Formal Elements and Principles of Composition

All artists use formal elements and principles of composition in their works of art. These are the basic elements of each work, and learning them is a big step in learning the vocabulary of art. All of these work together to convey the themes and ideas of the artist.


Fighting Forms By Franz Marc, 1914 – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

The formal elements are the basic building blocks of a work of art. They are what artists use to create the piece that you will view. A basic list of them would be line, light and value, shape and volume, texture and pattern, color, time and motion, and space. Not every single one of these will be used in every work of art, and artists choose which formal elements best help them to convey their message. If you look at the painting above by Franz Marc, notice how he is using line to blend the shapes and colors together to convey the chaos and fear caused by the outbreak of World War I. michelangelo2c_drawing_from_the_tribute_money_by_masaccio_28munich_kupferstichkabinett29

Michelangelo, Sketch of St. Peter from the Tribute Money, 1492-93, By see filename or category (Michelangelo‎, di Enrica Crispino, 2001) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you look at the use of line by Michelangelo in the sketch above, it defines and contours the figure. He used the line to define the shape and form, and the diagonal line of the arm give a sense of motion and emotion in the piece. Michelangelo is also using chiaroscuro to create the sense of a three-dimensional figure in a two-dimensional work.

Going back to Franz Marc’s painting above, notice the way he is using light and value to give a sense of depth within non-representational forms. He is using lighter tints, colors with white added, and darker shades, colors with black added, to create that three-dimensionality within the forms. The colors used also create emotion.


Tlingit, Chilkat Blanket, By Uyvsdi (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The piece above uses pattern to create the overall design on the work. The pattern here uses both geometric and more organic shapes. The fringe on the bottom also gives an actual texture to the work. Actual texture is that which is created by the materials used by the artist who wove the blanket. Texture can also be implied, as in Michelangelo’s  sketch which gives the texture of the clothing the figure is wearing.


The Last Supper By Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-98  (File:Última_Cena_-_Da_Vinci_5.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Another way to create spaces in a work is to give depth. Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is an excellent example of the use of one-point linear perspective to create depth. Notice how the figure of Jesus in the scene is both the center of the piece and the vanishing point of the scene. The horizon line goes directly through the center of the work, and all of the orthagonals, or diagonal lines, converge at that vanishing point. There are other types of perspective, such as isometric, used in architectural drawings, or oblique. And often, perspective in art uses two or three vanishing points. In every case, this is a means to create three dimensionality within a two dimensional space.


Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze, 1875-76, By Daniel Ullrich, Threedots – Own work, Public Domain,

Sculptors create volume within their works, both the volume of the piece itself and the volume around it. Rodin also created a sense of motion with the piece with the pose of the figure itself. Time is inherent in every work in both the time it takes to engage with the work as a viewer, and the time taken to create it. But, many contemporary pieces have time and motion as inherent parts of the experience, such as digital art, video art, and performance art.

The principles of composition, or if you prefer, the principles of design, refer to the way in which the formal elements discussed above are organized. These are balance, rhythm, proportion, scale, emphasis, variety and unity.

Balance is the most basic of the principles of composition, and refers to the distribution of the visual weight in a work of art. The most basic distribution is symmetrical, or even balance, as seen in the Chilkat blanket above. But, artists can also use asymmetrical balance, or uneven distribution of visual weight, as in Franz Marc’s Fighting Forms. In architecture, such as Angkor Wat below, radial balance is used, where in the forms radiate out from a central point.


By Charles J Sharp – Taken from helicopter flying over Angkor Wat, CC BY 2.5,

Rhythm can be created in a number of ways. It can be regular, or evenly spaced, irregular, or alternating, or it can be eccentric, organized in a seemingly haphazard manner. The Chilkat blanket above uses regular rhythm, or the even spacing of forms in the work. Notice the use of both eccentric and irregular rhythm to create the image of the creation of the world in the Hindu tradition.


Angkor Wat, The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, By Image by User:Markalexander100. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Notice also how the piece above uses proportion and scale to tell the story. The deity Vishnu is in the center, and is scaled larger than any other figures in the work, an example of hieratic scale. But, proportionally, the figures fit within the scene. Placing Vishnu in the center makes him the focal point as well, although the figure of Indra above becomes a secondary focal point, or accent point. The figures around Vishnu also give variety to the scene, but the fact that they are all rhythmic unifies the composition over all.

All of formal elements and principles of design work together to form the vocabulary used with works of art to describe the composition and show the themes and ideas of the work of art.



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