Art Terms: What Does Composition Mean in Art?

I've recently been questioning my art students alot about the art term "composition". I think it's a good art term to discuss with questions like: "What is composition?" and "What makes a good composition? - or a "bad composition?" Or, are there really any "bad compositions" since art is subjective - and the artist, after all, decided himself where to place the elements in his work - and - who are we to judge good from bad?

These types of discussions and dialogue are the ones that get me excited about art - and are great ways to brainstorm ideas and creative thinking with your students. Unfortunately, because art has been cut out of so many schools, many young kids (or even adults) don't even know what composition in art means.

Let's take a look at some definitions.

The definition of composition in art

So when we talk about composition in art, we are not talking about a musical piece or compost in a garden. We are basically talking about how an artist decides to arrange the elements in his artwork. According to Wiki (which has a great definition btw), this is the way composition is defined:

"Composition is the final product of the artist's decisions when making their art piece. It describes where parts of the piece are in comparison to each other. A composition can be symmetrical or asymmetrical."

And another definition for composition:

"Composition is the placement or the arrangement of the elements of the work or art. The basic objective is to select a proper place and place the correct elements within the piece of work in order to render the ideas and the feelings to the one who views the works. This is the most basic and foremost element in drawing and photography."

Example of symmetrical composition in art: Facade of the Throne Room.Babylon,colored, glazed bricks. 604-562 BCE. The frieze of lions was presumably arranged symmetrically so that the animals faced toward the central main entrance to the throne room.
Example of symmetrical composition in art: Facade of the Throne Room.Babylon,colored, glazed bricks. 604-562 BCE. The frieze of lions was presumably arranged symmetrically so that the animals faced toward the central main entrance to the throne room. | Source
Artwork I did in adobe illustrator which displays a symmetrical composition. Similar tones, values, elements and patterns.
Artwork I did in adobe illustrator which displays a symmetrical composition. Similar tones, values, elements and patterns. | Source

Symmetrical composition in art

We all have seen artwork where everything seems to fit together and seem to have equal shapes and form. Patterns come to mind when I think of this type of art. Chances are that when you have been viewing this type of art, you are viewing a composition that is considered symmetrical. Symmetrical compositions in art are usually:

  • balanced
  • have similar size shapes, lines, line direction, size, texture, values and colors
  • may be divided into equal parts
  • tend to have low contrast between elements
  • can be considered decorative
  • may have patterns and/or repeating elements
  • tend to be more passive in their design
  • may evoke a more "calming" influence

"Symmetrical balance can be described as having equal "weight" on equal sides of a centrally placed fulcrum. It may also be referred to as formal balance."


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Asymmetrical composition in art

On the flip side, we also have whats called "asymmetrical" design in composition when we are referring to an art piece. Asymmetrical design has these elements:

  • it is not "balanced"
  • the elements in the art are not used in equal amounts or equal parts.
  • It uses elements which are not often repeated
  • tends to have a more provoking response upon viewing


"Asymmetrical balance, also called informal balance, is more complex and difficult to envisage. It involves placement of objects in a way that will allow objects of varying visual weight to balance one another around a fulcrum point."


Poll on art compostion

Do you have a better understanding of composition in art after reading this hub?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Kind of but it's still a little confusing to me
See results without voting

An artists thoughts on composition

Like I mentioned earlier, art can be very subjective. Sometimes we never know what the artist intended for us to see, and sometimes it's glaringly obvious. As an artist myself and an art teacher, I think it's important to have these discussions about composition, and to also play around with various elements when we are creating art or photography.

I have done designs with patterns, and I have also done glaring blasts of paint on canvas that bordered on the abstract. Sometimes, I have struggled over and over where exactly I wanted to place certain elements in my art.

And this is where I think the true definition of art in composition comes into play: that composition in art is the final place an artist decides to put their elements in their artwork.

After all, It is the artists ultimate say to how their composition is put together, and we, as critics, can agree or disagree with how the artist has done this, but this does not mean that anyone is "right" or "wrong" in their opinions. Like I always tell my art students "Art is not perfect" and "There are no mistakes in art".

Test your knowledge on composition - symmetrical or asymmetrical?

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Comments 7 comments

Gail Meyers profile image

Gail Meyers 3 years ago from United States

Dorsi, I love this artwork. I especially like the cross of butterflies you made. Voted up!


Dorsi profile image

Dorsi 3 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area Author

Thanks Gail for stopping by and the beautiful compliment (and the Butterfly Cross is one of my favorites too!)


vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 3 years ago from Nashville Tn.

Hi Dorsi - You are a masterful teacher! I have learned enough from your lesson on composition to impress my circle of friends :)

Can't wait for another lesson and you've also inspired me to try my hand at art. Who knows?

I just might be another grandma Moses - I qualify in age:) Up +++ and sharing.


suzzycue profile image

suzzycue 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I was seeing if I get this. Is the last one with the sculpture of the woman symmetrical because it has equal parts centering the fulcrum point? Do you always have to have a fulcrum point? I like your art lessons. Thank you Dorsi.


Dorsi profile image

Dorsi 3 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area Author

@vocalcoach) Good for you vocal, glad you enjoyed the art lesson!

@suzzy) I would say this work has both elements in it but leans more on asymmetrical. There are similar shapes yet also contrasting ones, it does have alot of balance...which could be another lesson around composition too.


suzzycue profile image

suzzycue 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Thanks Dorsi asymmetrical really was my first choice but I was unsure. Keep posting I love art lessons.


Dorsi profile image

Dorsi 3 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area Author

Thanks suzzy for coming by. Glad you enjoyed the hub!

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