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December 28, 2016

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.

The Principles of Art

Let's clarify the idea with an analogy to language. The 'principles of design' are grammar or language structure, as the 'elements' are words. For example, even if you speak the right words, the listener might not understand the message if there is no grammar. The spoken words may not make sense or 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 prevalent to find differing opinions on the list of 'principles,' it varies across books, articles, and sources, and there is some overlap between each individual. This makes it hard to narrow the list, but the 'Principles' include unity, emphasis, balance, proportion, and rhythm for this article.

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 that has something in common.

Variety

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 essential 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 piece.

Pattern

Effectively shared elements create harmonies, such as repeating circular shapes or colors. They look as though they belong together, making a harmonious or visually pleasing agreement.

Unity

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 significant, 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

Emphasis

It is also called a '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 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.

Emphasis

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

Contrasting Colors

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 as the concept of "less is more." is the technique of reducing a composition to only the most essential elements that support the visual statement.

Less is More

Balance

Balance is the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, textures, 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.

Radial

Growing up looking at each other's symmetrical bodies and faces, we assume an imaginary vertical center axis divides symmetrical objects 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.

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. An imbalance can be intentionally used to draw the viewer's attention to design.

Inbalance

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.

Size

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

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.

Space

'Proportion' in figure drawing is the size of a limb or body part relative to the scale of the whole body. In design, 'proportion' creates emphasis, significantly if something is intentionally scaled out of proportion. For example, if one figure is made to look more prominent than other figures in a composition, it is out of proportion; however, the Egyptians used this to provide further importance to the pharaoh.

Scale

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 objects with variations in spacing, size, alteration, and/or progression.

Rhythm

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 with similar characteristics, such as all diagonal lines, square shapes, or alternating value tones.

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