Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Composition - Principles of Design

This post forms part of an introduction to the elements and principles of composition and design and follows on from yesterday's post about the elements of design. It's an overview. More can be written about each and every principle - and has been!

Good composition doesn't happen by accident. A quick reminder. The analogy which I find helpful for remembering which is which is to compare the elements and principles of art and design to the ingredients and method of a recipe. Cookery and composition have quite a lot in common!
  • All the elements are ingredients - they are separate and need to be combined effectively to produce a successful outcome. Each ingredient gets to play a major or a minor role in the eventual outcome. This, in part, is dependent on the quantities employed and, in part, on the nature and intrinsic power of each ingredient (think garlic and chilis!).
  • It's the particular way that they they are combined - using the principles of design - which enables a successful outcome. The same ingredients can for example be combined in a number of different ways (think of recipes for eggs!)
  • Just in the way that some people are great chefs while others manage to burn toast, we all vary in our degrees of knowledge and skill about how to combine the ingredients. Plus, from time to time, we all vary in our effectiveness in employing both elements and principles to produce a finished artwork. Sometimes we just forget the 'basics' - hence why I think it's useful to have a simple reminder!
Also, bear in mind that composition is essentially about resolving how the competing demands of different principles enable an artist to produce their best work.

What are the principles of art?

As yesterday, I'm using definitions from ArtLex to support this post as it's the most accessible art definitions database that I know about on the Internet. A variety of principles are listed (click the Artlex link under the definition to see the complete list).
Principles of design or principles of art - certain qualities inherent in the choice and arrangement of elements of art in the production of a work of art. Artists "design" their works to varying degrees by controlling and ordering the elements of art. Considering the principles is especially useful in analyzing ways in which a work is pleasing in formal ways. How any work exhibits applications of these principles can further or modify other characteristics of a work as well.
ArtLex: principles of design or principles of art
The Artlex definition then goes on to discuss how there is no agreement about what should be included in the list of principles and which are the most important principles. Some take the view that principles are 'ideals' while some are of the opinion that the principles provide benefits in terms of producing and assessing art.

There seems to be broad agreement that the following principles of design are important. These aren't rules - but it generally seems to be the case that you are more effective at breaking with a rule once you know about and understand it.
Principles of design

  • balance (the several kinds: symmetry, asymmetry, and radial)

  • emphasis (largely synonymous with dominance)

  • harmony (compare to unity, tension and variety)

  • movement

  • pattern (often paired with rhythm)

  • proportion

  • rhythm (often paired with pattern)

  • unity (largely synonymous with coherence and homogeneity)

  • variety(often contrasted with unity

  • ArtLex
    If you click on the link to the ArtLex page for each principle you can find examples of artwork and quotations. Some art students find it helpful to focus on different aspects in turn in order to develop skill in blending a whole.


    balance - A principle of design, balance refers to the way the elements of art are arranged to create a feeling of stability in a work; a pleasing or harmonious arrangement or proportion of parts or areas in a design or composition. Portions of a composition can be described as taking on a measureable weight or dominance, and can then be arranged in such a way that they appear to be either in or out of balance, or to have one kind of balance or another. Balance can be symmetrical, or formal; or it can be asymmetrical, or informal. It can also be radial.
    Artlex - Balance
    Greg Albert suggests that visual weight and visual energy are exclusive. He also has a whole chapter devoted to how to achieve a dynamic balance.
    Many designs with more apparent visual energy do not have a quality of weightiness and inactive designs do not have a quality of lightness
    "The Simple Secret to Better Painting" Greg Albert
    Before the Ballet, 1890/1892 by Edgar Degas (French, 1834 - 1917)
    oil on canvas, 40 x 88.9 cm (15 3/4 x 35 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Washington Widener Collection 1942.9.19

    Degas will be one of the artists featured on this blog this year - partly because of his interesting compositions which sometimes seem to seek to challenge the limits of balance and asymmetry. Another interesting artwork in this connection is Race Horses.

    Balance will be discussed in the post about Composition and Still Life - and how to assemble and create a still life set-up.


    emphasis- Any forcefulness that gives importance or dominance (weight) to some feature or features of an artwork; something singled out, stressed, or drawn attention to by means of contrast, anomaly, or counterpoint for aesthetic impact. A way of combining elements to stress the differences between those elements and to create one or more centers of interest in a work. Often, emphasized elements are used to direct and focus attention on the most important parts of a composition — its focal point. Emphasis is one of the principles of design. A design lacking emphasis may result in monotony.
    ArtLex - Emphasis
    There are various ways in which elements can be used to create an emphasis. The creation of a focal point or a centre of interest will be discussed in a blog post be next week.

    Mr and Mrs Andrews (about 1750) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727 - 1788)

    oil on canvas, 69.8 x 119.4cm
    National Gallery, London

    The opposite of emphasis is horror vacui - a horror of an empty space and a compulsion to crowd every space with marks so that the emphasis of a piece becomes lost.


    harmony - Agreement; accord. A union or blend of aesthetically compatible components. A composition is harmonious when the interrelationships between its parts fulfill aesthetic requisites or are mutually beneficial. As a principle of design, harmony refers to a way of combining elements of art to accent their similarities and bind the picture parts into a whole. It is often achieved through the use of repetition and simplicity.

    Excessive harmony leads to monotony, boredom. Relieving this may be elements of contrast; even of dissonance.
    ArtLex - Harmony
    Repetition is a special form of harmony which is often linked to pattern, proportion and rhythm. It can mean
    • the repetition of a form so that it becomes a "motif" - a consistent or recurrent conceptual element.
    • repetitions which suggest echoes - for example, of circular shapes of different objects or of analogous colours - any two or more colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel.
    Series paintings - such as Monet's paintings of Rouen cathedral (do click the sun wheel!)- are a special form of repetition.

    Notan relates to the harmony between darks and lights. Greg Albert illustrates in his book how to achieve harmony within value contrast.


    Movement - The act or process of moving, especially change of place or position, an effort. This can either be actual motion or it can be implied —the arrangement of the parts of an image to create a sense of motion by using lines, shapes, forms, and textures that cause the eye to move over the work. A principle of design, it can be a way of combining elements of art to produce the look of action. In a painting or photograph, for instance, movement refers to a representation or suggestion of motion. In sculpture too, movement can refer to implied motion. On the other hand, mobiles and kinetic sculptures are capable of actual motion as well.
    ArtLex - Movement
    The Battle of San Romano (probably about 1438-40)
    Paulo Ucello (about 1397 - 1475)
    Egg tempera with walnut oil and linseed oil on poplar, 181.6 x 320 cm.

    National Gallery (Full title: Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano) G583. Bought, 1857.

    This is a painting I always take visitors to the National Gallery to see. It's a simply enormous egg tempera painting - one of three (the others are in the Louvre and the Uffizi) - and despite the deterioration of the paint and modelling it is hugely effective at conveying the sense of movement associated with a battle.

    Pattern - The repetition of any thing — shapes, lines, or colors also called a motif, in a design; as such it is one of the principles of design. There are ten classes of patterns, each with a particular function, that make up the entire physical world — natural and human-made — at all scales:
    ArtLex - Pattern
    Repetition and tesselation are ways of creating a pattern. Some artists, like Gustav Klimt, are particularly attracted to pattern-making and emphasise pattern within areas of a painting. You can see more of his paintings here (slow to load) and at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.


    Proportion - A principle of design, proportion refers to the comparative, proper, or harmonious relationship of one part to another or to the whole with respect to size, quantity, or degree; a ratio. Often proportion is allied with another principle of art, emphasis. For example, if there is a greater number of intense hues than dull hues in a work, emphasis is suggested. For another example, if one figure is made to look larger compared to other figures in a composition, it is said to be out of proportion and is given greater importance.
    Art Lex - Proportion
    Vitruvian Man (1492)
    Leonardo da Vinci
    Pen and ink with wash over metalpoint on paper, 344 × 245 mm.
    Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

    This concerns itself with the 'proper' or pleasing ratio of one thing to another. So, for example,
    • the relative ratio of parts of the body. Leonardo da Vinci's 'Vitruvian man' was made as a study of the proportions defined and categorised by Vitruvius. There are a number of modern examples - such as this one. It's also interesting to note how artists have varied 'real life' proportions to make a portrait more flattering.
    • the often quoted guideline of the 'rule of thirds' for the location of pictorial elements in compositions is concerned with ratios (the golden ratio). This will be the subject of a subsequent post in this project.
    Apparently Piet Mondrian used the golden ratio extensively in his work.


    Rhythm - A visual tempo or beat. The principle of design that refers to a regular repetition of elements of art to produce the look and feel of movement. It is often achieved through the careful placement of repeated components which invite the viewer's eye to jump rapidly or glide smoothly from one to the next.

    In any artwork, it is possible to distinguish between rhythm of color, line, and form. In the continuity of the three comes the whole rhythm of that work......

    .....Each artist, every period, every culture produces a characteristic sort of rhythm. Recognizing a work's rhythmical peculiarities often aids in identify the culture or time in which it was produced, if not the individual artist who produced it.
    ArtLex - Rhythm
    Rhythm is about intervals and placement. Greg Albert has an interesting notion about intervals which he characterises as 'the one rule of composition' and which he writes about in his book "The Simple Secret to Better Painting" - which I'm hoping to review tomorrow.


    unity - The quality of wholeness or oneness that is achieved through the effective use of the elements and principles of design. A totality that combines all of its parts into one complete, cohesive whole. Often it is realized through a deliberate or intuitive balancing of harmony and variety. However, this balance does not have to be of equal proportions. Harmony might outweigh variety, or variety might outweigh harmony. Harmony aids efforts to blend picture parts together to form a whole. Variety adds visual interest to this unified whole. A composition is unified when the relationships between its parts interact to create a sense that no portion of the composition may be changed without altering the aesthetic integrity and meaning of the artwork. When unity is achieved with insufficient harmony and variety, the result is monotony. Unity is largely synonymous with coherence.
    ArtLex - Unity
    How to achieve a coherent whole - by thinking about, working with and balancing the different elements and the principles for how to blend them - is probably one of the biggest challenges an artist will ever have. Whether you plan in advance or work out the issues through the process adopted for drawing and/or painting the important point is that producing a work of art with impact requires some knowledge and some thought.

    Analysing what makes a painting effective is a very useful exercise.


    variety - A principle of design that refers to a way of combining elements of art in involved ways to achieve intricate and complex relationships. Variety is often obtained through the use of diversity and change by artists who wish to increase the visual interest of their work. An artwork which makes use of many different hues, values, lines, textures, and shapes would reflect the artist's desire for variety. Unity is the principle which is its variety's opposite; but when there is too little variety, the result is monotony.
    ArtLex - Variety
    Variety relates to all the main elements of design - shape, form, colour, line, value etc.

    The repetition of shapes helps to promote unity - but since regularity can be boring there are also benefits to be had from varying the sizes throughout the painting. Again, composition is about reconciling and balancing various demands.


    Later on in the project I'm going to post some checklists which will incorporate my 'best tips'. These are things to think about and look out for - even if they are not always the ones I remember to employ!

    What do you think is an effective composition?

    In the meantime, through the comments function, if you've got a favourite tell us what you think is is a highly effective composition - and, if possible, say why.

    Further Information

    Links to all the posts in this Making A Mark series about composition and design can be found in Composition and Design - Resources for Artists (this updates continuously as this project progresses)


      1. For pattern, I offer you "Our Man", Mark Tobey and his White Writings. I am unable to link in the comments, so please go to Google for him.

      2. an excellent post Katherine :)

        so many people stop at the 'rule of thirds' stage of composition and there are so many other possibilities.

        My work is usually much more about rhythm, weight, repetition, echo etc

      3. I've tried leaving an instruction on how to leave a link in code and can't get it to work without it conveting into a link!

        The only special thing about links in Blogger comments is that they are automatically set up by Blogger as 'no follow' ie they don't add links to whichever site they reference - so no link clout I'm afraid - blame the spammers!

        A site which does tell you how to write a link is this one - Dave Raggett's introduction to html - scroll down to the section on the first page called 'adding links to other pages'.

      4. Thanks Vivien. The rule of thirds is interesting and important - but there is so much more!

        I think the concepts of elements and principles (or the "Es and Ps" as somebody is calling them in the previous post) are a neat way of organising all the things you can think about.

      5. I've just spent a delightful morning with Klimt. That first link might be slow to load but it is a real treat of music and images. Thanks as usual :)

      6. I's great isn't it - definitely worth the wait. It's also persuaded me to I need to study Klimt in a bit more detail.

      7. Thanks, Katherine. I'll be trying this method.

      8. I haven't even mastered balance, but I'm working on it. Are there easier paintings to study, other than Degas'?

      9. You'll get more out of studying the paintings of the Masters rather than 'easier' paintings. Look at lots and lots of paintings by different artists with the principles of design in mind and see how many you can recognise being employed. You'll find the more you look at the easier it becomes.


      COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of the amount of spam and copying of my blog posts which is taking place. Removing them is taking too much time.
      Please feel free to comment about the blog on my Facebook Page as my blog posts are always posted there but please note
      1) anonymous comments are NEVER published
      2) automated / spam / scam comments are never ever published on this blog
      3) I ALWAYS block and report spammers to Google and/or on Facebook

      Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.