The Composition

Composition is an intuitive act:  how artists work with their judgment, make associations, and determine how to direct the observer’s eye.  It’s in the “compositional” stage that they determine how the lines will lead to important areas, whether the shapes will be large enough to hold the viewer’s attention, and how the colors will lead the eye off to another part of the work.

Just as artists work with their intuition to compose a work of art, so we the viewers can “intuit” their methods.  Some important Intuitive Elements of Form to look for are Rhythm, Balance and Unity.


Rhythm helps lead the eye through a work of art.  It’s a method of organizing it, the same as in music.  Just as we “feel” the persistence of a march, the swaying of a waltz or the staccato of a polka, we “feel” the beat and tempo in tangible works of art.

rollover image of picasso's rhythm example

Move your mouse over the image above. The blue marks indicate lines and shapes used in creating the rhythm of this artwork. Look to see how the choices of color reinforce the chosen rhythm.

To simplify rhythm and more easily understand it, let’s consider two basic types of rhythm—“dynamic” or “controlled.”  By using diagonal lines, patches of colors, and varying spaces between shapes, a “dynamic” rhythm is set by the artist, creating a sense of activity.

rollover image for rhythm example 2

Scroll over the image above to see what is repeated to create the rhythm of this piece.

If spaces between shapes are even, with objects on vertical and/or horizontal lines, and colors are analogous, a more “controlled” pattern of rhythm emerges.

Now that you know the basics about Composition, click here to practice what you know.


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Balance gives viewers the feeling that all parts of the work are in equilibrium.  This element, like other compositional devices, is not difficult for us to discern since we all learned to be sensitive to balance when we began to walk.  All paintings and sculptures you see in galleries and museums are balanced in some way.  Two basic forms of balance are symmetrical or asymmetrical.  Remember, you already know all about balance and solved problems of equilibrium when you seesawed with your many different-sized chums in the park or on the playground.  That’s why you can easily recognize balance in any work of art.

this is an example of symmetrical balance

A quick way to determine the basic balance of an artwork is to draw an imaginary line down the center, and if what happens on one side generally happens on the other, we say the work is symmetrical.  This illustration simplifies symmetry’s basic organization.

these are examples of aysmmetrical balance

Asymmetrical balance will also give a sense of equilibrium—but its organization is more complex.  Just as you and your heavier seesaw partner had to figure out how to arrange yourselves on the seesaw, so the artist must play with the specific elements to bring them into balance. These illustrations below are just a few of the many possible ways artists can asymmetrically balance an artwork.

Besides arranging varying shapes and colors there are many other asymmetrical methods for balancing art. For example, a smaller area of activity can be balanced by another area of relative calm. On the left, see how the artist Fra Angelico balanced the smaller figure group in the front with the larger, simpler building and wall shapes behind.

There are endless schemes for balancing works of art, with no clear-cut distinction between symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.  Generally, a symmetrically balanced work will have a more controlled rhythm, whereas an asymmetrically balanced work of art will tend to be more dynamic in rhythm. But always remember, that no matter if the work is symmetrical or asymmetrical, it is still balanced in some way.


A successful work of art has a oneness, with all of its parts providing some relationship to the whole.  This oneness may be a unifying concept of the work, or a consistency among the various elements used. 

For example, repeating certain colors throughout has a tendency to not only lead the eye around, but also to unify the work and bring wholeness. In this painting of Ginevra de Benci by Leonardo da Vinci, we easily follow the reddish-brown colors in her hair, velvet dress, and the trees in the background. In this way our eyes move all around the composition and it appears unified.

The consistent use of deliberate paint strokes by Vincent van Gogh was one method he used to give his paintings a sense of unity.  Touches of orange and blue unite the painting’s background, and the orange further relates that area with the warm touches of orange in his jacket.

Another facet of unity is the feeling of “completion.”  In a work that is unified, no part can be added or subtracted without destroying the whole.  To understand this concept, do as artists often do—use your hand as a gauge.  The old cliché’ of an artist, standing with his thumb sticking up from his outstretched fist and squinting as he uses it as a line-of-sight, is really a serious, quick, efficient way of judging many aspects of a work’s composition.

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