The Elements & Principles of Art and Design (Arte 102 & GEPE 3010)

The Elements & Principles of Art and Design

The elements and principles of design are standard references for the visual parts and the manipulation of those visual parts in an artwork. Applying these references to a painting, sculpture, or art piece in general is similar to the material available to a writer, filmmaker or a musician. There are a finite number of elements and principles of design, just like there are a finite number of alphabetical characters and musical notations. Yet, the manner in which this finite material is used is dependent only upon the creativity of the user.

There are many styles of design that have been developed over the ages, yet much of this visual creativity is based on the application of a short list of elements and principles of design. These are:


LINE: A line results when a mark is left by a tool of some kind. Line is also detectable as the defining edge limit of an object. Line is an abstract concept and is referred to as a one-dimensional mark - meaning it possesses only length. Yet, in order to see a drawn line it must have some weight or width. The path or movement of a point in space that creates a line.

SHAPE: A shape is an object that possesses both length and width. A line that is drawn to connect itself creates an enclosed area. This enclosed area is a shape.

FORM: A form is a three-dimensional object - it possesses length, width, and depth. A form is the actual solid object. A photograph of a form is an illusion where the three-dimensional qualities of an actual object are represented with shaded shapes.

COLOR: Color refers to the property of light to be absorbed and to reflect from a surface. The only colors able to be seen by the unaided human eye are those found in the visible color spectrum.

TEXTURE: Texture is the surface quality of an object. Textures are defined as either being tactile (how something feels) or as visual (how something looks like it would feel). Textures are often implied in a drawing or painting creating a strong tactile illusion.

SPACE: There are two kinds of space - positive and negative. Positive space, (also referred to as the field), is that area taken up, or displaced, by an object. The space remaining around that object is referred to as negative space (also referred to as the ground). Positive and negative space are interchangeable. What was positive easily becomes negative and vice versa when your point of view regarding the object changes. It's also the distance between, above, top, bottom, inside and outside of an object or element.

The principles are suggested “rules” for using the elements. Applied principles of design allow for unlimited possibilities in how the elements are utilized. Think of a musician with only one note at his disposal or an artist who only has yellow paint. He could paint an object yellow, and he could vary some of the qualities of how he used line and shape, but you would soon tire of looking at only the same yellow surfaces. Applying the principles to the work helps to keep it interesting.


EMPHASIS: Placing an item that quickly attracts the viewer's eye establishes a focal point within your design. This is also referred to as a center of interest.

PROPORTION: Proportion is the comparison of parts to parts and parts to the whole. Notice the proportional relationships found within the parts of the human face. The head is a given shape and the features found on the face are located in specific areas and are specific sizes and shapes. These relationships can be mapped out and used as a general guideline when drawing heads.

BALANCE: Balance is an achieved state of equilibrium among the parts of a design. There are two kinds of balance - symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is also referred to as formal balance and there are two types of symmetrical balance - bilateral and radial. An object that is bilaterally symmetrical can be divided in one direction and both halves will end up being equal, or nearly so (think of the human face). If an object is radially symmetrical it is equally divisible in more than one direction (think of the spokes in a wheel). If an object is asymmetrical, it is not equally divisible in any direction. Asymmetrical balance is also referred to as informal balance.

REPETITION: When objects and markings are repeated a pattern results. The eye begins to sense a relationship among similarly treated surfaces. It provides the work with a sense of unity.

VARIATION: Variation prevents repetition from becoming too monotonous and boring. When change is applied to similar objects, variation results.

RHYTHM/MOVEMENT: These principles of design are related. Rhythm refers to a means of leading a viewer's eye throughout an art work. Adding pointing, touching, and overlapping objects to your design work helps to set up a rhythm in the arrangement. Movement refers to the pattern of scanning the eye follows through the design surface.

DIRECTION: Direction is not a specific principle of design but it is a variable that can be applied to how the elements are arranged within the design space.

UNITY: When different areas of a design have similar things in common, this makes it seem as though those objects are somehow related to each other. Unity helps to harmonize the surface relationships.

LA jETTE de Chris Marker