Composition is the term used for the arrangements of the elements in or the subject matter of a painting. Done successfully, it draws in the viewer and pulls their eye across the whole painting so that everything is taken in and finally settles on the main subject of the painting.
In his Notes of a Painter, Henri Matisse defined it this way: "Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings."
The Elements of Composition in art are used to arrange or organize the components in a way that is pleasing to the artist and, hopefully, the viewer. It helps give structure to the layout and the way the subject is presented. It also encourages or leads the viewer's eye to wander around the whole painting, taking in everything and ultimately coming back to rest on the focal point. In Western art they are generally considered to be:
- Unity: Do all the parts of the composition feel as if they belong together, or does something feel stuck on, awkwardly out of place?
- Balance: Having a symmetrical arrangement adds a sense of calm, whereas an asymmetrical arrangement creates a sense of unease, imbalance. (See example)
- Movement: There many ways to give a sense of movement in a painting, such as the arrangement of objects, the position of figures, the flow of a river. (See example)
- Rhythm: In much the same way music does, a piece of art can have a rhythm or underlying beat that leads and paces the eye as you look at it. Look for the large underlying shapes (squares, triangles, etc.) and repeated color. (See example)
- Focus (or Emphasis): The viewer's eye ultimately wants to rest of the "most important" thing or focal point in the painting, otherwise the eye feels lost, wandering around in space. (See example)
- Contrast: Strong differences between light and dark, or minimal, such as Whistler did in his Nocturne series. (See example)
- Pattern: An underlying structure, the basic lines and shapes in the composition.
- Proportion: How things fit together, big and small, nearby and distant.
The Elements of Composition are not the same as the Elements of Art, though composition is one of the latter.