The Final Puzzle Piece: The Principles of Design

Happy first week of spring! I’m so excited that the season is finally changing.  I’m far from a winter person myself.  I don’t like the cold and everything feels dead.  Some early flowers have even started blooming here.

Two weeks ago I had discussed the elements of art.  To reiterate, these are:

Line: defined by a point moving in space.  Lane may be two or three dimensional, implied, or abstract.

Shape:  Two dimensional, flat, limited to height and width.  Can be organic or geometric.

Value: the lightness or darkness of tones or colors.

Form:  Three dimensional shape, containing depth.  A shape with value.  Can be organic or geometric.

Space:  In which positive and negative areas are defined.  The distance and depth in which objects of a piece interact with each other.

Color: light that reflects off an object to create a hue.

Texture:  Refers to the way things would appear to feel: bumpy, smooth, scaley, slimey, etc.

If you have any confusion about any of these elements, please refer back to the original article here.  All of the images used in the article are royalty free, so please feel free to use them as references to draw on your own!

In fact, I was so lucky this week to receive two drawings from this post.  The artists would like to remain anonymous as they are still learning, and sometimes when you’re still learning it’s a little scary to put yourself out there.  That’s okay! We can still support them anonymously.

Anonymous “M” created this beautiful painting using the image for shape using acrylic paint and marker. I think this is absolutely beautiful: the color choices are great, and each flower has it’s own defined shape, but not so defined that the combination of all the flowers doesn’t make a unique shape in itself.  The background space is even a shape.  Wonderful! I can’t wait to see more, M.

Anonymous “T” created this remarkable graphite drawing of the sunflower in order to create texture. T, the attention to detail in this is insane.  It really shows that you are dedicated to art.

I even felt inclined to draw one of these myself.  Initially I was going to show every element off through art, but I decided it would be best to focus my energy elsewhere.  I probably should have used a medium I was a little more comfortable with to start, but I chose to work in simple graphite (with a little charcoal at the end because I was going mad.)  I myself drew form:

If I’m going into full critique mode, I’d definitely tell myself to be more careful with blending the harsh lines towards the center of the rose, and create more visible texture in the petals of the rose, as they’re a little soft right now.  So basically, I blended where I shouldn’t have and didn’t blend where I needed to.  I’m far from the perfect artist.  

If you have any art that you would like to show off (anonymously or not)  I would love to see it!  Send it over to bmartin.artdesign@gmail.comand it might just get featured in the blog.

Additionally, last week I talked about color.  My boyfriend is a painter as well, and lately he has been painting with some really interesting color combinations.  I wanted to show off this painting he made recently, using strong red, blue, and a toned green.  I love the vibrancy, and how the figure pops out of space.

His work can be seen on Instagram

So now that you have a thorough understanding of the elements of art, let’s talk through how to use these tools to our advantage.  The Principles of Designdescribe the ways that an artist may use the elements of art within a piece.  Similarly to the elements of art, the principles of design work together to create a piece.  There will never be only one principle of design present in art.  Knowing how to use them to your advantage is the key to interesting art.  This is where the true fun begins, folks.  This is where you can begin creating unique compositions that are all your own.

The principles of design are as follows:

  • Contrast
  • Pattern
  • Rhythm
  • Movement
  • Emphasis
  • Proportion
  • Balance
  • Variety
  • Unity

Now, I’d really like to have a theme like I did with the flowers…  but I don’t.  What I do have however, is some hastily made graphics and some famous artwork that I didn’t make and you’ve probably seen before, so that’s equally exciting, right? Let’s get right into it!


Contrast is a striking difference between elements within the same piece of art.  Contrast can easily be formed using color by taking colors that are far apart from each other on the color wheel and placing them in the same art piece.   (Scroll up to see the skeleton painting again for a great example.)  You could even take the same color and switch the values so that one is dark and one is light.  You can omit color completely and work solely in black and white: white against black creates huge contrast.  Contrast can be shown in shapes and line and form, too.  Harsh geometric shapes contrast greatly against smooth organic forms. Thick straight lines contrast against thin smooth lines.  The possibilities are endless.

In “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer, look at how her body contrasts with the dark background, allowing her to pop out.


Emphasis is similar to contrast, in that it is the element of art that is accentuated.  It is the “highlight” of the art: what sticks out to you when you’re looking at a piece of art?

“Sunrise Impression” by Monet appears subtle, but the emphasis is clearly on the reddish orange sunrise.


Pattern is a repetition of a visual element such as line, shape, or color.

  One artist that pops into mind immediately when I think of pattern is Kehinde Wiley.  While the name might not sound familiar, you probably know his work, as he painted the portrait of President Barack Obama.  The backgrounds of all of his paintings include these stunning, intricate patterns.  Check out this piece above, “Mrs. Waldorf.”

Rhythm & Movement

Technically these are different principles that go hand in hand.  Rhythm is the speed of movement within a piece. Movement occurs as if the art itself is forcing your eye around the piece. 

Look at “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.  There’s movement all throughout the painting.  The texture of the orange sky almost feels as if it’s vibrating.  The focal point of this piece (where your eye goes first, that is) is in the center bottom: the figure’s head.  The blue background leads your eye upwards, and into the orange sky. This brings you back down onto the bridge, which leads your eye downward and back into the head, creating an inverse triangle position for your eye to look.  Rhythm refers to how quickly your eye is led around the art.  This piece feels chaotic; your eye moves quickly throughout it.

“Starry Night” by Van Gogh is another good example of Rhythm and Movement.  You can almost see it swirling right before your eyes.  The visible brushstrokes help guide your eye throughout the piece.


Proportion refers to the size comparison of elements in a piece of art.  This can be referring to the proportions of a figure in its surrounding space, or it can refer to the proportions within a figure.  In our minds we know an elephant is bigger than a mouse, but what if they are drawn the same size?

We owe a lot of what we know about the human form’s proportions s to Leonardo Da Vinci.  The drawing “Vitruvian Man” displays the anatomical proportions of a typical human adult male.


Balance is arguably one of the hardest things to strike in art.  Balance refers to equal visual weight throughout the art.  This means when you’re looking at art, your eye doesn’t want to trail away from it; it isn’t too heavily weighted on one side.  Balance is primarily about the placement of figures and subjects.  A balanced composition can be visually symmetrical or asymmetrical.  Symmetrical art is almost impossible to become unbalanced, though it may appear static, or flat.  To put it simply, your symmetrical balance might be boring.  Symmetry traditionally occurs when you take an object and split it down the middle and it is a mirror reflection of itself, like a butterfly.

Symmetrical balance in art is not quite as exact: rather, it refers to when each side of art has similar visual weight.  A great example of art with symmetrical balance is “The Last Supper” by Da Vinci. The background in particular is almost an exact mirror image, but the weight of the people in the foreground is also symmetrical.

Jan Van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece” is another great example of symmetrical balance.

Art does not have to be symmetrical in order to achieve balance, though.  Asymmetrical art, while more difficult to achieve, is typically more dynamic, and therefore more interesting.

Paul Gaugin’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives”  depicts a figure that’s weighted heavily to the left side.  He is balanced by the details in the background, so it does not feel as if he is falling off the edge of the piece of art.

Unity & Variety

Another pair of principles that go hand in hand, unity and variety are extremely similar to each other. Variety is the combination of multiple different elements of art in one piece.  Unity is what ties them together harmoniously. Roy Lichtenstein is a pop artist who perfectly paired shape, color, line, and texture.  All are prominent in his artworks. This one is entitled “Ohhh … Alright …”

So Now What?

With this knowledge, you have the power to create anything you like.  Seriously.  I still have more to show you, of course, but these are the basics.  The Elements of Art and Principles of Design are the key to understanding any art.  Not only do they help you understand how to make your own work, they can help you break down other artists work and figure out how they did what they did.

Go forth.  Be one with the pencil.  And once you’re finished, please send in your art to bmartin.artdesign@gmail.comand it might just get featured in the blog.

Next week the blog will be dedicated to critique, so if you have any work old or new that you would like to receive feedback on, send it over!   Thank you so much for reading, tune in next time.


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