Design: Elements and Principles

It might be helpful to clarify the difference between Design Elements and Design Principles by using a recipe as metaphor.  The Elements of Design are the Ingredients of the recipe…….the components you have available to create the dish.  The Principles of Design are what you can do with the ingredients.  You can create an omelette with an egg.  You can create harmony (in a collage or in your living room decor or in your wardrobe) by using color. You can add spark to soup by sprinkling in a bit of  pepper.  You can add contrast to a painting by incorporating texture.

In order to make good art, you must have a clear understanding and awareness of the following (and at the same time understand that these are not “rules”):

Elements of Design (the ingredients)

POINT (mark)


SHAPE (flat)

FORM (volume/mass/3-D)

SPACE (visual depth)

VALUE (light/dark)

COLOR (hue, value, intensity (purity), temperature)


Principles of Design (what you can do with the ingredients)

You can create……….

UNITY (all elements integrated into a coherent whole)

HARMONY (all parts relate to and complement one another)

BALANCE (distribution of elements to achieve psychological sense of equilibrium. symmetrical (formal) or assymetrical (informal))


EMPHASIS (center of interest…the area that is visually dominant and eyecatching)

DOMINANCE (the establishment of one element as the strongest, making it the unifying factor)

RHYTHM (intervals at which related elements occur through the piece)

REPETITION (the eye tends to seek out related elements)

GRADATION (gradual transition)

MOVEMENT (horizontal, vertical, diagonal)

SIZE/SCALE/PROPORTION (relationship between one element and another)

It is also helpful to understand and recognize the following Human Tendencies:

CONTINUANCE (the idea that once you begin looking in one direction you will continue to do so until something more significant catches your attention.)

CLOSURE (the idea that the brain tends to fill in missing information when it perceives an object is missing some of its pieces.)

SIMILARITY/PROXIMITY (items of similar size, shape, and color tend to be grouped together by the brain, and a relationship between the items is formed)

“An artist does not create.  He only rearranges things.”  Bob Burridge

4 responses to “Design: Elements and Principles

  • Eilish Kavanagh

    Hi Judith,
    Thank you so very much for your most helpful insights regarding producing great paintings. As an new artist myself I can now see all the areas where I need to change in order to progress.

    Kind regards,


  • Rhonda Sherwin

    I too am newly committed to developing my artwork after 35 years of teaching high school art. Your insights are invaluable and so helpful to this very individualized experience in the studio. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I also love your multidimensional approach to collage painting and drawing. The color and texture are inspiring!


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