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Different types of Composition in Painting                                                                                                        Robert Kingston

There are many and various methods of conveying order and structure within the picture plane. The method used depends on the intent of the artist and also reflects not only her/his temperament but also the prevailing attitude and values of the society within which the artist is working. Here are a few.


Iconic compositions are based around a central point. They are either circular or bilaterally symmetrical. This type of composition is used in spiritually or cosmic based paintings. There is a hierarchy in the importance of the forms, the center (God) being considered of greatest importance moving towards the less important (further from God) outer edges. Examples would be Indian mandalas, icon paintings of the middle ages, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and – in modern times – Georgia O’Keefe.

Dynamic Balance

Dynamically balanced compositions became prevalent during the Italian Renaissance and reflect a more humanist outlook as opposed to the God centered Middle Ages. There is no center but instead a relationship and balance of unequal parts to each other. There is still a hierarchy of form. Much like a drama stage there is a) the focus, leading player or star of the show, b) supporting cast or secondary elements, and c) the setting, background, the stage itself. The balance point of the composition is usually found just to the right or left of center (but never at the center). This type of composition is used in most paintings we are familiar with in Western culture.

Informal Dynamic Balance

This type of dynamic balance stretches the concept of dynamic balance by shifting the balance point even further from the center and leaving larger empty spaces between elements. A balance is still achieved but very tentatively thus creating a powerful feeling of tension.

Scatter Balance In this type of balance, perhaps best typifying our present age, there is absolutely no hierarchy of form. Everything is equal (democratic), there is no particular vantage point, parts are equally distributed about the composition. There is no focus or center, no beginning or end. The edges of the composition seem arbitrary and we appear to be looking at a small section of an infinite expanse. Example: Jackson Pollock drip paintings.

Outside the Picture Plane

This type of composition is such that the internal dynamics of the painting are less important than the ability of the painting to influence the space around it. No longer is the painting a "window" but now it is an active element of its environment shaping our perception of the space we are in. It is a mistake to attempt to look "into" such a work. This type of composition is characterized by strong, bold, minimal use of shape and a monochromatic or very limited number of high chroma colors. Example: Ellsworth Kelly