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How to Understand Composition in Art

In the art world, composition means the way that a work is arranged to communicate the artist’s ideas to the viewer. Sound confusing? Our crash course will help.


  • Step 1: Check perspective If the work is a painting or drawing, observe its perspective, or the concept that creates the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. Popular techniques will often draw the viewer or distract the viewer from the subject of the piece.
  • Step 2: Survey the light Survey how the artist uses light and contrast to hold the viewer's attention and guide their eye through the artwork.
  • Step 3: Note colors Note placement of color in the work. Warm colors, like red or yellow, often draw attention, while cool colors, like blue, can create space and relax the viewer.
  • Step 4: Look for texture Look for visual texture, which is surface quality that can be seen or felt and that often creates the illusion of the actual textured surface.
  • Step 5: Observe space Observe how the artist uses space, or the area between and around objects that are arranged to create either symmetry or disorder. Balanced space often expresses symmetry, while asymmetry or crowded areas can portray disorder, or act as points of emphasis.
  • Step 6: Look at proportion Observe the proportion of the art piece, or the way items are placed next to one another to create harmony. Check if certain elements are next to others to balance the size or to add a larger contrast for emphasis.
  • TIP: A comprehensive art history book will give you more information about composition through analysis and commentaries on specific famous pieces.
  • Step 7: Step back to view the piece again Step back and take a complete look at the work. Keep everything you’ve noticed in mind, but don’t forget that a great work of art is much more than the sum of its parts.
  • FACT: Michelangelo was 26 years old when he finished sculpting the David.

You Will Need

  • Art
  • Patience
  • A good art history book (optional)

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