Principles of Art


Art doesn't just happen. How do you make art? What do you make it with? You open your artbox and what do you pull out? Crayons, pencils, erasers, chalk? Sure, but do you know what to do with them once yoy pull them out? That's the problem. In a sense, the crayons, pencils, erasers and chalk are the least important tools for making art. The really important  tools are not in your hand, but in your mind.

Go back to that artbox and look at it another way. Now you might see a different set of tools, a more important set, some on a shelf called the Elements of Art, some on a shelf called the Principles of Art. These are mental tools that give you a way of looking at and organizing art.

The tools on the shelf for the Principles of Art are: repetition, variety, movement and rhythm, proportion, balance, emphasis, and unity.

Repetition is when you repeat, or do, something over and over in your artwork. It could be a shape or a kind of line, color, or object. It could really be anything you want. This repetition should help the viewer understand and enjoy the art. In this picture, the rectangles of the sculpture repeat across the picture. The repetition along with the heights and value of each set of rectangles sets up a kind of rhythm as you move across the artwork.

Variety is having a lot of different things going on in your artwork, or treating things in a lot of different ways. A drawing made with only one quality of line runs the risk of looking boring. If you vary the kinds of lines you use, it could make the artwork more interesting.

In this picture, the wallabies are drawn with many different kinds of lines. They have heavy lines to show off their eyes. The tall wallaby has swooping dark lines to set off the curve of his back. Light, short lines are used in the ears and in the fluffy fur parts of the bodies.




Movement and Rhythm



Movement and rhythm is the quality of an artwork that pulls the viewer through the picture. Using movement and rhythm and a few other principles, you can control where a viewer first enters an artwork and what they see and in what order. You can also control how fast their eyes move through the art, and can give them the impression of a beat to the work, as if it were music.

In this picture, the artist tries to move you in a loop from the bottom left through to the kid's face. The curve of the toys repeats the thick, dark curve of the table's edge. When you look at this picture, your eyes are forced to make that swoop up and to the right, then back again.




Proportion is how big or noticeable parts of the artwork are compared to other parts of the artwork. Not everything in a work of art is as important as everything else. Some things you want people to notice and other things you want to keep in the background. Also, everything in the picture needs to be the right size for everything else in the picture. You may not want the head in a figure drawing to be far too big for the body, for instance.

In the picture at right, proportion is used to create a feeling of quiet loneliness. The ground and the lighthouse are small compared to the space taken up by the water. That makes the lighthouse seem alone in an empty world.




Balance refers to the weight of different parts of the artwork. Does one side seem heavier or busier than another? Does part of the artwork seem empty, as if the artist forgot to work on that part? There are many ways to use balance.

Symmetrical balance is when one half of the picture has about the same thing as the other half of the picture. In its simplest use, symmetrical balance has one side of the picture as the mirror image of the other side.

Asymmetrical balance is when one side of the picture is heavier or has more going on in it than the other side.

The picture here shows a kind of symmetrical balance. You could split the picture from top to bottom through the central gray stripe and the image on each side would more or less look the same.




Emphasis is when you call attention to a part of your artwork. There are many ways to do this by using the elements and principles of art. If a work of art is in shades of gray except for one part of the picture that is in color, you have emphasized the colored part.

In this picture, we seem to be looking up at a man pointing down at us. The pointing man is emphasized by having all the lines of perspective lead right to the tip of his finger.




Unity is the extent to which the entire work of art holds together. Often when children first learn to draw, they might make a landscape that looks more like a bunch of separate doodles than it looks like one picture. The trick of unity is to use the elements and principles of art to make everything in a picture blend into a single artwork, every part of the picture helping every other part.

This picture is unified by its use of color, line, and value. Bright colors like the yellow are pressed against darker colors like the black and the greens.The flow of the abstract mountains is emphasized with thick black lines, and those lines are repeated from the lower left of the picture up toward the upper right. Finally, the brightest, darkest colors are near the bottom of the picture and make that part of the landscape seem closest to you. The back part of the landscape, higher up on the paper, is done in lighter colors to make it seem farther away. The same color blue is used throughout to bind all parts of the picture together.