Understanding the Principles of Art


The principles of design describe the ways that artists use the elements of art in a work of art.

Principles of Design

Balance is the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, texture, and space. If the design was a scale, these elements should be balanced to make a design feel stable. In symmetrical balance, the elements used on one side of the design are similar to those on the other side; in asymmetrical balance, the sides are different but still look balanced. In radial balance, the elements are arranged around a central point and may be similar.

Emphasis is the part of the design that catches the viewer’s attention. Usually the artist will make one area stand out by contrasting it with other areas. The area could be different in size, color, texture, shape, etc.

Movement is the path the viewer’s eye takes through the work of art, often to focal areas. Such movement can be directed along lines, edges, shape, and color within the work of art.

Pattern is the repeating of an object or symbol all over the work of art. Repetition works with pattern to make the work of art seem active. The repetition of elements of design creates unity within the work of art.

Proportion is the feeling of unity created when all parts (sizes, amounts, or number) relate well with each other. When drawing the human figure, proportion can refer to the size of the head compared to the rest of the body.

Rhythm is created when one or more elements of design are used repeatedly to create a feeling of organized movement. Rhythm creates a mood like music or dancing. To keep rhythm exciting and active, variety is essential.

Variety is the use of several elements of design to hold the viewer’s attention and to guide the viewer’s eye through and around the work of art.

Unity is the feeling of harmony between all parts of the work of art, which creates a sense of completeness.

1. Unity & Harmony

Ways to achieve UNITY:

  • Proximity – by simply putting the elements close together Eakins-Thomas-Swimming
  • The lighter elements of the swimmers bodies contrast with the generally darker background. However these light elements are not placed aimlessly around the composition, but by proximity are arranged carefully to unite visually. Four of the figures form the apex of an equilateral triangle at the center of the painting. This triangle provides a stable unifying effect.
  • Repetition -an element (a color, a shape, a texture, a direction, or an angle) simply repeats in various parts of the design to relate the parts to each other


  • Continuationmeans something continues – usually a line, an edge, or a direction from one form to another. The viewer’s eye is carried smoothly from one element to the next


  • The edge of the sleeping girl’s head and her outstretched arm connect to the curving line of the sofa, forming one line of continuity. Other subtle lines of continuation visually unite the many shapes and colors of what might otherwise be a chaotic composition. 
  • Unity with VarietyVariety is present, but admittedly in a subtle, understated way.
  • Emphasis on Unity through Repetition

Edo (Tokugawa): Ogata Korin: Irises (Rimpa school)

The composition is strongly unified by repetition of natural forms.

  • Emphasis  on Variety – Variety in Form, Size, Color, and Gesture.


The sculpture demonstrates unity by an emphasis on serpentine curves flowing through the clustered figures. Continuation is a strong feature as the viewer’s eye is led through the complex arrangement by the arms linked hand in hand by the arc of one figure leading to the central figure’s upraised arm. Unity is also emphasized by the white of the stone. Variety is emphasized through the almost infinite subtle differences possible in the human form. 


Both Carpeaux and Shapiro express dynamism through variety and rely on unifying elements to hold it all together. 

2. Emphasis and Focal point

  • Focal point for emphasis


  • Emphasis by Contrast (Color, pattern, shape)

The grapefruit at center-stage is large, light, and yellow compared with darker gray surroundings, and even the lines of the sections point to the center. All these elements bring our focus to the main character or subject. 

  • Emphasis by Isolation

Kliban emphasis by isolation'

  • Emphasis by Placement

the-birth-of-venus-1485(1) Venus is the focal point, and the perspective lines all direct our eyes back to the figure. The painting is not simply constructed to point to the main figure but also unfolds other areas of interest.

  • One Element

Bonnard_Coffee_1915 The isolated black oval tray in the center foreground is clearly a focal point. In this case it seems too dominant; this sudden dark spot seems our of keeping with the subtle value and color changes in the rest of the painting.

  • Emphasizing the whole over the parts


Shapes and textures are repeated throughout the painting. These shapes and textures form loose rows and columns and a kind of grid. Dark and light areas repeat over the surface in even distribution, and no one area stands out. The painting has no real starting point or visual climax.

3. Scale and Proportion

  • Context


  • Internal Proportions


4. Balance – distribution of visual weight within a composition.

  • Imbalance (Horizontal and vertical placement)


The instability of the image expresses the theme exactly. The linear patterns build up vertically until we reach the teetering figure near the top.

JulycoldFront We are accustomed to seeing more weight toward the bottom, with a resulting stability and calmness. The farther up in the format the main distribution of weight occurs, the more unstable and dynamic the image becomes.

  • Symmetrical Balance (Bilateral Symmetry)


  • Asymmetrical Balance 


  • Balance by Value and Color


Stephen Bauman 20

  • Balance by Texture and Pattern


  • Radial Balance


5. Rhythm – A combination of elements repeated, but with variations.

  • Visual Rhythm
  • Rhythm and Motion (Shapes and Repetition)

Legato (connecting and flowing)Unknown-2MICHAEL_FLOHR-Staccato_Rain

Staccato (abrupt changes with a dynamic contrast)

  • Alternating Rhythm (Patterns and Sequence)


Alternating Rhythm (successive patterns in which the same elements reappear in a regular order)


Vibrating Colors (alternating direction of diagonal lines and circles)

  • Progressive Rhythm (Converging Patterns) – Repetition of a shape that changes in a regular pattern, often achieved with a progressive variation of the size of a shape, through its color, value, or texture as the varying element.


  • Rhythmic Sensations (Engaging the Senses)



Find an artwork for each of the Principles of design. Record the information in the spaces provided and comment on how each work uses the principle chosen.


Principle:_________________________________Artist:___________________________________ Title:_____________________________________Date:___________________________________ Comment:________________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________________________


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