Composition in Art: Definition & Elements

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  • 0:05 Composition in Art
  • 0:44 The Elements of Art
  • 2:40 Principles of Design
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Analyzing a work of art is complicated, but the first step is exploring the composition. In this lesson, we'll check out the components of composition and see just how they interact to make a great work of art.

Composition in Art

Have you ever been in an art gallery and found yourself wishing that you could say something really impressive? Well, today's your lucky day!

Artists and those who study art share their own unique language, and learning this language is the first step to not only truly understanding and appreciating art, but also being able to talk about it. The first step is learning the rules of composition. When talking about the composition of a work of art, we're not talking about the meaning or message, we're only talking about the physical components. For many great masterpieces, we can't even begin to truly appreciate the meaning until we've examined and talked about the composition. Plus, it's really impressive.

The Elements of Art

Composition can be divided into two categories of discussion. The first category is the elements of art. Elements are the individual components of a piece of art. These are what form the basis of the aesthetic or overall visual effect of the art. There are eight major elements we look for in a composition.

First is line. This sounds simple, but we're looking at more than just whether or not the composition has lines. The size, direction, thickness, darkness, weight, and texture of lines can all drastically change the appearance of art. The next element is shape. Again, we need to describe the sort of shapes found throughout the composition, whether they are 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional. Third, we can look for volume or mass, which is the real or perceived weight of shapes or objects. Fourth, we can look at color. What colors are prominent? Are they warm, cool, and similar to each other, or different? Fifth, we look at texture. Are the real or perceived textures soft, hard, bumpy, smooth, or anything in between?

Now we can move on to the slightly more complex elements, starting with light. Many works of art change when exposed to different kinds of light. Just think about the way shadows move across a sculpture throughout the day. At the same time, many paintings try to capture the essence of different kinds of light, each of which impacts the composition in different ways.

From light, we move to space. How are things situated and arranged within a composition, and if the work is 2-dimensional, is the illusion of space realistically depicted or not?

Finally, let's talk about time. Many works of art, both 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional, imply movement in their posing or direction. Some kinetic works of art actually move. Movement implies time, and how the artist deals with the reality of time can tell us a lot about their composition.

Principles of Design

At this point, we've covered the elements of art, but now we need to know how they interact. That's the other half of composition. The principles of design describe the arrangement and interaction of the elements of art.

The first thing we need to look at is the uniqueness of objects and shapes. Basically, is there any repetition (the repeating of a shape), pattern (recurring arrangements of shapes), or rhythm (patterns with slight variations)?

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