Most artworks have many different components, but how they all come together defines their composition.

ESSENTIALLY: How the elements within a work of art are arranged.

ETYMOLOGY: From the Latin componere, which means “put together.”

EXAMPLE: Painting with Green Center, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

Composition is one of art’s oldest fundamentals. It describes how colors, shapes, textures and materials relate to one another.

But it is not a stagnant concept. Composition’s meaning has shifted over the centuries to reflect new developments in art and aesthetics. The Italian Renaissance–a period beginning around 1300 defined by great strides in the arts and sciences–often sought visual balance in composition through geometric forms and mathematical ratios. One famous example is the golden ratio, which gave rules for how to represent human bodies and faces. The resulting compositions don’t always reflect our broader definitions of beauty today, but they do present an “ideal” specific to their time.

The 20th century and the move toward contemporary art saw even more radical reconsiderations of composition. Wassily Kandinsky composed energetic paintings with rich sweeps of color punctuated by vigorous lines. German-American painter Josef Albers reduced questions of composition to their essence making minimal works that relied on carefully chosen color contrasts to create both shape and dimension. Jackson Pollock, part of the abstract expressionist movement, further expanded the bounds of composition. Pollock developed a special technique of dynamically dripping and splattering paint across a canvas to make paintings that did not have any preconceived form and ignored traditional borders, something which became known as "allover composition." In a stroke of irony, Pollock’s paintings often demonstrated an accidental use of fractal geometry in their recurring patterns, something that would have undoubtedly made the ancient Greeks proud.

The experimentation shows no signs of slowing. Artists like Yayoi Kusama regularly leverage the interaction of bold colors and graphic shapes to achieve striking visual effects. The outcome creates depth while encouraging a viewer’s gaze to move energetically over the surface of a piece creating a deeper engagement with the work.