Mahfuzur Rahman , “Lonely Moon” Your attention is drawn towards the white glow of the moon , which stands out from the weak blues, and grays in the background.




Motion or Movement

Our paints cannot physically move, but we can paint in a way which gives the illusion or suggestion of movement. This typically involves arranging shapes in a way which leads the viewer from one point to the next in your painting; or using certain techniques with your brush to mimic the movement.

Perhaps the best example of movement in art (or at least the most famous) is Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night, which takes your eyes on a rollercoaster around all the twists and swirls.




In a still picture such as a painting or photograph, where nothing is actually moving, various strategies can be used to give the viewer a sense of movement and speed, or to move the viewer's eye through the work. These include lines, diagonals and unbalanced elements; blurring; placement; direction; and motion lines and afterimages. To create movement, the design should have a sense of flow in the picture, a sense of direction.




Notice how the picture include the movement through many ways, such as blurring and the motion that the art carries.



The Visual Element of Pattern is constructed by repeating or echoing the elements of an artwork to communicate a sense of balance, harmony, contrast, rhythm or movement. There are two basic types of patterns in art: Natural Pattern and Man-Made Pattern. Both natural and man-made patterns can be regular or irregular, organic or geometric, structural or decorative, positive or negative and repeating or random.

Natural Pattern

Natural Pattern in art is often based on the inspiration we get from observing the natural patterns that occur in nature. We can see these in the shape of a leaf and the branches of a tree, the structure of a crystal, the spiral of a shell, the symmetry of a snowflake and the camouflage and signaling patterns on animals, fish and insects.



The 'Toxic Nature’ is one of the amazing pieces by Mahfuzur Rahman. Although this is still a representational work. Mahfuzur tried to adapt the natural patterns of the branches on the trees to enhance their aesthetic appeal and uses the tree trunks and their reflections to form a structural backbone for the composition. The pattern of the branches, which would naturally have a random distribution, is restructured to form a balanced interplay between their shapes and the spaces between them. Mahfuzur impulse to balance opposing elements like horizontals and verticals or positive and negative forms is a key to understanding his work. He does it again by balancing the image with its reflection, an interplay between land and water, where the verticals of the trees cross the horizontal divide of the river.


Man-Made Pattern

Pattern in art is used for both structural and decorative purposes. For example, an artist may plan the basic structure of an artwork by creating a compositional pattern of lines and shapes. Within that composition he/she may develop its visual elements to create a more decorative pattern of color, tone and texture across the work.



Mahfuzur flattens the perspective of the painting above to allow you to see more of the fields. The scene is a patchwork pattern of shapes and colors that invites you on a journey through its undulating landscape. The artist leaves a strip of sky at the top of the picture which helps you to experience the scale of its panorama, a scale that would certainly be diminished if he had omitted the horizon, lowered the eye level or used a conventional perspective. Mahfuzur also reduces the effects of aerial perspective by standardizing the size of his brushstrokes and strengthening the hues of the distant fields in order to increase the radiance of their color.


The importance of proportion in art can play a critical role in whether or not your drawings look realistic. Proportion is not the size of an object, but rather it is the size of the object in relation to other objects around it. If you’re drawing an image of a man walking his dog and the man is the same height as the house he is walking in front of, the drawing will not be believable. So how do we work with proportion?

Be aware of details and really seeing things as they are : Most people see things without seeing as an artist sees.  An artist notices all the details and how they relate to the object as a whole and how that object relates to other objects. In the still life painting above, the artist took note of how the gold cup on the left was only about half as tall as the vase next to it. And the terracotta vase next to that was a few inches shorter. He also paid attention to the girth of each vase. The silver platters on either side of the painting are similar, but the bowl part appears to be of different depths and diameters.

Learning to notice details like proportion is a skill. Whether you use a measuring tool to help you or not, it isn’t something to be overlooked. You simply cannot ignore the importance of proportion in art. Take the time to practice seeing and determining how one object relates to other objects next to it. Learning how to do this well will level up your drawings into the realm of realism.


Rhythm is a principle of design that suggests movement or action. Rhythm is usually achieved through repetition of lines, shapes, colors, and more. It creates a visual tempo in artworks and provides a path for the viewer’s eye to follow

  1. A repetition of forms generates a formal rhythm, where the forms into the space mark this movement.

  2. A repetition of colors generates a chromatic rhythm, where the sight is directed towards the different points where the colors are repeated and this call more the spectator attention.

  3. And finally, we have a repetition of lights or shades, which generate a light rhythm (there are forms and diverse colors but the tones do the rhythm).

  4. In addition, the order how the visual elements are arranged it will mark the speed or intensity of the rhythm



In the representation of nature, we can also take advantage of the idea of rhythm and create very interesting and beautiful images. Our decisions to place the forms, lights and colors, they must be thought with the concept of rhythm. In a work there can be more or less pace, from a void pace, for being a very flat work, up to a very frantic pace, based on thousands of forms and repetitions. According to the pace that we want to transmit, more rapid or slow, we will need to draw or to paint those repeated forms.

The rhythm must not be understood only in a global way, of the whole topic, but also as the small elements inside the image that they will be repeated.

Think about the rhythm always is a good element to add in our artworks and composition. This gives it more quickness and energy to the image and even the sense of the topic.


Unity in art is a principal where the elements of art used or placed in such a manner, it creates a wholesomeness resulting in unity in the composition of the artwork.

A viewer can realize that unity is achieved when the elements used to support each other and do not compete. Unity in art can create harmony all the elements jointly bring out the complete artwork or the concept in the artwork in a cohesive manner.

Unity and variety in art are often discussed together, because ultimately an artwork must contain both unity and variety to be a successful work of art, and there must be balance between the two.

“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.” – William Somerset Maugham

Unity can be very subtle when done well. A unified artwork will just look right, complete, and pleasing. Principles of art unity is not necessarily just a repetition of the same element over and over again, but it is the pleasing combination of elements to create the big picture.

Compositional Unity

-An artist creates compositional unity by organizing all the visual aspects of a work

-Too much similarity of shape, color, line, or any single element or principle of art can be monotonous and make us lose interest

-Too much variety can lead to a lack of structure and the absence of a central idea

Conceptual Unity

-Conceptual unity refers to the cohesive expression of ideas within a work of art

-The expression of ideas may not look organized, but
an artist can still communicate them effectively by selecting images that conjure up a single notion

-Artists bring their own intentions, experiences, and reactions to their work. These ideas—conscious and unconscious—can also contribute to the conceptual
unity of a work

Gestalt Unity

-Gestalt is a German word for form or shape

-Refers to something in which the whole seems greater than the sum of its parts

-We get a sense of gestalt when we comprehend how compositional unity and conceptual unity work together















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