The Principles of Art

Christy Olsen

Otherwise known as the 'Principles of Design,' it 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, the listener might need grammar to understand the message even if you speak the right words. The spoken words may need to be clarified 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 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. This makes it hard to narrow the list, but this article's '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 that has something in common.


Proximity is an easy way to achieve unity. For example, these fans have different patterns and colors. Despite their differences in appearance, they have some characteristics in common. They share the same texture from the folds within each fan, and their shape unifies them. 

'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 visible 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.


Effectively shared elements create harmonies, such as repeating circular shapes or colors. They look like they belong together, making 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.

Variety makes an image exciting to the viewer. It is used to create visual interest within a unified composition. It means changing one particular characteristic of an element to make it different.

For example, objects of the same shape will 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


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 different elements are directed towards it.


The juxtaposition of opposing elements, or 'contrast,' emphasizes or highlights any vital part of a design. For example, a dark value is 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 called the concept of "less is more." reduces a composition to only the most essential elements that support the visual statement.

Less is More


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 that could cause us to fall.


Growing up, we looked at each other's symmetrical bodies and faces and assumed that an imaginary vertical center axis divided 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.


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 intentionally draw the viewer's attention to the design.


Proportion (Size, Scale & Space)

Size is 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 entities.

Proportion refers to the relative size, scale, or 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 recognizing the connection between proportion and space during the Renaissance. In the first perspective drawings, they used sizes that diminished to produce the illusion of three-dimensional space.


In figure drawing, proportion 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.


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 spacing, size, alteration, and/or progression variations.


In visual art, movement confuses everyone because it can be 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 may 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 dominance or subordination is key to success in these designs. Attach or relate all elements to a single dominating element that determines the whole's character to form a complete group of parts. In other words, one 'principle' or concept has to dominate the composition.

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