What are they?

  • The elements and principles of design are the building blocks of any composition within art. They can be seen in pieces between cultures, time periods, genres, and artists, though they are used uniquely in any case.

  • The elements, as the foundations of art, are used by artists to achieve several principles that build upon the basics of the elements.

  • Depending on how the elements and principles are used, artists can achieve different effects. Thus, the differing use of elements and principles determines the genre of artwork.

  • Knowingly or unknowingly, these concepts exist within our world and we see them everyday. The geometric shape of buildings, repetitive lines in architecture, illusions of texture: the list goes on and on.
They are the basic visual toolbox of design tactics in every visual design discipline. (wikipedia) Most compositions in almost everything is based upon the structural aspects of the design principles and elements.

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Size
  4. Value
  5. Texture
  6. Form
  7. Colour

  1. Movement
# Rhythm
  1. Balance
  2. Unity
  3. Contrast
  4. Emphasis
  5. Pattern
  6. Dominance


Beyond definition

The elements and principles are divided into their respective groups, and are as follows:


  • Line : A moving dot that can be used to create visual and emotional elements within a composition. For example, Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics speaks of how we perceive jagged and diagonal/vertical lines to illustrate anger and frustration, where smooth horizontal lines imply a calm feeling.


  • Shape: When a line begins and ends at the same point, it makes a shape. Some familiar shapes are the square, triangle, rectangle, and circle. A shape can be classified as organic or geometric (Adams, 15).



  • Size: Difference between proportion of objects, lines, or shapes.



  • Value: Degree of light and dark in a composition (can be related to either colour or black/white compositions).



  • Texture: implied/physical appearance of smooth/rough surfaces (physical texture can be seen in 3-Dimensional pieces - i.e. sculpture)



  • Form: 3-Dimensional object. Illusion of form can be created with the use of value.


  • Colour:Colour consists of the three primary colours, Red, Yellow, Blue. Secondary colours are green (blue + yellow), orange (red + yellow), violet (red + blue). The colours in between these colours on the colour wheel are known as intermediate colours. The shade of black is achieved by combining all of these colours together, and the shade of white is achieved through their absence. Colours can also be divided into two major groups: Warm Colours (Yellow, Orange and Red) and Cool Colours (Purple, Blue, and Green). Each colour group (warm and cool) is associated with things in the physical world, for example yellow is often associated with the sun, while the colour blue is associated with the sky (Adams, 16).




  • Movement: Movement is meant to show activity in a picture. There are two forms of movement that an image can show, physical movement and compositional movement. Physical movement occurs in a picture when physical activity is present through a subject (person, animal, form). An example of physical movement could be a subject who participates in the activity of skating or running in a picture. Compositional movement occurs when the elements within a picture move the viewer's eye throughout the composition. Compositional movement can occur through the repetition of colours, patterns, texture or light thoughout an image (Adams, 12).

external image athens.jpg

Raphael, School of Athens, 1511. This painting illustrates compositional movement.Movement is created with the use of perspective, which draws the viewer's vision into the composition, as if entering a room


  • Rhythm: repeating of one or more elements to create movement. According to Digital Web Magazine, the principle Rhythm has three components:
      • Regular: can establish a particular pattern
      • Flowing: emphasizes the idea of movement
      • Progressive: sequence of forms throughout a movement (can be seen in Balla’s dynamist painting, Dog On A Leash)

external image 682bg.jpg
Balla, Dog on a Leash, 1912. An example of progressive movement, capturing the motions of a dog as it moves.


  • Balance: the “weight” within a composition. Balance can be achieved symmetrically, or asymmetrically. With asymmetrical balance, compositional balance is achieved not only though size, but also through use of the other elements
external image pieta.gif
Michelangelo, La Pieta, 1498. This sculpture exemplifies asymmetrical balance. Though the composition is "top-heavy", and the focal point is occuring at the top of the composition, the bottom is balanced out by Michelangelo's deep carving to create folds of cloth. This creates dark points for shadows to occur, creating a balance between the elements of form (at the top), and value (at the bottom).


  • Unity: this principle sets out to answer whether or not the single parts of the composition are unified (either by one of the elements, or by a metaphysical component, i.e. theme)
external image munch.scream.jpg
Munch, The Scream, 1893. Unity is achieved in this composition through the use of light colours that penetrate the bottom of the composition that is dark (orange-yellow values on the bridge), and dark colours moving into the upper composition that is made up of mostly light colours (the dark blue moving past the horizon)


  • Contrast: difference in any of the elements, or in metaphysical content (happy/sad, anger/love, etc)
external image 61003.jpg
Picasso, Guitarist, 1903. Contrast is achieved through the use of colour and value. The painting for the most part remains monochromatic (restricted to one hue, blue and white, in this case), and the guitar is given a colour scheme all its' own. A high contrast and is achieved through the introduction of colour and juxtaposing value scales.


  • Emphasis: dominant area of a composition, made possible through use of elements
external image joh0-031.jpg
Mondrian, Composition with red, yellow blue and black, 1921. Emphasis is achieved through the use of size.


  • Pattern: repetition of an element(s) throughout a composition
external image Warhol3.jpg
Warhol, Cans of Soup, 1962. Pattern is achieved through repetition


  • Dominance: this principle occurs when something in an artwork is seen as important. The important part of the artwork stands out from everything else, meaning certain areas within the artwork recieve special emphasis. These areas of special emphasis, or dominant areas, may be created through various appraches in an artwork. Dominance can occur when an area of an artwork is large in comparison to the rest of the work. Colour or detail can emphasize a certain area in an artwork, especially if the area stands out against the background (black object against a white background). The positioning of an area in an artwork may also emphasize its dominance (Adams,12).

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503- 1513. The principal of dominance is easily seen in this painting. The female figure in the painting is large in size in comparison to the rest of the painting, which denotes this figures dominance and importance. The detail and colour of the female figure also show her dominance. She is very detailed and darker in tone in comparison to the lesser detailed and lighter coloured background. The female figure's positioning at the very front of the painting also illustrats her importance.


Works Cited:
Adams, Laurie Schneider (2001). A History of Western Art, Third Edition. New York: McGraw- Hill.
Used for the terms above: shape, colour, movement, dominance


Raphael, School of Athens <http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/IMG/LPR/athens.jpg>
Balla, Dog on a Leash <http://www.usc.edu/schools/annenberg/asc/projects/comm544/library/images/682bg.jpg>
Michaelangelo, La Pieta <http://library.thinkquest.org/20176/images/pieta.gif>
Edvard Munch, The Scream <http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/munch/munch.scream.jpg>
Picasso, Guitarist <http://www.artinstituteshop.org/content/images/61003.jpg>
Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black <http://www.achievement.org/achievers/joh0/large/joh0-031.jpg>
Warhol, Cans of Soup <http://www.thelondonseason.com/images/Warhol3.jpg>
Da Vinci, Mona Lisa <http://ccit300-f06.wikispaces.com/space/showimage/%28davinci%29-mona-lisa.jpg>