Type Contrast Resulting Attributes
Asymmetrical Maximum Emotionally Active
Aesthetically Dynamic
Spatially In Depth
Symmetrical Minimum Emotionally Passive
Asthetically Decorative
Spatially Static

The Elements of the visual notation system are tools used to build a composition. In the Alphabet, we recognize two classes of composition, symmetrical and asymmetrical.

A symmetrical composition is balanced, and has an overall equality of Size, Shape, Line, Line Direction, Texture, Value, and Color. It is capable of division into equal parts. A symmetrical composition uses the Elements by repeating them, and is therefore of minimum contrast. Emotionally, it is apt to be a more passive design, spatially more static, and esthetically more decorative.

An asymmetrical composition is not balanced and does not use the Elements in equal amounts. It is not divisible into equal parts. It uses dissimilar Elements which are not often repeated.


Symetrical Composition: In The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse, notice how the strong horizontal and vertical lines make the picture easily divisible into parts. The repetition of muted colors and shapes, and the overall lack of strong contrast, make for a picture that is static and decorative.

The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse

The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse. Source:

Asymetrical Composition: In Thomas Cole’s, The Dream of the Architect, we see something radically different. Dissimilar shapes of the varied types of buildings are not repeated, while strong contrast in light and dark values and strong diagonal lines lead the eye into the distance. This is a composition that cannot be broken into equal parts and is plainly Emotionally Active and Aesthetically Dynamic.

Thomas Cole, The Dream of the Architect,


Architectural schools sometime stress a symmetrical use of landscape materials when they are to be placed near or next to buildings. Since architecture is normally geometric and decorative, the use of naturalistic material in a symmetrical way makes it more decorative and less contrasting, spatially more static and emotionally passive. This creates a more harmonious and pleasant environment.

Courtyard of Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida

Field Work

Search the Internet for some well known paintings and analyze their compositions. Based on the Alphabet Elements, are they symetrical or asymetrical. What effect does this have in terms of emotional and aesthetic impact?

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