December 28, 2016

The Principles of Art

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, 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.


Proximity is an easy way to achieve unity. For example, these fans are all of 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 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 as though 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.

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


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.


The juxtaposition of opposing elements, otherwise known as 'contrast,' emphasizes or highlights any key part 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 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.


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.


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 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 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' 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 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 dominance or subordination is key to success in these designs. 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.

December 19, 2016

Why Learn to Draw?

As we move further into the 21st century, our communications accelerate, images are now a vital part of our everyday lives. We are blasted daily via our cell phones, the internet, television, magazines, and newspapers. With all of the Arts disappearing from schools in the education curriculum, the study of images or the Visual Arts is now more critical than ever, especially drawing!

Study of Orange. Conté on toned paper.

The Visual Arts possess a unique, compelling form of communication! Whether a quick sketch on a napkin, an illustration in a book, a schematic, blueprint, preliminary drawing, or work of art, it communicates any idea, design, imagination, memory, feeling, or belief to anyone, sometimes regardless of culture.

The 20th century saw an unprecedented rise in newspapers, magazines, and television images. Discussing journalism and publicity from a newspaper article in 1911, Tess Flandars was first quoted as saying,

Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words.

Anyone can learn how to sketch or draw. It is a skill that can be learned. Your skills will improve over time if you practice or take a class.

Drawing is one of the oldest forms of human expression within the Visual Arts. A person uses various drawing instruments to mark paper or any other two-dimensional medium. Drawing instruments include graphite, pencil, pen and ink, colored pencils, crayons, charcoal, chalk, pastels, inked brushes, various kinds of paints, various kinds of erasers, markers, styluses, or even multiple metals (such as silverpoint), used during the Renaissance. Drawings may also be considered artwork or fine art.

Sketching or a sketch is a quick drawing that contains little detail but captures the main features. Sketches are usually executed freehand or rapidly, not intended as finished work of art, and are often used to explore a theme or may help to plan another, more detailed drawing.

Both sketching and basic drawing skills will help you develop the ability to manipulate line, shape, value, texture, or space, all of which are part of the Visual Elements of Design that are used to translate any verbal idea or message to an image.

If you were to write an article in French, how efficient would your communication be if you did not know the language or even the basic or most straightforward vocabulary? Sketching or drawing skills are essential for any designer, architect, scientist, or engineer and vital to any representational artist.

During the Renaissance, artists, engineers and architects were all in the same profession. An excellent draftsman was deemed omnipotent supreme! Good drafters possessed a unique skill in which they could record, create, design, invent, experiment, organize, or clarify their thoughts through a sketch or preliminary drawing.

Putting their ideas onto paper or images communicated their vision to the vast majority of a population, who were never taught to read. Think about it, everything in the human-made world now comes from a sketch, drawing, or blueprint, even if it comes from a computer-generated image.

The act of drawing requires the orchestration of multiple brain mechanisms functioning together, including observation, planning, processing, visual and spatial intelligence, emotion, motor skills, and also personally expressive mark-making.

All of the work of the hand is rooted in thinking.” — Martin Heidegger

Over time, with the practice of drawing, you will increase your ability to carefully observe, understand the observation in your mind, translate it and relay that translation to your hand, which will enhance your mental capabilities and capacity to solve problems.

Learning to draw is a fantastic process itself and will enrich your life!