Eight Types of Artistic Composition

What is Composition?

Composition is an element of artwork which allows artists to direct the viewers’ eye and have an effect on the emotional feel of their work.  More specifically it is how we arrange visual elements in a work of art that directs the viewers’ eye through the painting, or a specific place, typically a main element or center piece.  This makes the work of art engaging, interesting, and appealing to the viewer.

Movement in Composition

Movement in composition is about directing the eye to follow a single flowing line or a number of lines in a work of art.  Typically, movement makes art feel more alive or action oriented.  An example is Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.  The entire painting is very flowing and fluid.  The brush strokes create lines in the sky which lead the eye through the upper painting, hills, village, and even the tree.  What other painters might have painted in a more static way Van Gogh gives life and energy.

Movement can also be conveyed by flowing cloth, drapery, arms open wide and action poses of people.  People like to look at people and this will innately draw the eye.  A number of people in a work of art all looking in a specific direction will direct the eye as well.

Proximity in Composition

Using proximity lets us create relationships between different objects, allowing us to control the eye throughout a work of art.  More specifically, these are the relationships of how these different objects fit together or interact in a work of art.  Large versus small objects and objects closer to the viewer versus those which are farther away are examples of using this type of composition.

Rhythm in Composition

Rhythm in composition is about using similar shaped elements to lead the eye from one item to another often in a fast or rapid succession, boxing the viewer into the work of art by driving the eye throughout the painting but not away from it.  Rhythm does not need a main or final focal point in the artwork.

Contrast in Composition

Contrast is created when there are conflicting elements in a piece of art.  This, often dramatic, technique contrasts light and dark values, complementary colors, as well as contrasting shapes to create moods and lead the eye where the artist desires.  Subtle lighting cues can lead the eye to specific places in a work of art and convey emotion.  Less subtle lighting can instantly draw the eye when a viewer first looks at the artwork.

Emotionally, shadows are dangerous, menacing, hopeless, full of despair and doom, while light gives the feeling of hope, trust, safety, peace and purity.  Contrasting these elements creates a dynamic and sometimes epic feel to a work of art.

Emphasis in Composition

Emphasis allows us to create a main or initial focal point in a work of art; a place where the viewers’ eye is led to or a place which will initially grab the viewers’ attention.  Emphasis can be a great directional tool as can be seen in The Scream by Edvard Munch.

Here, the first thing we see is the figure screaming in the foreground.  From this initial point you might navigate through the painting through use of motion, proximity, and contrast, eventually returning to the screamer.

Balance in Composition

Somewhat subjectively, balance determines how pleasing a work of art can be.  Balance creates a sense of harmony in a work of art which keeps a viewer drawn in rather than just glancing and passing by.  Art with a balance in composition will have people, objects, colors, and sizes balanced between a fulcrum which is often the center of the work.  While not pictured here, The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci is a perfect example of balance in composition.

Variety in Composition

Variety in composition is visually interesting and engaging due to the use of different forms or types of objects as well as utilizing a variety of contrasting shapes, colors, and/or values.  Usually this includes a variety of other composition types.  Techniques might include varying the size and shape of the elements, using different elements on each object, using close objects and far objects as well as light and dark elements.  Examples include The Terracotta Army in China, if viewed as a whole, or Night Cafe by Vincent Van Gogh, with its different shapes for tables and chairs and other elements, as well as contrasting colors and unique use of shadow.

Unity in Composition

Unity is another combination composition method where the artist is trying to evoke feelings of completeness or equilibrium from the viewer by the placement and positioning of its different elements.  Unity and Variety go hand in hand.  The main difference between the two being the feeling the artwork may convey to the viewer.  It gets somewhat subjective but unity strives to find an overall stability, harmony or completeness while Varity in Composition is not concerned with this.

A good example of this form of composition is School of Athens by Raphael.

This painting has many individual people with a lot of variety in shapes, positions, and colors.  This painting also uses proximity, balance, and contrast in light and dark as well as contrasting the colors of the people against the monotone backdrops. The balance between the left and right side of the painting as well as the painted border draws the viewer into the work and helps it feel complete or unified.


Keep these types of composition in mind when looking at works of art, or when creating your own, and you will be able to notice, or create, how the eye is drawn throughout the piece and the emotions that it might draw out as well.

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Michael Simpson