The principles of art (or the principles of design) are essentially a set of criteria which are used to explain how the visual elements are arranged in a work of art. These principles are possibly the closest thing we have to a set of objective criteria for analyzing and judging art.
Art is a notoriously gray area when it comes objectively defining what is great and what is not. An artist of one era may be mocked during his lifetime, yet revered after his passing (such as Vincent van Gogh). The principles of art help combat this gray area to some extent. They allow us to communicate what makes a great painting great with an element of objectivity and consistency.
The following is an explanation of what the principles of art are and how you can use them to benefit your own artworks.
Pattern is a very important design concept which refers to the visual arrangement of elements with a repetitive form or intelligible sequence.
Pattern is not always obvious. It could be a simple underlying notan design which dances between light and dark in some kind of sequence. Or it could be the use of similar color patterns throughout your painting.
In the painting below, notice how the top arm of the subject almost blends into the background, and how the legs blend into the cloth, and the cloth blends into the rest of the foreground. This interlinking pattern drags you through the painting and creates a very interesting design.
Balance is concerned with the visual distribution or weight of the elements in a work of art. A painting could be balanced if one half is of the same visual weight as the other half. Or, you could have a small area of heightened significance which is balanced against a much larger area of less significance, like in the painting below. In the painting below, notice how the dark areas used for the boat and foreground appear balanced against the much larger area of soft, tinted colors.
Emphasis is a way of using elements to stress a certain area in an artwork. Emphasis is really just another way to describe a focal point in your artwork. In the painting below, there is strong emphasis on the moon through the use of color contrast.
Contrast is everything in art. Without it, an artwork would be nothing but a blank surface. Contrast can come in many forms:
Texture contrast: A contrast between smooth and textured. Many of Vincent van Gogh's paintings are great examples of texture contrast in action.
Color contrast: A contrast between light and dark, saturated and dull or complementary colors (hue contrast). For example, in the painting below, the highly saturated red contrasts against the relatively dull colors in the rest of the painting.
Detail contrast: A contrast between areas of detail and more bland areas, like in the painting below.
Shape contrast: A contrast between different shapes (rectangles and circles). For example, in the painting there are the curving shapes created by the winding paths, water and trees contrast against the rectangular shapes of the buildings.
Interval contrast: A contrast between long and short intervals. In the painting below, notice the variation in the lengths of the intervals between the trees. The interval contrast can be used to create a sense of rhythm in your artwork.
Harmony And Unity
Harmony is a bit vague compared to some of the other principles. Generally speaking, it refers to how well all the visual elements work together in a work of art. Elements which are in harmony should have some kind of logical progression or relationship. If there is an element which is not in harmony with the rest of an artwork, it should stick-out and be jarring to look at. Kind of like an off-note in a song.
You will usually be able to tell just from judgment if all the elements are in harmony. It will just look right. However, if the painting looks off, then it can be difficult to tell if that is because there is no harmony between the elements or if there is some other issue.
When I think of harmony, I think of the peaceful arrangements of color in Monet's series of water lilies.
Unity refers to some kind of connection between all the visual elements in a work of art. Like harmony, this is a bit of a vague term which is difficult to objectively use to analyze art. The painting below demonstrates a strong sense of unity through the use of a similar hues used throughout the painting. Even though there is a strong contrast between the light and dark areas, there is a sense of unity created through the use of similar hues (dark yellows, oranges and greens are used in the foreground and light yellows, oranges and greens are used in the background).
Variety refers to the use of differing qualities or instances of the visual elements. Variety can be used to break up monotonous or repetitive areas.
Below is a painting with lots of variation in color, shape and texture, yet not so much that it loses any sense of harmony.
Below is a painting with comparatively less variance. The result is a much calmer painting.
Your paints cannot physically move, but you can arrange the paints in a way which gives the illusion or suggestion of movement.
One of the most effective techniques for creating movement in your painting is to use bold and directional brushwork. By doing this, you can suggestively push your viewer around the painting as you please. You could also suggest movement through repetition or pattern.
Below are two examples of paintings which demonstrate a great sense of movement.
Also, I could not talk about using movement in art without some mention of Vincent van Gogh.
Proportion concerns the relationship between the sizes of different parts in an artwork. For example, the width compared to the length, the area of the sky compared to the land or the area of foreground compared to the background.
In the painting below by Giovanni Boldini, notice how the proportions of the female subject's hands, face, feet and torso are all accurate. If Boldini painted the hand too large compared to the rest of the subject's body, there would be an issue of proportion.
Scale refers to the size of an object compared to the rest of the surroundings. For example, the size of a man compared to the tree he is sitting under or the size of a mountain compared to the clouds. Scale is different to proportion in that scale refers to the size of an entire object whereas proportion refers to the relative size of parts of an object. For example, the scale of a man relative to the rest of the painting may be correct, but the proportion might be wrong because his hands are too large.
Summary Of The Principles Of Art
I hope this post clarifies to you what the principles of art are and how you can use them to help understand and communicate your thoughts about art.
It is also important to understand that a great painting does not have to tick all the boxes in terms of the principles of art. Most of the great paintings will only demonstrate a few of the principles.
So do not think of the principles of art as a set of overarching rules which you must comply with. They are merely a way to help us understand and communicate our thoughts about art.
The principles of art allow us to place some kind of objective reasoning behind why a great painting is great. This is important as it keeps us from falling into a vague space where art is no longer able to be defined or critiqued (much like what has happened with modern art).
(If you want to learn more about the principles of art, you might be interested in my Painting Academy course.)