While structured composition is not necessary in art, it can be a very dynamic component in creating two-dimensional art. We will explore some of the more traditional Western culture concepts in artistic composition. To understand compositional elements in a drawing or painting, you need to have an understanding of the fundamental framework and tools of composition that have evolved over the history of art. These structures and tools apply whether the subject is representational (from direct observation) or non-representational, which is termed "abstract."

Let's start with the basic idea of a dimensional flat surface. It has only an x-axis for height and y-axis for width (Figure 1a). 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 (Figure 1b).

Figure 1: Two-dimensional plane and three-dimensional illusion.


(a) Two-dimensional plane x and y axis representing the surface of the canvas or paper without depth (third dimension).


(b) The third dimension, foreground to background, is represented by the z-axis. The illusion of depth or a third dimension is only achieved by the paint or drawing techniques.

Understanding Compositional Tools, Structures, and Proportions

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

Compositional Tools: I think of the compositional tool as a way to create the illusion of depth and movement, as well as the visual path the artist would like the viewer to take. There are numerous tools at your disposal that can be used in various combinations. The tools include vanishing-point perspective, two-point perspective, tone and value, color value, warm and cool colors, overlapping shapes and forms, and the size and scale of shapes and forms to indicate what is closest to the viewer and what is the farthest away, with varying degrees of distance in between.  


These compositional tools can move components of the art forward and back in the viewer's eye. This illusion of various components being closer (foreground) or further away (background) from the viewer is represented by the z-axis (Figure 1b).


Compositional Structure: I define compositional structure as shapes such as the S, the Triangle, and the 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 (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Compositional structures.


(a) Eugene Delacroix , Odalisque, 1857.


(b) Eugene Delacroix , Odalisque, 1857.


(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 B.C.  The amazing thing about these proportions is that they can be found throughout nature. The mathematician, Euclid (365 B.C.-300 B.C.), documented these proportions in his "Elements" text. (See Figure 3a.)


The Golden Ratio (also known as the Golden Mean) seems to have always been a compositional principle used by artists in design, painting, sculpture, and architecture throughout history.

Figure 3: Compositional proportions.


a.  Golden Ratio or Golden Mean was developed by the Greeks in early mathematics, before 500 B.C.


b. Fibonacci Spiral


c. Rule of Thirds

The Fibonacci Spiral (also known as the Golden 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 mathematical properties as his math sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc. By dividing a 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, to 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 (Figure 3b).

The Fibonacci Spiral has been and remains an important compositional proportion that artists have used since ancient 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 plants grow.

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 3c). 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.


Master Artists' work for discussion and review for compositional elements

See if you can detect some of the compositional elements that have been discussed in the following artists' 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 student's, see if you can determine what the artist is doing with the composition of the artwork.


Al Held , Pisa II.


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


Vasily Kandinsky , Composition VIII.


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


Hans Hofmann, Combinable Wall I and II.


Claude Monet , Impression, Soleil Levant.


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