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