Lecture Notes - Composition

Composition can be a very dynamic component in creating two-dimensional art (drawing and painting). In this lesson you will explore some of the more traditional Western culture concepts in artistic composition. As a side note please keep in mind that great art does not necessarily require a dynamic compositional element (See Figure 1a-c).

To understand compositional elements in a drawing or painting you need to have an understanding of the fundamental structure and tools of composition that have evolved over the history of art. These structures and tools apply whether or not the subject is representational from direct observation or if non-representational or what is termed "abstract".

Figure 1: Master paintings that do not use any definable compositional structure

Chuck Close Composition Lecture Lesson Edward Burke

a. Chuck Close  "Lyle", 2002 - Optical Realism

Gerhard Richter - Composition Lesson Lecture

b. Gerhard Richter "Abstract Painting 780-1",
1992 - Ambiguous Abstraction

Sohn Singer John Singer Sargent  - Drawing and Painting LessonsSargent

c. John Singer Sargent  "Portrait of Madame X", 1884 - Classical Painting

Mark Rothko - Drawing lesson Composition

d. Mark Rothko "Black in Deep Red", 1957
Color Field Painting

Two-dimensional art has only an x-axis for height and y-axis for width (See Figure 2a). Any visual depth is an illusion created on a two-dimensional surface by a painting or drawing technique, this illusion of depth is the z-axis (See Figure 2b) Figure 2: Two dimensional plane and three dimensional illusion.

2d Plane

a. 2 Dimensional plane x and y axis representing the surface of the canvas or paper without depth (3rd. Dimension)

3D plane

b. The 3r d dimension, foreground to background is represented by the z-axis, the illusion of depth or a 3rd dimension is only achieved by the paint or drawing techniques




Understanding Compositional Structures, Tools and Proportions

There is a substantial amount of compositional tools, structures and proportions that artists can use when composing an image. The structures are very traditional and are used in classical paintings and contemporary artwork as well.

Compositional Tools: I think about Compositional Tools as a way in which we create the illusion of depth in a work of art. There are a great variety of tools at your disposal and they can be used in various combinations: such as, vanishing point perspective, two point perspective, tone and value, color value, warm and cool colors, over lapping shapes and forms, size and scale of shapes and forms to indicate what is closest to the viewer and what is the furthest away with varying degrees of distance in between.

These compositional tools can move components of the art forward and back in the viewers' eye. This illusion of various components being closer (foreground) or further away (background) from the viewer in the picture is be represented by the Z-axis (Sea Figure 2b).

Compositional Structure: I define Compositional Structure as shapes such as the S,Triangle and Circle. These shapes help define the organization of the picture and move the viewer's eye along the desired paths of the two-dimensional planes. These basic structures/shapes can be seen in classical paintings and drawings (See Figure 3). Figure 3: Compositional Structures

Eugene Delacroix Paintings Composition Lessons Drawing and Painting

a. Eugene Delacroix "Odalisque" 1857

Pierre Narcisse Guérin “Aurora and Cephalus" Drawing And Painting Lessons - Edward Burke

b. Pierre Narcisse Guérin "Aurora and Cephalus", 1810

Lecture Artistic Composition - Drawing And Painting Lessons

c. Henri Matisse  "Bathers with a Turtle", 1908


Compositional Proportions and Object Placement: There are three systems that come to mind, Golden Ratio, Fibonacci Spiral and The Rule of Thirds.

Although the exact history of Phi, "The Golden Ratio" is not known, it was developed by the ancient Greeks in early mathematics before 500 BC. The amazing thing about these proportions is that they can be found throughout nature. The mathematician, Euclid (365 BC - 300 BC) documented this proportions in his "Elements" text. (see figure 4a)

The Golden Ratio seems to have always been a compositional principle used by artists in design, painting, sculpture and architecture throughout history. There are endless examples of how these proportions in art are found in nature.

Figure 4: Compositional Structures

Golden Proportions Drawing Lesson Composition

a.  Golden Ratio or Golden Mean Developed in early mathematics by the Greeks before 500 BC.

b. Fibonacci Spiral

Rule of Thrids - Drawing Lessons

c. Rule of Thirds


If you would like to figure out what size your substrate needs to be to fit the Golden Ratio you can simply use this online Proportional Calculator or you could do the math. As an example, if you want your work to be in proportion the Phi = 1:1.618, enter in the "Original Size" as 1 for width and 1.618 as height. Then in the Resize enter in a width, for example of 24" then press "Resize". This will provide you with an approximation of a Golden Ratio for the size of your art, 24" x 38.832".

The Fibonacci Spiral is closely related to the Golden Ratio, however Fibonacci integrated another degree of elegance to the proportions. He found that Golden Ratio had the same mathematic properties as his math sequence; 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc. By dividing the rectangle with the square of its shorter side the remaining rectangle has the exact ratio 1:1.618 and if he divided that triangle with the square based on its shorter side the resulting triangle is the same proportions as the previous rectangles, and so on, infinity. Drawing an arc from one corner of each square resulted in a perfect spiral that would also be infinite. The Golden Spiral's mathematics and the resulting image are elegant and beautiful (see Figure 5.)

Fibonacci Spiral has been and is another important compositional proportion that artists have used from ancient and contemporary times. You can also see the spiral in the organic world from the obvious such as the Nautilus shell or a breaking ocean wave to the proportions of how leaves and plant life grows.

Another proportion and object placement system is "The Rule Of Thirds". The concept basically is to divide your image area into a grid using thirds horizontally and vertically (see Figure 6). Placing the important elements of your composition at the intersections will create a tension and interest that is preferable to centering or other placements that are less interesting. The "Rule Of Thirds"', is used less by painters and more often by photographers and filmmakers.


Artist for discussion and review for compositional elements

See if you can detect some of the compositional elements that we have been discussed in the following artist work. Some notations have been added to a few to help you see the structures. Now when you look at artwork whether it is a master work of art or a students, see if you can determine what they are doing with the composition of the artwork.

Al Held - Drawing and Painting Lessons

Al Held "Pisa II"

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) “Raising of Lazarus�

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) "Raising of Lazarus"

 Paul Cézanne “Pommes et Oranges“  Drawing & Painting Lessons

 Paul Cézanne “Pommes et Oranges“

Paul Cézanne "Pommes et Oranges" - This diagram on top of the painting shows the compositional element
based on a "X" structure.

Vasily Kandinsky “Composition VIII�  - Drawing lesson on compositional sturctutes

Vasily Kandinsky "Composition VIII"

Richard Pousette-Dart “Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental�

Richard Pousette-Dart "Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental"

Hans Hofmann “Combinable Wall I  - Painting Lessons - Freeand II�

Hans Hofmann "Combinable Wall I and II"

Claude Monet “Impression, Soleil Levant�  - Art Lessons - Compotition

Claude Monet "Impression, Soleil Levant"

Frances Bacon Art - Drawing And Painting Lessons online

Frances Bacon

Thomas Peplo e Wood

Thomas Peploe Wood - In his painting you can clearly see the use of the Fibonacci Spiral.