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