Pencil drawing of a basket of onions and garlic.

What Makes A Good Composition In Art? (The 5 Basic Principles Of Composition Explained)

The word composition is of Latin origin and means how the parts of something are arranged. Figuratively, it also means a work of art, drawing, or painting. A composition also represents the inner structure or construction of a work of art. The artist strives to achieve aesthetic order in his work of art while realizing his idea, which will be the center of interest for the artwork. Let`s find out what makes a good composition in art.

Composition refers to the arrangement of the basic artistic elements and how they relate to each other and to the work of art as a whole.

A properly constructed composition attracts attention with its main element and then guides the eye as intended by the artist. Within a composition, the elements should complement each other, not distract from each other. 

A good artistic composition aims to achieve harmony by selecting and placing design elements according to the principles of composition, along with selecting the right technique.

By applying the basic principles of visual arts you can make a good artistic composition. A visual art composition is the arrangement of the basic elements of visual arts and design according to the following principles: rhythm (repetition), harmony (unity), contrast, balance, and dominance.

The eras of art history and the styles of fine art change, but the principles of artistic composition remain constant. That is why it is important to know them, whether you’re working with traditional techniques or digital tools.

What are the basic elements of visual arts?

We use visual elements when creating a work of art. Through them, artistic communication is realized, that is, the transmission of the artist’s message.

Visual elements are the basic components of the composition, and that is why we need to know them.

The basic elements of design and visual arts are as follows:

  1. Point
  2. Line
  3. Shape
  4. Texture or structure
  5. Tonal value
  6. Position in space, direction
  7. Size

In some cases, professional literature also includes color, material, construction, composition, as well as artistic techniques among the elements of visual communication.

Basic principles of composition

Visual elements can be put together within a composition according to the following principles:

  1. Rhythm (Repetition)
  2. Harmony (Unity)
  3. Contrast
  4. Balance
  5. Dominance

1. Rhythm (Repetition)

Rhythm is present when elements are repeated at certain intervals or on the basis of a certain system.

Rhythm is one of the oldest and most basic principles applied in the field of art that creates order within a composition. Rhythm emphasizes important elements of a work of art.

If the series of elements is too short, it cannot be experienced as a rhythm. With too long a series, the repetition can become boring.

In decorative arts, the rhythm of regular repetition of elements is often applied. However, the rhythm can also be irregular if the elements go through a change as they follow one another.

If identical elements are repeated, the rhythm becomes uniform, and monotonous. The rhythm will be dramatic or dynamic when repeating elements with different characteristics.

Rhythm can appear in several different ways in a work of art, and there can be several rhythms within the same composition. Rhythm can refer to the repetition of the shape, color, or size of the elements that make up a composition.

Rhythm can be achieved by arranging the elements horizontally, obliquely, vertically, spirally, or circularly, but it should always follow the principles of decorative composition: repetition, alternation, or symmetry.

greek vase
The rhythm on this ancient Greek vase is created by the repetition of shapes with some variety.

Application of rhythm in architecture

In architecture, we find great examples of the application of rhythm.

The pillars of ancient Greek temples form an even row, as do the windows of Renaissance palaces. In these rhythms, the same elements are repeated at the same distance, which is why these buildings radiate harmony.

Parthenon Athens
The Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens

Arabesques in Islamic architecture, as well as the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, are also excellent examples of the application of rhythm in architecture.

2. Harmony (Unity)

Harmony is the assembly of elements in artwork in such a way that they work together in a harmonious way and make the composition pleasing to the eye.

The unity in an artwork is achieved by combining the elements of design, the principles of composition, and the chosen technique into one harmonious whole.

Harmony can refer to the colors, tones, and categories of elements of a composition.

The artist should choose the design elements, the principles of composition, and the technique he works in harmony with the idea he wants to communicate through his artwork. We would quickly lose interest in a work of art with disorganized and unrelated parts.


One of the most important and basic criteria of harmony is symmetry.

It is also desirable to have a certain amount of asymmetry or disharmony for the work of art to be lifelike. There is no strict symmetry in nature itself. However, too much disharmony would cause a sense of disorder in the composition. Symmetry is the basic principle of aesthetics, it creates a sense of balance and tranquility in a work of art.

Abu Simbel Egypt
Abu Simbel – Image by Loretta Rossiter from Pixabay

Sculptures in ancient Egypt were based on this concept. If we draw the axis through the center of the sculpture, it will be divided into two completely symmetrical sides.

Harmony of colors

Harmony can be achieved in several ways by using colors in a work of art:

  • Using different shades of the same color
  • Using colors of the same tonal value
  • Using colors of the same saturation
  • Harmony between complementary colors is achieved by adding neutral grays that create bonds between two opposing colors.

3. Balance

Balance in a work of art is an arrangement of design elements that ensures the visual stability of the composition.

The balance of a composition can be dynamic or static, depending on the relationship between the elements.

Central, symmetrical composition is static and balanced. The static composition is calm, there is no movement in it.

An asymmetrical composition creates a dynamic balance, guides the eyes between the points, and creates a connection between the individual elements.

The principles of balance in a composition are as follows:

  • Movement balances the mass
  • An object that is in motion appears to be larger than one that is static.
  • An object that is approaching us seems to be larger than one that is moving away from us.
  • A lighter element appears to be closer than a darker element.
  • Elements in warm colors appear to be closer than those in cool colors.
  • The object on the edge of the composition appears larger than the one in the center.

4. Contrast

Contrast is the obvious difference between the properties, qualities, or values of two or more elements.

Visual arts are based on the unity of opposite elements. If the work of art consists of properly arranged, identical elements, it will not be interesting. If the size, color, or position of one element changes, a contrast is created.

Individual elements themselves are often not interesting, but they will become so in combination with an element that has different or even opposite properties. An object will look big if there is one next to it that is small, and light will look convincing if it is next to something dark.

The artist can combine greater and lesser contrast to achieve a gentler or more dramatic impression, according to his intention.

Contrast can be created in an infinite number of ways, with elements varying in quality or quantity:

  • A small amount contrasts with a larger amount.
  • There is a contrast between a small and a large object.
  • There is a contrast between light and dark objects (light and shadow).
  • The glossy surface contrasts with the matt surface.
pencil drawing of two pots
The contrast between a large and a small object

Contrast can also be achieved by using colors:

  • Primary colors contrast with secondary colors.
  • Warm colors contrast with cool colors.
  • Complementary colors contrast with each other.
  • Saturated colors contrast with matte colors.

5. Dominance

Dominance in visual arts refers to the element that represents the visual center, the main element of the artwork. The dominant element in a work of art is the one with the greatest emphasis and the other elements are subordinated.

In a good composition, it must be clear which is the main element of the work of art. The secondary elements should be subordinated to the element intended to be the center of attention.

You can emphasize the focal point in several different ways:

  • apply the strongest contrast of dark and light to the main element,
  • use interesting color contrast in the focal point,
  • render the main element in more detail than the secondary elements,
  • use elements pointing to the main element,
  • use the sharpest edges in the focal point.

An object can dominate due to its shape, size, color, position, or tonal value.

Systems Of Composition In Visual Arts

Based on shape or proportion, there are the following types of artistic compositions:
  • square
  • rectangular
  • circular
Based on the position in space, the composition may contain:
  1. Objects in the same plane (flat composition).
  2. Shallow display of space.
  3. Linear perspective.
  4. Open composition: the focal point of the work of art lies within its boundaries.
  5. Closed composition: the message of the work of art continues beyond its edges.
A composition may consist of identical or different elements, which may be similar (harmonic) or opposite (contrasting).
Composition based on the direction in space can be:
  • Vertical
  • Horizontal
  • Central
  • Diagonal
  • Pyramidal
  • Triangular
  • Symmetrical
  • According to the golden ratio
  • According to the rule of thirds

Art history eras usually have a characteristic compositional scheme.

In ancient Egypt, the elements were arranged in a horizontal row, and Gothic art was characterized by symmetrical or triangular arrangements.

During the Renaissance, the pyramid-shaped composition was used the most, and the diagonal arrangement was used in Baroque art. Asymmetrical composition became popular in the 19th century.

Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael is an example of a pyramid-shaped composition.

The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio is a mathematical rule that is sometimes used in fine arts. According to the golden ratio, the perfect shape has a ratio of 1: 1.618. This proportion is pleasing to the eye.

The discovery of the golden ratio can be traced back to Euclid, a Greek mathematician who lived in the 4th century BC.

fibonacci - the golden ratio

According to some opinions, the golden ratio has been present in architecture since ancient Greek times. The Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens is often mentioned as the most famous example of the use of the golden ratio in architecture. Others say there is no direct evidence of the deliberate use of the golden ratio in the construction of the Parthenon.

Le Corbusier used the golden ratio when he constructed the Modulor, his famous anthropometric system of proportions. Salvador Dali applied the golden ratio to his famous painting The Sacrament of The Last Supper.

Types Of Artistic Representation

Artistic representation can be subjective or objective. If strong feelings contributed to the creation of the work of art, the artist will try to convey that to the viewers.

Realistic representation derives from the optical perception of objects, which means that the artist will choose the elements and materials with which to present the objects he saw. This method can be considered artistic only if it is not a passive imitation of seen things, but a visual reshaping.

Through the expressionist representation, the artist conveys through his work the impressions and feelings that prompted him to create a work of art. Emphasis is not placed much on the credible appearance of the objects.

Final thoughts

A good composition in art is an arrangement of visual elements in an artwork that is pleasing to the eye and elicits the desired reaction from the viewer.

The most important goal of a work of art is to provide an aesthetic experience, to convey feelings, impressions, and thoughts. Good composition emphasizes important elements and makes secondary ones subordinate.

To create a good, eye-catching artistic composition, we need to know the compositional principles described above.

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