• In Depth with the Full Spectrum

    Winslow Homer, The Milk Maid, 1878 (detail). A study in complementary  colors.

    In this lesson students will be introduced to the basics of the color wheel, as well as the ways in which artists use color to guide the viewer's attention through a painting's composition.

  • Lesson 1: Color Me Happy: Color, Mood, and Tone

    Winslow Homer, The Milk Maid, 1878 (detail). A study in complementary  colors.

    This lesson will introduce students to the ways artists use color to set the tone of a painting or to convey a particular mood to the viewer.

    Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
    Curriculum Unit

    Composition in Painting: Everything in its right place (4 Lessons)



    The Unit


    Composition in Painting

    Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Why is it that when we walk into a museum so many people gravitate towards the same images? What is it that many of us find so sublime about a Caravaggio? Why do we often feel pulled into the domestic calm of a Vermeer? What is it about the rich and compact images of Frida Khalo that we find so irresistible? How do we know when a painting, a drawing, or a print "works"?

    While it does not explain entirely the beauty—or the popularity—of any paintings or group of paintings, one of the most important components of paintings and drawings is its composition. The composition—the way in which a painting is composed and the way in which the painting's elements work together to form a coherent whole—is key to the success of a work of art in conveying its message and visually "hanging together." The composition is an important part of the foundation of the paintings we find so compelling. In this curriculum unit students will be introduced to composition in the visual arts, including design principals, such as balance, symmetry, and repetition, as well as one of the formal elements: line.

    Guiding Questions

    • What is composition in the visual arts, and how does contribute to the success of an art work?
    • How do the artist's compositional choices convey feeling, tone, or information to the viewer?
    • How do compositional elements guide the viewer's eye around the canvas?

    Learning Objectives

    • Define composition in the visual arts
    • Identify elements of the composition in a variety of art works
    • Explain how the artist's compositional choices work to guide the viewer's eye to important elements of the image
    • Discuss ways in which the compositional structure of a work affects the tone of the painting, or communicates information or emotional content to the viewer
    • Explain how each of these elements works to make the work successful as a painting

    Preparation Instructions

    You may wish to begin preparing for this lesson by visiting the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This web site contains a guide for learning about and identifying composition, perspective, light, color, form, motion, and proportion in Emmanuel Leutze's well known painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware.

    Composition in the visual arts is a large topic and this curriculum unit is only an introduction. There are some aspects of composition that will not be covered in this unit, but it should help students to begin to think about the kinds of choices that artists make when placing objects, figures, and natural elements in their work. The placement of objects within the picture plane is not an arbitrary act, but is the result of calculated decisions. This curriculum unit will assist students in beginning to identify some of those decisions. In addition, this lesson will help students begin to engage with the question of why artists make particular decisions.

    One of the main purposes of focusing on the composition of a piece is to help students begin to read the information contained within the paintings they are viewing. Quite often artists structure the compositions of their paintings in ways that will bring the viewer's attention to the most important elements of the painting. Works of art are often encoded with a series of visual messages, some of which are readily accessible to all audiences, and some of which are only available to smaller, more knowledgeable audiences. This lesson should help students gain an awareness of one of the most important elements of a work of art—its composition—as an initial step towards accessing more of the information within a work of art.

    • Review each lesson plan and the curriculum unit overview. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
    • Familiarize yourself with the terms that will be studied in this lesson, as they refer to the visual arts. The most important definition for this lesson is:
      • Composition: In a painting, generally refers to how the parts of the image relate to each other to create a whole. This includes the placement of objects on the picture plane, the relationship of these objects to each other, and how both of these components contribute to the expressive content of the image. It also includes how line, color, motion, proportion— everything that makes up the work of art—comes together to produce a coherent whole.

      Some additional definitions which you and your students may find helpful are:

      • Focal point: The part of the art work that draws the viewer's attention.
      • Line: When your students think of "line" they will most likely imagine the outline of objects. That definition refers to contour lines. Compositional lines in the visual arts commonly refers to the actual or implied line which move a viewer's eye around the painting. These lines may be formed by the underlying structure of a figure or object, or by a figure's line of sight. Compositional lines may reflect the shape of an article of clothing, a building, or a landscape feature, just to name a few sources. The line of an object or figure often conveys a sense of the movement or even the character of that figure.
      • Proportion: Refers to the size relationship of parts of the painting's composition, or to the size of each object relative to the other objects within the same image.
      • Motion: An artist implies motion in images through various techniques and devices- such as vigorous brushstrokes- to convey the sense that an object or figure is moving across or through the picture plane.
      • Perspective: Refers to the way in which the artist creates a sense of depth within the space of a painting. Artistic means for creating perspective include linear perspective and aerial perspective or atmospheric perspective. In European and American painting, beginning in the Renaissance period, linear perspective became a common technique used by artists. Objects, buildings, people, and spaces drawn using linear perspective appear to exist in three-dimensional space—rather than simply along the flat plane of the painting's surface- by having the lines of the drawing converge towards a vanishing point. These converging lines can be seen in the walls of the buildings in the following painting:
    • Note: All diagrams, line drawings, and questions for this lesson are available for students to download directly through the Student LaunchPad for the lesson. You can access all of the diagrams for each lesson plan directly through the Teacher LaunchPad. You should read through the Student LaunchPad in preparation for teaching each lesson.

    The Lessons

    • Lesson 1: Composition Basics

      Composition Basics Too, Adoration of Magi

      In this first lesson of the curriculum unit Composition in Painting: Everything in its right place, students will begin by learning the definition of composition in the visual arts and some of its most basic components.

    • Lesson 2: Symmetry and Balance

      Composition Basics

      Artists often structure their compositions in particular ways in order to convey a sense of harmony in the picture.  Students will use the viewing experiences of the activities in the first lesson of this curriculum unit, Composition Basics as the basis for discussing some additional compositional techniques found in the images in this activity.

    • Lesson 3: Repetition in the Visual Arts

      Repetition in the Visual Arts

      When we view paintings and other works of art our eyes usually move across the surface of the canvas, hitting on various points, objects, and figures in the picture. In this lesson students will learn about repetition, one of the techniques artists often use to highlight important elements within a painting's composition, and to move a viewer's eye around the canvas, from highpoint to highpoint.

    • Lesson 4: Line in the Visual Arts

      Line in the Visual Arts

      In this lesson students will learn about one of the most important elements in painting and drawing: line. Students will learn how line is defined in the visual arts, and how to recognize this element in painting.

    The Basics

    Grade Level


    Subject Areas
    • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
    • Critical thinking
    • Interpretation
    • Logical reasoning
    • Visual art analysis
  • Homer's Civil War Veteran: Battlefield to Wheat Field

    Winslow Homer (1836–1910), The Veteran in a New Field, 1865

    Students will compare and contrast Winslow Homer's painting The Veteran in a New Field with Timothy O'Sullivan's photograph A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, 1863. Students will imagine what a returned Civil War veteran might think and remember as he tends his wheat fields back home. Students will read a Civil War soldier's diary excerpt prior to writing and acting out a monologue.

  • Birth of a Nation, the NAACP, and the Balancing of Rights

    "Wherever it goes, the Birth of the Nation film arouses widespread indignation."

    In this lesson students learn how Birth of a Nation reflected and influenced racial attitudes, and they analyze and evaluate the efforts of the NAACP to prohibit showing of the film.

  • Portrait of a Hero

    Benjamin  Franklin.

    Heroes abound throughout history and in our everyday lives. After completing the activities, students will be able to understand the meaning of the words hero and heroic.

  • Lesson 4: The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and Us

    Created May 9, 2007
    The history of the development of the Western world's alphabets is long and  colorful.

    The purpose of this lesson is to consolidate the knowledge gained in the three previous lessons: Lesson One: The Phoenicians and the Beginnings of the Alphabet Lesson Two: The Greek Alphabet: more familiar than you think! Lesson Three: The Alphabet: The Roman Alphabet is our Alphabet

  • Lesson 3: The Roman Alphabet is our Alphabet

    The Romans used the first version of the modern western alphabet.

    The Romans developed the alphabet we still use today. In this lesson we will introduce the Romans and ask how their alphabet got to us.

  • Lesson 2: The Greek Alphabet: more familiar than you think!

    "Omega" is the last letter in the Greek alphabet.

    This lesson is about the Greeks, who inherited the alphabet invented by the Phoenicians, and used it to write their great literature.

  • The Olympic Medal: It's All Greek to Us!

    Myron's Discobolus

    Students are bound to be curious to know what all that Greek writing means. This lesson plan uses an EDSITEment created Greek alphabet animationto help students "decode" the inscription on the Olympic medal. Because the Olympic medal is both a familiar and mysterious object for students, it presents an ideal prompt to build basic literacy in the Greek alphabet. Thus, this lesson uses the Athens 2004 medal inscription as an elementary "text" to help students practice reading Greek and to help reinforce the link between ancient Greek culture and the Olympic games.