What is Composition in Art?

Hi friends! Happy TGIF!

I thought this would be a good time to write a little introductory post to the world of composition in fine art.  This coming Tutorial Tuesday will be the start of a few videos I’ve made dedicated to helping you lean the basics of what makes a good composition (I meant it to be two videos but it’s actually going to be three because my second video ended up being 40min long!!! Who wants to sit for 40min and listen to me blab on and on!? So it’s broken up into two 20-min videos 🙂

So before we go into what makes a good composition, let’s have a look at what composition means:


The definition of composition from dictionary.com is described as the action of putting things together; formation or construction.

This is a good definition for us because in art, composition is literally the way you piece together your painting.  It describes all of the elements you have in your painting (both main subjects and background objects), and the way your chosen colours, placing of the subjects, and use of the canvas space interact to give an overall impression of your artwork.

The goal of good composition is to retain the viewer’s attention, leading them around your painting, guiding them through all your painting has to offer before letting their eyes drift back to the main subject of your painting.  A good composition is the difference between a viewer taking one slight look and moving on, and stopping in their tracks to get a better look at your work.

So what are the elements of composition?

Composition consists of the following:

  • Focus – your main subject.  Other elements will be dulled down to draw attention to this focal point.
  • Space – where your subject is located on the canvas and the relationship it has to its surroundings
  • Colour – the hues,tints,tones, and shades in your art and the feeling they provoke in the viewer
  • Line – movement through your painting.  This can be created with an actual line drawn on canvas or in a grouping of objects that form a visual linear path through your image
  • Shape – The overall clusters of items in your painting and how they’re perceived.  This cam be actual geometrical shapes or organic, non-defined shapes.
  • Balance – The overall feeling of the artwork being stable.  A balanced painting makes the viewer feel more comfortable looking at your painting, while an unbalanced painting gives a feeling of uneasiness (although the viewer will probably not be able to determine why they feel that way, they’ll just feel like something is “off”)
  • Contrast – the distinct difference between areas in a painting.  A high contrast painting is sharp and attention-grabbing, although can be off-putting.  A low contrast painting can fail to catch the eye of a viewer, although once looking the viewer will feel soft, calm and comfortable looking at the image.  Generally a happy mix between the two is what to strive for, unless your art is making  a statement that can use a high or low-contrast image to help convey the message.
  • Unity– elements within the painting that are similar.  This can add to balance.
  • Variety – elements withing the painting that are different.  This helps a painting be interesting and intriguing to the viewer
  • Scale –  the perceived size of the elements within your painting, as they relate to one another.  This is another element that if it is wrong, the viewer will feel off-putted and uncomfortable looking at your painting.  On the other hand, deliberate exaggerated scale and proportion in a painting, so much that the viewer understands it is intentional, can add to variety and interest.
  • Pattern – the repetition of an object or certain element in a painting. This can add interest and balance to a painting.  Our brains love patterns.  Just be careful not to overdo it as too much pattern can make our brains start to zone out and become uninterested.

Alright, so there you have it! Hopefully you now understand a bit more about what composition is all about (it’s literally everything about how you put together an image!).  Thinking about all these things when you’re trying to paint can make you crazy!!! But don’t worry, I’ll be posting my first composition-related video on Tuesday!! In the upcoming videos I’ll be sharing with you the two rules of good composition, and well as 10 tips for good composition!

Also please keep in mind that if you’re a beginner this can look overwhelming, but as you paint more and more and start to see what good compositions look like, most of this stuff will start to become intuitive.  You’ll simply want to place your subjects in certain areas, and you’ll think “this looks nice here” – well that’s your composition instincts at work!!  So don’t get worried about this stuff!

I hope you’re looking forward to our upcoming tutorial videos, and I’ll talk to you real soon!

-Ashley <3


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