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The Principles of Design

October 13, 2010

In addendum to my previous post, “The Elements of Design”, I would like to speak to the related “Principles of Design.”

There are eight principles of design, that when used with the seven elements of design, constitute the building blocks of a great painting.

The principles are as follows:


Any good composition is made up of elements that display themselves as a complete unit. The elements within a painting should be related and not foreign to one another. This is not to say that there can be no contrasts within the piece. On the contrary, hard lines relating to soft edges, horizontal directional lines contrasting vertical ones are what it is all about….variety. However, these elements must exist in nature, together, and not be foreign to one another.


Conflict creates interest.

Elements that are opposite one another are exciting….straight lines placed next to curved ones, red placed next to green (complimentary colours), dark values placed beside the lightest values. All seven elements have their counterpart and the artist uses this relationship to create excitement in his/her painting.


In any painting, any one element should be dominant. For example, soft textures could be dominant over hard ones while dark hues could be dominant over light. It is said that dominance resolves conflict and regains unity. Although variety is the spice of life, dominance rules and is a very important principle in a good painting.


Rhythm or repetition is comforting to us all and it is no different when it comes to building a good painting. Once again, any element can find repetition it’s friend but there should be variety within that element. For example, if an artist is repeating a certain shape, the size of that repeated shape should vary to keep away monotony. The repeated shape supplies the harmony but that harmony is uplifted by variety.


Alternating elements is another way to introduce harmony, repetition and unity. This principle is closely related to the other principles of design. Alternating cool with warm colours that are of dark and light values can be very effective.


Balance can be of two types; symmetrical or asymmetrical.

The symmetrical treatment of your support, canvas or paper, is the equal division of the working space into two equal parts. This is not often as interesting as the composition that is divided into unequal parts. A space divided unequally is more dynamic.


Harmony and unity are often friends. Those lines, shapes and colours that are more alike than they are dissimilar are considered harmonious.


Gradation by definition is the “gradual and imperceptible shading off of one colour into another; gradual passage from one condition, quality, degree into another.” It can be applied to all of the elements but is most often used in colour, value and texture as the dictionary definition implies. Gradual is the operative word here.

It is with these eight principles and the seven elements that great paintings are built upon. Keep them in mind and if you get ‘stuck’ while painting, try to figure out which one or ones of these are missing. They can help you get back on track.

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