Artistic Principles


There are many aspects of the formal dimensions of art, what we often consider the rules of composition or the perceptual laws grounded in gestalt psychology. These general principles provide an analytical language and lens which we use to analyze art from any cultural origin. They are grounded in our perception and the materials of the chosen medium. Read this introduction.

Visual art manifests itself through media, ideas, themes, and sheer creative imagination. Yet all of these rely on basic structural principles that, like the elements we have studied, combine to give voice to artistic expression. Incorporating the principles into your artistic vocabulary not only allows you to objectively describe artworks you may not understand but helps you search for their meaning.

The first way to think about a principle is that it is something that can be repeatedly and dependably done with elements to produce some sort of visual effect in a composition.

The principles are based on sensory responses to visual input: elements APPEAR to have visual weight, movement, etc. The principles help govern what might occur when particular elements are arranged in a particular way. Using a chemistry analogy, the principles are the ways the elements "stick together" to make a "chemical" (in our case, an image).

Principles can be confusing. There are at least two very different but correct ways of thinking about principles. On the one hand, a principle can be used to describe an operational cause and effect, such as "bright things come forward and dull things recede." On the other hand, a principle can describe a high-quality standard to strive for, such as "unity is better than chaos" or "variation beats boredom" in a work of art. So, the word "principle" can be used for different purposes.

Another way to think about a principle is that it is a way to express a value judgment about a composition. Any list of these effects may not be comprehensive, but some are more commonly used (unity, balance, etc.). When we say a painting has unity, we are making a value judgment. Too much unity without variety is boring, and too much variation without unity is chaotic.

The principles of design help you to carefully plan and organize the elements of art so that you will hold interest and command attention. This is sometimes referred to as a visual impact.

In any work of art, there is a thought process for the arrangement and use of design elements. The artist who works with the principles of good composition will create a more interesting piece; it will be arranged to show a pleasing rhythm and movement. The center of interest will be strong, and the viewer will not look away. Instead, they will be drawn into the work. A good knowledge of composition is essential in producing good artwork. Some artists today like to bend or ignore these rules and experiment with different forms of expression.

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Source: Christopher Gildow,
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Last modified: Wednesday, February 14, 2024, 3:56 PM