The Principles of Art

Otherwise known as the 'Principles of Design' is a universal, nebulous and subjective concept used to compose an image. Not to be confused with the 'Elements of Design,' these 'principles' are utilized by the creator to intentionally organize the visual elements within an image.

Let's clarify the idea with an analogy to language. The 'principles of design' are to grammar or language structure as the 'elements' are to words. For example, even if you speak the right words, the listener might not understand the message, if there is no use of grammar. The spoken words may not make sense or will be all out of sorts.
  • Elements are the 'what,' i.e. the components that make up an image such as line, shape, value, space, size, color or texture
  • Principles are the 'how' i.e. those elements are intentionally arranged within an image
It is extremely common to find differing opinions on the list of 'principles,' it varies across books, articles, and sources and there is some overlap between each individual one. This makes it hard to narrow the list, but for this article, the 'Principles' include unity, emphasis, balance, proportion, and rhythm.

Unity (Pattern, Repetition & Variety)

Is the quality of "wholeness" or "oneness." Something is unified when all components are working together. Unity is achieved when the parts complement each other in a way where they have something in common.

Proximity is an easy way to achieve unity. For example, these fans are all different designs and colors, despite their differences in appearance, all have the same characteristics in common. They are unified because they share the same texture from the folds within each fan. However their repeating arc-like shapes are aligned or in the same diagonal proximity.

'Gestalt' a visual psychological term is the concept that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  This is an important aspect of visual unity in design, the whole must predominate over the parts, i.e. you must first see it as a whole before noticing each individual part.

Effectively shared characteristics among elements create harmony, such as repeating circular shapes or color. They look as though they belong together and it creates a harmonious or visually pleasing agreement.

Any element repeated consistently throughout an image creates a pattern. 'Pattern' also reflects the underlying structure of a composition or design by intentionally organizing the values or tones within the composition. 

Without variety an image may become dull and uninteresting to the viewer, it is used to create visual interest within a unified composition. It means to change one particular characteristic of an element, to make it different.

For example, objects of the same will shape unify the composition, but large, medium and small sizes of the shape will create variety.

Ways to vary design elements include:

  • Line - direction, length, width, quality or focus
  • Color - hue, saturation or temperature
  • Value - degree of darkness or lightness
  • Space - positive vs., negative, flat vs. three-dimensional or depth
  • Size - large, medium or small; height vs. width 
  • Shape - geometric, graphic, organic, pattern or orientation
  • Texture - roughness vs. smoothness


Is also called 'focal point' and is used to attract the viewer's eyes to a place of particular importance or interest. In nature, it occurs when one element differs from all of the rest. In design, 'emphasis' is intentionally created when one part or area appears dominant over the other parts or if many other elements are directed towards it.

The juxtaposition of opposing elements, otherwise known as 'contrast' allows us to emphasize or highlight any key element within a design. For example a dark value near a light value or complementary colors such as green and red.

Placement and simplification are also both methods used to achieve emphasis. Any element or object by itself will stand out. Objects take on greater meaning or importance when they are dissolved of clutter, isolated or surrounded by space. Simplification otherwise referred to like the concept of "less is more." is the technique of reducing a composition to only the most essential elements that support the visual statement.


Balance is the distribution of visual weight of objects, colors, texture or space. It includes symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial and crystallographic patterns. Lack of balance or imbalance disturbs us as we develop a sense of balance during childhood. We grow up walking on two legs always aware of unstable surfaces which could cause us to fall.

Growing up looking at each other's symmetrical bodies and faces and assume there is an imaginary vertical center axis that divides any object into two equal halves, this is called a 'fulcrum.' When assessing images, we expect to see some type of equal visual weight on each side of this imaginary fulcrum. 'Opposition,' created by two straight lines meeting or where they form the corners of a square or rectangle also creates balance.

If equilibrium is not present vertically or horizontally, it becomes a seesaw or an unbalanced scale. Subconsciously we recognize it, and it makes us feel uneasy, just as a tilted picture on the wall suggests that we reach out to straighten it. In design, an imbalance can be intentionally used to draw the viewer's attention.

Proportion (Size, Scale & Space)  

Size: noun. the relative extent of something; a thing's overall dimensions or magnitude. Size describes how small or large an object is in relation to another object. Larger objects are defined as more important than smaller objects.

Contrasting sizes create visual interest or may attract more attention. Smaller objects appear distant next to larger objects.

Proportion refers to the relative size, scale, or the number of various elements in a design and how they relate to each other. Proper spacing is always a careful consideration in every design.

Artists began to recognize the connection between proportion and space, during the Renaissance Era. They produced the illusion of 3-dimensional space using sizes that diminish in the first perspective drawings.

'Proportion' in figure drawing is the size of a limb or body part relative to the scale of the whole body. In design, 'proportion' is used to create emphasis, especially if something is intentionally scaled out of proportion. For example, if one figure is made to look larger compared to other figures in a composition, it is said to be out of proportion however the Egyptians used this to give greater importance to the pharaoh.

Rhythm & Movement

Rhythm is a repeated combination of elements but in variations, continuance, flow or a feeling of movement achieved by the repetition of regulated visual elements. It is characterized by a series of objects with variations in spacing, size, alteration, and/or progression.

In visual art, movement confuses everyone because it can be either literal or compositional. 'Literal Movement' is a person or thing physically moving from one place to another, defined as 'motion.' 'Compositional Movement' applies to the visual elements in an image intentionally set precisely to lead our eye throughout or around the picture.  Elements may or not be subject dependent. The eye will follow any design element if it has similar characteristics, such as the all diagonal lines, all square shapes or alternating value tones.

Unity, emphasis, balance, proportion, and rhythm all create pleasing visual compositions, but the key to success in any of these designs is dominance or subordination. To form a complete group of parts, attach or relate all elements to a single dominating element which determines the character of the whole. In other words, one 'principle' or concept has to dominate the composition.
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