In most works of art the composition – arrangement of the art elements line, shape, color, texture, and value – is informal, or asymmetrical. We do not see a pattern or radial design. And yet, the composition seems to be balanced and pleasing. Artists balance their compositions by instinctively adjusting the placement of each art element.

garden dancers
Patricia A. Renick, Garden Dancers, 1995. Welded steel painted black. Courtesy of the artist

Learning Objectives
When students experiment and compose with lines, shapes and other art elements, and then step back to revisit their work, they develop:

  • an intuitive sense of design, balance, placement, and spacing
  • the ability to use elements and principles of art in a composition
  • a descriptive visual arts vocabulary
  • analytical thinking skills
  • facility with line printing tools

Analyze a Composition

A guided discussion of a nonobjective work of art can help students understand the kinds of judgments artists make as they create. In order to describe the differences and similarities among lines, shapes, textures, colors and values, children and teachers alike must use descriptive adjectives and adverbs to describe the positions, directions, subtleties and effects of the art elements they see.

kandinsky diagram 17
Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled (Drawing for “Diagram 17”), 1925. >Black ink on ivory paper. Courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA. C2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris

Sample questions to pose:

  • Can you point out and describe the lines that you see in this drawing?
  • What lines and shapes repeat? What effect does this have? (Repetitions are pleasing and tend to unify a composition. They can be a pathway through a work of art.)
  • Can you describe the ways in which the repeated lines and shapes different from each other? (length, direction, thickness, solid, open…)
  • Why do you think the artist made them different? (Differences create contrast and variety, making compositions more interesting .)
  • Are there any lines that do not repeat?

*The artist who created this carefully balanced composition is credited with inventing a revolutionary new form of art known as nonobjective art. Nonobjective art is an arrangement of pure lines and shapes that have no recognizable subject matter. Kandinsky believed that lines, shapes , and other elements of art could be used as symbols to communicate.

Time to Practice

Practice using the line printing tools to break up and design the space of the paper. Offer practice paper – even sheets of newspaper – and time to experiment  and play with composition. Depending on the age and experience of your students, decide how many line tools to offer and when to offer them. It often works best to offer them one at a time.  This is a good time to practice with the curved line tools.

line printing tools

What unusual lines and shapes can you create by connecting?

sasha and curve

Sasha, age 4, uses the small curve to create an oval shape.

connectedcurves  irregular example

*Using only line tools to compose narrows the focus at the same time as it expands the possibilities.


Discuss ways in which the organizing principlesrhythm or repetition, balance, variety, contrast, emphasis, and direction are concepts that help artists think about how to arrange lines and shapes in a composition. Have other papers handy for final compositions.

rowen swirl  rowen composition
Rowen, age 5

*It helps to post a list of organizing principles as a reference.

Organizing Principles


*Encourage students to repeat lines and shapes to unify and balance their designs. Suggest that they change the length, size, direction, spacing, and number of times they repeat a line or shape to add variety and interest to their compositions.

Compose with Letters

Composing with letters frees children to play with letter construction, line tools, and design.

By Hamilton, age 6, Composition with  letters H, I, T, and  K

What do you notice about Hamilton’s composition? What principles of composition did he use?

Revisit Explorations

You will probably notice that children have created both nonobjective (nonrepresentational) and realistic compositions. Invite children to tell what gave them the idea for the composition.

composition curves jake
Jake, age 6, explores the curved line tools.

Rabbit by Naomi, age 9

Notice interesting lines, shapes and ways of using the tools. You might consider having children demonstrate strategies for creating particularly unusual lines, shapes and effects. Have students discuss ways in which they balanced their compositions. It is helpful to use the organizing principles as a reference.

Texture: Appreciating a Work of Art

As you and your students become accustomed to using line as a tool for thinking and constructing, you will begin to notice and appreciate the unique ways in which other artists have used line in their work.

Paul Klee, Goat, 1925, 8 5/8” X 11 1/16”. Brush and watercolor, some applied with atomizer, on smooth coated paper laid down on beige woven paper sheet.  Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA

In this whimsical drawing of a goat by the Swiss artist Paul Klee, you can see many lines.  Describe some of the ways he used line. What information can we read from the lines? Do you think you could create similar techniques using the line tools?


What happens when you change one art element?

The composition of these silkscreen prints by the artist Susan Fentin are the same, but the color combinations change the way in which we perceive each composition.

Sarah Fentin Untitled variation I   Sarah Fentin Untitled variation II
Untitled (Variation I), 1973

Untitled  (Variation II), 1973

Related Project: Compose with a Collection of Objects

Classrooms often contain collections of objects – stones, shells, keys, bottle caps, etc. Ask children to arrange the objects in a pleasing design or composition.

Can you arrange these objects to show of their unique characteristics?

Jeremy and Julia sort stones
Jeremy, age 5, and Julia, age 5

*Found materials give children another concrete way to experiment with  design and composition.

Related Project: Visit a Museum or Gallery

Looking with a Line

Using a printed handout, such as this Looking with a Line PDF (shown below) can be very helpful for keeping students focused and engaged in a new space. Call ahead to plan your visit, and ask to have clipboards and pencils handy.

Choose one of these basic lines to help you look at works of art.

looking with a line
After looking around the gallery or museum for a little while, let your line help you choose a work of art to study. Make a drawing of the fundamental lines in the work of art.

Record the artist, title and date of the work of art. As a follow-up you can search on line for more information about the artist.