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.
The composition of paintings is often designed to highlight or draw the viewer's attention to a particular part of the image. This might be a specific figure- such as the main figure in the narrative that is being depicted- or a particular action that is taking place within the scene. In this activity students will investigate the ways in which artists design their compositions using methods that will draw their audience's eyes to the parts of their paintings they feel are most important.
One way in which artists sometimes choose to highlight the most important figures or actions of their works is by placing those elements at the center of the composition. As in the previous activity, divide the class into two groups. Have students from one group view the following image, which is available from the The National Gallery of Art:
Students in the second group should view the following image, which is also available from The National Gallery of Art:
Working within their groups, ask students to identify the main focus of these images, as well as the compositional shapes that appear in the paintings. In the first painting they should identify the Madonna and Child as being the focal point. How could they tell that the Madonna and Child were the focal point of this painting? One important clue can be found in the interaction of the four figures in the painting: the two saints direct their attention towards the child in Mary's arms. Perhaps the most important clue is the placement of the Madonna and Child within the picture frame. The two figures are placed at the center of the image while the saints are placed on either edge of the canvas. Where are the Madonna and Child placed within the compositional shape of the image? Students should be able to identify the placement of the Madonna and Child at the apex of the triangular structure. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the painting.
Students in the second group should be able to identify a pyramid shape with the Madonna and Child at the apex, as shown in the first image of the PDF. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the composition of this image. Did this group also find the inverted triangle which overlaps with the pyramid? This shape is visible in the second image found on the PDF. Students should note that the two triangles overlap at the center of the painting.
Ask each group to share their findings with the class. Next, have all students view the following image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Divide the class into small groups. Working in these groups, ask students to identify the overall shape or shapes that can be found within the composition of this painting. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing of the painting's composition. Students might identify the elliptical shape that is composed by the figures in this image. This shape is apparent in the first image of the PDF document. This shape has the benefit of bounding the viewer's eye, helping it to focus on the parts of the image that are most important.
Ask students to focus on the action that is taking place at the center of this image. This may help them to focus on the way in which the ellipse is cinched at the central point of the canvas, creating the figure eight that can be seen in the diagram available from the Student LaunchPad.
In order to answer this question it may be helpful for students to know about the story that is behind this image. David is depicting the death of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who is shown as the white haired man sitting on the bed with his left arm raised. He was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning for "corrupting" Athenian youth through his philosophical lectures. One of his students—Plato—is shown with his back to the viewer and his face hidden from his teacher even as he passes the bowl of poison to Socrates.
Have students look at the three images from this activity together, along with this diagram available in the Student LaunchPad containing a line drawing for each image. Ask students to work within their small groups to think about the following questions.
You may wish to ask students to indicate with a colored marker where the focal point of the image is located. Students will soon find that the focal point of all three of the painting is at the center of the images.
Have students use the diagram showing each of the paintings discussed in this activity to discuss answers to this question. You may wish to have students draw on print outs of the PDF in order to show the relationship between the elements of the composition, the overall shape of the composition, and the focal point of the painting.
While it is a very common compositional structure, not all paintings have a triangular composition. In this activity students will be investigating some paintings which have differently structured compositions.
Divide the class into small groups of three or four students and assign one of the following images to each of the groups. Ask students to work together on identifying the compositional structure of the image they have been assigned.
The images are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The National Gallery of Art:
Do students see any recognizable shapes in the compositional structure of these images? Ask students to share with the class their groups's findings. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of their image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the compositional shape of Catlin's paintings. In some works it will be possible to identify more than one shape, such as in these paintings by Catlin. The overall shape of the first image's composition follows the oval shape of the inner frame. In addition, you may wish to point out that when viewing an image that includes figures, we often focus on the faces of the figures.
In the second painting students may identify the overall shape as a pyramid. But is it only a pyramid? Ask students to concentrate on the way in which the figures are positioned. They will most likely be able to identify an ellipse that is created from the figures that encircle the central post. This image should help students to remember that many compositions are not made up of one simple structure, but are made up of several structures interacting with each other.
Next, have students view the following image, which is available from The National Gallery of Art:
Have students work in the same small groups to identify the overall shape of the composition in this image. What shape or shapes can they identify in the composition?
Ask students to share with the class their groups' findings. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the compositional shape of Carpaccio's painting. In this case students may initially identify the shape as an oval similar to that found in the Catlin painting. Ask students to try to identify the shape of the two main elements in the painting- that of Joseph on the right, and of Mary, Jesus, and the donkey on the left. If they approach each of the elements separately, what shape would they identify?
You may wish to direct students to look at the angle of the donkey's neck and the angle of Joseph's body. What shape or form do these two components of the painting form? Students will most likely identify the composition of each of these elements as resembling pyramids. Have students look at the diagrams accessible from the Student LaunchPad to help in identifying the shape of each element more closely. How do these two diamond shaped elements interact with each other?
Ask students to concentrate on the angle that is formed by the meeting of Joseph's arm and body with the face of the donkey. Here students should see the formation of a loose "V." This point is emphasized in the diagram available from the Student LaunchPad. What shape do students see in this PDF?
Students should be able to identify a rough figure eight that encircles the two main elements of Carpaccio's painting. This painting is slightly more complicated than the previous images they have seen, but it is also an interesting way of raising the question that is the focus of the next activity: Why do painters choose to structure the compositions of their paintings in certain ways?
In this activity students will begin their introduction to composition in the visual arts, and will learn how to identify one of its major components.
What is composition in the visual arts? Initially, the most basic element of composition can be understood as what the painting is composed of-the objects that appear in the image. Have students view the following image, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Ask students to list the objects and figures of which this image is composed. Students should note the inclusion in the image of two children—a boy and a girl—a cat, a table, and two crawfish.
Identifying the objects and figures in an image is only the first step in investigating an art work's composition. An important component of a painting's composition is the relationship of each of these objects or figures to each other. Returning to the Carracci painting, ask students to gaze at the image while paying attention to the way in which their eyes naturally move around the canvas. Students should take notes on where their eyes fall, follow, and finish. Have students draw on a separate piece of paper, or on the PDF drawing of the painting's composition available in the Student LaunchPad, the direction their eyes move while gazing at the image. Did they draw a recognizable shape?
Have students download the following set of diagrams from the Student LaunchPad. As you can see from the diagrams, the shape produced by the composition of objects in this painting is a triangle. Next, have students look at the following image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and ask them to note the shape of the composition, as they have with the Carracci image.
Students should note that Leutze's nineteenth century image also has a triangular composition. Triangular compositions are very common in the history of painting in Europe and America, and were particularly favored by painters during the Renaissance. Ask students to compare the two paintings. Do they notice anything similar about the triangle that is the overarching shape of both compositions? You can download the next set of diagrams which will help students to read the compositional shape of the two images. Students should note that in both of these paintings the triangles are oriented in the same direction. Ask students to contemplate:
Students may note that the triangle in each case resembles a pyramid--that it rests on its broad foundation, coming to a point near the top of the canvas. Like a pyramid, this composition lends the impression of stability and balance, which is one of the reasons that artists employ this kind of composition. Pyramid-shaped compositions can be found in portraits, history paintings, and genre paintings, as well as in landscape and still life paintings.
Divide the class into four similarly sized groups. Distribute the following images, which are available from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The National Gallery of Art, to the class, giving one image to each of the groups:
Ask students to draw a diagram similar to the ones you used in this lesson plan. Once they have finished drawing their diagram students should be put into groups of four in which each student has worked on a different painting. Have each student explain the composition of the painting he or she has been assigned to his or her partners.
Have students then write a paragraph on the back of the diagrams they have drawn explaining the composition of the painting as they have explained it to their peers. Students should hand in their diagrams and paragraphs.
Students should then write a brief summary for each image, explaining the way in which the painting they have chosen is an example of that type of composition.
1-2 class periods