Composition refers to how a work is arranged, or more specifically, how the visual elements are arranged. Artists use composition to  lead your eye and communicate mood.  Look for these three things:

  • Shape
  • Symmetry
  • Focal Point (Emphasis)

A good composition is the engine in a work of art.  It moves you through it (or not, if the artist wants you to stall).  You do not usually notice that you’ve been pushed into a particular experience,  you just come away feeling and seeing what the artist wanted you to see and feel.   I believe it is the most important element in a work of art because if the composition is bad,  no amount of technique can fix the work.  Without the directed energy of a good composition, the viewer gets lost.

Edward Hopper is one of my favorite artists.  He is known for his ability to evoke mood.  How does he do it?


Which shapes dominate the work? How does changing the mass or shape of objects change the feeling of the work?

Edward Hopper, Hotel Lobby, 1942
Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, 1951


Edward Hopper, Chair Car, 1965
Edward Hopper, Truro, Cape Cod, 1930
Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1939

Why do we rarely see perfect symmetry in art work?  Why is asymmetrical balance preferred?


Edward Hopper, Office at Night, 1940
Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

Now it’s your turn to come up with a compelling composition.

You will receive an Aubrey Beardsley print and a view finder.  Move the viewfinder around until  a pleasing arrangement appears.  Don’t be concerned with the actual image itself, just the shapes and lines contained within the viewfinder.  If it makes it easier, turn the print upside down or sideways.  Then copy what you’ve chosen into the box below and turn it in.  There is no need to put your name on it.

















  • Do some compositions work better than others?
  • What qualities do the strongest compositions have?
  • Is this purely opinion or are we guided by internal rules?


How do the following artists use shape, symmetry and focal point  to lead the eye and create mood?

Tintoretto, St. George and the Dragon, 1560
The Conversion of St. Paul, Parmigianino, 1530
Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Thomas Eakins, The Biglin Brothers Racing, 1873-74
Diego Rivera, Flower Day, 1925
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793


  • Symmetrical, balanced works evoke peace and harmony.
  • Asymmetrical, unbalanced works evoke drama, unease or create dynamic action.

What about the last painting then?  Can you have peace and drama in the same work? Artists are tricky!