Principles of Art and Design

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

Time for another bitesize art lesson! We've covered the Elements of Art in the past. But what about the Principles of Art? Are they different? Well, yes. Think of the elements as the basic building blocks of art while the principles are the ways they can be used. But let's get a little more granular than that and explore the eight Principles of Art.



Just like music, art also has rhythm. It isn't audible, but it's created by repeating visual elements within a piece to create a visual beat or tempo. Patterns are a great example of rhythm. The way each element is placed so that it repeats throughout the pattern gives it rhythm. Bigger elements will have a slower tempo while smaller elements have a faster tempo. Patterns aren't the only place where rhythm shows up, but it might be the easiest to spot. You can use rhythm in your own work by repeating certain elements throughout the piece. That could be a color, a mark, a shape - the list goes on! Bringing rhythm into your work elevates it and adds intrigue, and it's a great principle to consider when making work.



Balance is something I'm always considering when creating my paintings. But what is it? Balance is the way in which we combine different elements so that our work feels stable and in a state of equilibrium. Works of art that are balanced fall into two major categories: symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical art is work that is the same on one side as it is on the other. In other words, it mirrors itself across a perceived line of symmetry. Asymmetrical art does not follow this rule. Instead, it places elements so that they interact with one another to create a sense of balance and perceived importance of both sides.



Contrast, or emphasis, is the method of combining different elements so that their placement stresses their difference. This could be placing a sharp geometric shape next to an organic blob or it could be the use of black paint next to an area of white paint. Adding high contrast to art brings so much interest to a piece and really helps make something pop. Think about a painting made with all similar neutral tones compared to a piece made only with black and white. The first piece will have much less contrast than the second. Neither is better; it's just a matter of personal taste.



This principle deals with the relative size of elements compared to one another. Playing with proportion also helps create a focal point within a piece. A very large shape next to a super tiny shape will have a much different effect than two shapes of the exact same size. Proportion can also affect the balance of a piece and ties into rhythm, as well.



Gradation is the gradual change of elements within a piece. High contrast is the juxtaposition of two very different elements. Adding in gradation removes that high contrast. Think of a hue slowly changing within a painting or a shape slowly changing size throughout a design. A great example of this is a picturesque sunset. The way the colors slowly shift into one another is gradation working in real life. Gradation is a great way to highlight and celebrate subtlety.



Harmony is the opposite of contrast. Instead of accentuating the differences between two elements, harmony emphasizes the similarities between them. It also refers to the use of related or similar elements within a piece as means of creating a cohesive work of art. Harmony is often employed through the use of repetition, or rhythm, and gradation. Think of harmony as the principle that ties the whole piece together and makes all of the elements work together.



This principle deals with the amount of diversity and contrast within a piece. Patterns don’t offer a lot of variety. A work made by Hilma af Klint, on the other hand, has a great deal of variety. Using this principle is often second-nature, as it’s achieved through use of different colors, shapes, sizes, and marks within the same piece.



Movement helps create the feeling of action within a piece. This is what guides the viewer’s eye around a piece. Movement is achieved through the use of all the principles previously mentioned. For instance, the direction of your brushwork can add movement to a piece (think of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings), as can the use of repeating elements throughout. Creating movement is a great way to add interest to a piece of work.


Having a firm understanding of the Principles of Art can really strengthen your work. Through practice and iteration, these will become second nature. So experiment with them and take note of their impact. Over time, your artistic vocabulary will grow and your voice will naturally emerge through your unique use of the elements and principles!

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Thanks for reading and happy creating!