Principles of design hold true whether you are learning how to paint, wondering how to make a collage or planning a clay sculpture.

These principles of design (or rules) govern the way in which most artists approach their artwork. You may be wondering how to draw people, how to make a collage, a three dimensional sculpture or even how to design your own shirt.

Perhaps your interest is in realistic landscape painting or in responding emotionally with colour and mark-making to an enthralling musical composition. It hardly matters what your medium or style is to be. If you are to produce a compelling artwork you will use at least some of the following principles of design.


1. Principles of Design - Composition

Composition: This is the most important element when considering principles of design. It is your overall plan of how you will use the space available to you, whether that is two or three dimensional. Some artists divide their paper or canvas roughly into thirds, others use the golden mean principle. Others just think ‘foreground - middle ground - background’. Sculptors will plan for various views of their work, so need to make all aspects balanced. Architects will consider placement of a building on its block of land, the flow of living spaces from one to the other, materials to be used as well as the client's budget!

Line: Whether you are ‘doodling’ with a pencil, making marks with a brush dipped in ink, tracing tracks with your finger in the sand or digging grooves with an engraving tool, lines are one of the most basic marks that you can make. They may be straight or curved, enclose a space to make a shape, be sharp, fuzzy, faint or bold, make a statement or just try out an idea. Often making lines is thought of as being the basics of drawing , although that can be so much more.

Shape: Objects in your composition may approximate simple geometric shapes - eg a tree may remind you of a triangle, or its three dimensional version, a cone, a house may be made up of squares or rectangles and interpreted as an illusion of a cube.

Balance: The balance of your composition will be governed by the size and shape of objects in it and their position in relation to each other. If you think of a see-saw with a heavy adult on one side and a small child on the other, better balance will be achieved if the bigger person sits towards the centre of the see-saw and the child at the end of the other side.

Tension: I would suggest that a level of tension in the composition makes the work more interesting. Objects in the picture plane need to have a relationship with each other so that they have a connection. This will happen if they are positioned in such a way as to impart some meaning to each other.

An easy exercise in composition is to tear up small, medium and larger sized pieces of newspaper. Place them at various spots on a piece of white paper. Firstly just select two and exaggerate their position by placing one to the extreme left of the paper, the other to the extreme right. Do they have a connection? Not at all, in fact I doubt that they are on speaking terms; they may even have their backs towards each other! Now move them so that there seems to be a connection between the two – an attraction even.

Now try doing that with five or seven (uneven numbers work best) pieces of paper. Having fun? Learning something?

Harmony: In general you will want your artwork to appear harmonious and you will achieve this through the use of various types of line, a balanced composition, controlled tonal values and ‘friendly’ colours. Friends usually have something in common and so it is with colours – adjoining colours on any of the color wheel systems will always be harmonious, particularly if their intensity is similar.

Contrast: Small contrasts in colour, particularly, can add a little zest and zing to your work, lifting it above the ordinary to make it more interesting, even riveting!

2. Principles of Design - Rhythm, Repetition, Movement and Pattern 

Rhythm: Think of your artwork as a musical composition. Dance a little as you wield that paintbrush or throw your clay onto the armature!

Repetition: Hand–in-hand with rhythmical expression comes repetition – of line, shape, tone and colour, with variations in size and emphasis.

Movement: Unless you are aiming for a completely static result, introduce a sense of movement through rhythm and repetition so that the whole composition flows. Use elements such as shape and line as ‘arrows’ to point towards important features in the composition.

Pattern: Patterns can evolve as a result of the above elements or may be inspired by patterns in Nature.

3. Principles of Design - Tonal values

Tone: Imagine that you are sitting in a room as night begins to fall. Objects take on a greyish look, colours fade, sharp edges of furniture blur, the window lets in a subdued light that falls on objects, defining them in relation to each other, some darker than others. You can see the hard outlines of a chair, the softer, more rounded form of a person seated in it, the different tones, where light falls upon objects, informing your understanding of the scene.

Should there be a round ball on the floor or a globe map of the world displayed on a table you will receive information, through the graduating tones from light to dark, which tells you that it is spherical and also something about the texture of its surface.

Light Source:

When drawing or painting landscapes, portraits or still lifes it will help to develop forms and explain them through tones if you first decide on the position of the main light source in your composition. There will, of course, be secondary light sources which will throw areas of reflected light onto objects but if your main light is from one direction (eg the sun or an indoor lamp) then shadows thrown by objects in its path will help to explain and make sense of the artwork.

4. Principles of Design - Texture

Texture The texture of an object or its representation (ie drawing/painting) tells you about the sense of touch - how it would feel should you touch it (hard, shiny, soft, smooth, rough, prickly, slippery etc) and possibly even about any sound that you may hear should it be moved (eg rustle of screwed up tissue paper, scratchy sound of moved sandpaper, swish of silk dress etc).

You can develop an illusion of texture on your picture plane by the use of marks, tones and reflections that give information about the surface. (An interesting exercise is to make 'rubbings' (frottage) of actual tree bark, concrete paving, leaves etc).

5. Principles of Design - Perspective

Unless your artwork is meant to be seen as a flat plane, you will use some elements of perspective, which are rules that help you to develop the illusion of space in your work. You have heard the phrase ‘Put it into perspective’, referring to the way in which we may view situations from time to time. Perspective drawing in artwork employs various devices to help the viewer to see and understand it.

That is not to say that a landscape, a portrait or a still-life has to be realistic. A portrait may place the sitter in space somewhere, perhaps on a chair, or on a log at the beach. The artist may wish to portray the character of the subject and may distort some elements of the painting, sculpture, collage or print in order to emphasise what it is about the sitter which makes him or her different. But the person will still be placed in space and will relate to objects around him or her.

The e-newsletter for this website is named ‘Perspectives’, the idea being that it brings various views of the artworld in tropical Australia to you, the reader (as well as being an art term).

General rules of perspective:

Horizon Line: Your view of the world is governed by where your eyes are – your eye level. Wherever your eyes are, that’s where the horizon is for you. If you are sitting on a beach, the horizon will be quite low compared with if you are on the observation deck of a very tall building or in an aeroplane (when there is often no horizon to be seen or else it is very high in the picture plane).

Parallel straight lines (as in a railway line heading into the distance) appear to meet at the horizon. If you are drawing a long building which is on the corner of a street, with no other buildings around (say in a flat desert) the base of the building and the roof-line (parallel straight lines) will appear to be headed for points on the horizon (the vanishing points), which may not be on your paper or canvas, but beyond it.

Size: Objects in a landscape appear to be smaller the further they are away from you. If you use the rule about parallel straight lines, above, and apply it to a line of people all the same height but at varying distances away from you, the observer, you will see that they appear to become smaller the further away from you that they are.

Colour: The further away from you the lighter or more subdued and bluer the colours appear to be. The atmosphere through which you are looking is responsible for this effect, which you can use as clues about distance for the person viewing your work.

Sharpness of outlines appear blurred for the same reason.

6. Principles of Design - Colour

This is a huge field and many color theories abound. All seem to agree that the spectrum of white light, with its rainbow colours changing from red, orange to yellow then yellow-green to green, greenish-blue to blue, indigo and violet are the principal colours that can be perceived by the human eye.

Colours can only be seen in the presence of a light source. Individual colours reflect light according to the wavelength of the coloured object. The simplest colour theories use 8 – 24 primary, secondary and tertiary colours arranged around a colour wheel, with complementary colours being opposite each other and harmonious ones being adjacent.

Tints are a pale version of a colour (ie they have white added) while shades are darker (black added). Tones are somewhere in between. Colours themselves have a tonal value. Prove this by making a black and white photocopy of a full colour image which uses many colours. You will see that some colours (hues) have a darker tone than others. This fact can, obviously, be used to advantage in your artwork.

Colours evoke varying emotional responses (what do you think of as a happy colour? depressing? energetic?) and associations, including cultural ones. ‘Warm' colours, such as reds, oranges are thought of as advancing colours while the blues and greens are known as cool or receding. For a vibrant, ‘leap out of the picture’ type of accent, try a blob of moving scarlet leaping out from a field of green!

These principles of design, touched on briefly above, should help you to create an illusion of space in a landscape or still life, help you to learn how to draw people or make a shimmering length of silk or a well crafted sculpture in any medium. I wish you well in your endeavours.

Should you have specific questions related to principles of design or any art related matters, please ask your questions here and I shall do my best to answer them.

Examples of principles of design

The Golden Spiral pencil diagrammeThe Golden Spiral
Jack Heywood, performing as Ian Fairweather, uses symbols, line and colour as he paints his canvas on the floor.Jack Heywood, performing as Ian Fairweather, uses symbols, line and colour
Female nude drawing, wrapped in bandages or ribbons.Christine Eyres - line and form.
White lines indicate female figures on brown backgroundMary Ann Runciman uses rhythm and repetition in her drawing of figures.
Sculptor, Ellen Terrel carves a large bird like figure from clayEllen Terrell carves finishing touches to her three dimensional clay sculpture
Purple, brown and earthy green bark peels off a gum treeTexture and colour in Nature - purply tree bark.
Rough, golden coloured tree barkThis golden tree bark invites your touch.
Christine Eyres and colour wheelChristine Eyres workshop - 'Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green'.
Colour wheel exercise completedColour wheel exercise
Restricting your pallete for great effect - greens and yellow tones plus whiteChristine and student - a limited palette

Drawing Pencil Sketches

How to draw people

How to sketch, draw, paint - ebooks

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