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  • Writer's pictureChantal Birr

Elements & Principles of Design/Art

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

What are the elements and principles of art? These are the basic building blocks that allows us to create a work of art, or design.

The "elements" can be thought as the parts that compose a painting, design, drawing, sculpture, etc.

The principles can be though as what one can do the the elements (parts) of a any design, painting, etc. It is the application of the elements that creates a composition in a picture.

The Elements

Line is a continuous mark made on a surface with a pen, brush sharp tool, etc. It can be implied by the edges of shapes, and forms. Lines can be thick, thin, uneven, short, long, or broken. Lines made by the edges of an object are outlines, lines that describe the shape of an object and its interior are contour lines. Lines that are energetic, and describe movement are gesture lines.

Shape If a line crosses itself, or intersects any other lines to enclose a space, it creates a shape. Shape is always two-dimensional. It has height and width, but no depth.

Types of shape:

  • Geometric - Squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, hexagons, etc. We can usually see them in architecture, and artificial (manufactured) objects.

  • Organic - They are found in nature, e.g. leaves, seashells, trees, flowers, etc. They have free flowing, informal and irregular qualities.

  • Positive -These shapes are the solid forms (positive space) in a design such as the shape of an apple.

  • Negative - It's the space around the positive shape (object). Negative space can be describe as the empty area between objects.

Color or hue, comes from light, without it, you cannot have color. When the light rays hit an object, our eyes respond to the rays that are reflected back and we see only the reflected color(s). For example, a red apple reflects all the red light rays. Artists use pigments in the form of powder or liquid paints to create color. In color theory we have subtractive colors and additive colors.

Colors can be primary (red, yellow, and blue), secondary (orange, violet, and green), complementary (opposite each other on the color wheel) and intermediate (red orange, yellow green, blue violet, etc). We also have color harmonies; Analogous, triadic, monochromatic, cool color, and warm colors.

Value is the range of lightness and darkness within a painting, or picture. Value is created by a light source that shines on an object creating highlights and shadows. Value creates depth on an object making it look three-dimensional with highlights and shadows.

Texture is the surface quality of an object. A stone may be rough. A piece of silk may be smooth, a table is hard to the touch. Texture in art or design refers to the illusion of roughness or smoothness in a picture.

The Principles

Unity/Variety If you want your picture, painting, or drawing to feel unified, all the elements must fit together comfortably. Too much unity and it creates monotony, too much variety and it creates chaos. Ideally, you want areas of interest in your composition along with areas where your eyes should rest.

Rhythm is created by the implied movement through the repetition of the elements of art. It must be done in a non-uniform but organized way. Think of it as a musical piece, and unlike pattern, which demands consistency, rhythm relies on variety.

Balance It is the visual weight of the elements in a composition. It is a sense of harmony in a picture, a sense of stability, it "feels right." Imbalance causes a feeling of discomfort, a sense that is missing something, it just doesn't feel right.

Types of balance:

  • Symmetrical, is when both sides of a composition have the same elements in the same position, just like a mirror-image.

  • Asymmetrical, whereupon the composition is balanced due to the contrast of any of the elements of art. For example, a big flower on one side of a composition is balanced by a small flower on the other side of the composition.

  • Radial, whereupon the elements are equally spaced around a central point, as in the spokes coming of bicycle wheel.

Proportion the relationship between the sizes of different areas in a picture or work of art. For example, the width compared to the length.

Repetition /Pattern Repeating visual elements (line, color, shape, texture, etc). It tends to unify the total effect of a work of art as well as create rhythm. Repetition can take the form of an exact duplication.

Movement is how the eye travels through a work of art of picture. Movement can lead the viewer from one aspect to another within the composition.

Emphasis when a specific element is given a prominent feature in order to separate it from a another element or group. This can be achieved through contrast, movement, scale or balance.

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