Art Term Tuesday: Composition

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

In art, composition is the arrangement of elements in an artwork. The elements of art are most often defined as color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value; though, sometimes mark-making, material, and perspective are considered as well. Using these elements, and guided by the principles of design, a great composition can be built which leads to a great piece of art. 

A great work of art conveys something to the audience. Perhaps the artist is painting a scene from a story; if the composition is poor, the story won’t be understood. If a painting of David and Goliath portrayed the characters as the same height, the impact would be lost. If the artist paints Goliath from Davids’ perspective, from below, there is a greater understanding of the message of the story: a boy beating a giant. A great composition can even convey a meaning in something seemingly very simple. In the recent “Treasures from the Vault”, April Gornik’s work uses contrast and scale to great effect in sparking an understanding in the viewer. The towering, dark clouds over a windswept forest and lake are illuminated by a ray of bright light, a ray of hope in a dark time. This is an example of a strong composition creating a strong foundation for a work of art. 

This lithograph depicts a roiling storm.The blackness of the composition is cut through, at the center, by a source of light. The source of light is unknown, but it slices through the puffy, mountainous clouds from the top to the bottom of the print.
April Gornik, American, b. 1953. Light at the Source. Lithograph, 1987. Museum Purchase, 1988.01. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A quick recap of the elements of art: color is the hue one sees, modified by value and intensity; form is the actual height, width, depth, and volume of a three dimensional work, or implied in a two dimensional work, to create visual depth; lines are marks between two points, sometimes implied, sometimes gestural; shape is a form’s external edges, and these edges can be geometric or organic, each conveying a different feeling; texture is the  description of the surface quality of the artwork; value is the lightness and darkness of tone, contrast being when the values are extreme. All artwork throughout time has used these elements, though not always all of them at once, to create compelling compositions. When you look at the artwork below, which elements of art did the artist employ?

In this painting we see three women outside of a shopping district in autumn. The dark sky and leaves around the tree point to the time of year, while the brick and mortar store in the corner allude to the setting. The three women are all the same, big black hair, long blue coat, bright green pants, and dull red shoes. The two women in the background head towards the right side of the painting, swinging their bags alongside them. We cannot see their faces. The woman in the foreground, however, faces us, and her bag swings so far in front of her it leaves the painting.
Ellie Siskand, American, 1934-2019. Going Nowhere Fast. Acrylic on canvas, 1979. Gift of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art Alliance, 1979.03. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The principles of design are balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, proportion, repetition, rhythm, and variety, which all work together to create unity. Making sure that there is a balance in the visual weight across the composition, an emphasis on the subject, and a path for the viewer’s eye to move around the composition helps to keep the composition from being stale or incomplete. Using proportion to relate all parts of the composition well, rhythm for organized movement or repetition, and variety to hold a viewers attention, alongside the other principles, leads to unity of the piece as a whole: a complete composition. A final key piece of composition is viewpoint, where the position of the viewer can change the impression of the piece. The viewpoint can be eye level with the subject, on equal footing. It can be from beneath the subject to suggest dominance over the viewer or from above to imply the superiority of the viewer. Each rendering leads to different impressions of the composition to the viewer. How did the artist render viewpoint in this work?

A young woman in a white dress stares out the window of her home to a gray day.
William Forsyth, American, 1854-1935. In the Little Room. Oil on canvas, 1896. Gift of Miles J. and Lorraine H. Davis, 1991.26. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

There are techniques artists have developed over time to discover what makes the best composition, the best sense of unity. The definition of unity changed with different schools of thought as well. Comparing a medieval painting to a photograph from the 20th century, compositionally, can be apples to tomatoes based on the societal sense of unity, let alone the technological tools available. Ancient Egyptian art has no illusion of depth, everything has a set way of being portrayed. This way of painting subjects was closely tied to symbolism and a history of using art for religious purposes, so there was a strict religious code to each artwork. Ancient Greeks presented ideals, introducing values to two dimensional surfaces, which the Ancient Romans expanded upon and used to reference life as they saw it. The Greeks created the Golden Ratio, the idea that a rectangle was most aesthetically pleasing when it had a certain ratio of width and height. This Ratio was used by later artists like da Vinci and Mondrian and is still used today to create pleasing compositions.

This watercolor's composition is cut in half, cross-wise, by a rope. Above the rope, we see an oversized African mask inside a house full of boxes and the General Electric insignia. Below the rope, an amalgamation of things lie on the floor. The composition as a whole is chaotic and colorful.
Peter Williams, African American, b. 1957. Da Blues Lies. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 2003. Museum Purchase, 2003.03. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The Romans created some of the first landscapes, a composition that must use form and value, proportion and variety, to create unity. In the 13th century, perspective is introduced and the viewpoint becomes a window into real space, an extension of reality. The Renaissance invented linear perspective and vanishing points, chiaroscuro, and color harmony. Mark-making became a part of compositions with the development of painterly styles like Rembrandt’s light studies, creating movement between forms with value and shape over lines. Expansive exploration at this point in art history means many techniques are being explored as styles rise and fall with a society’s attention span and artists experiment and push boundaries all over the world. The linear history of art becomes disjointed by the Impressionists of the 1860s; with many movements happening at once, overlapping, subsiding, and reappearing. Throughout this time, compositional techniques are expanded on even more until the elements and principles are mostly agreed upon. However, artists are not limited to these techniques and are encouraged to experiment, press limits, and explore new ideas of composition. As we’ve seen, there is a great history behind composition and a great future ahead, as long as artists keep creating. 

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