The term composition means ‘putting together,’ and can apply to any work of art, from music to writing, that is arranged or put together using conscious thought. In the visual arts, composition is often used interchangeably with various terms such as design, form, visual ordering, or formal structure, depending on the context.

Principles and Elements of Design is what this page will focus on. What exactly does “Principles and Elements of Design” mean? Principles of design are the laws of designing anything! In other words, to have a good design, you should consider these principles for the best design possible. Elements of design on the other hand are things that are involved within making a design. The major difference between principles and elements is that principles are rules you have to follow and elements are things that will help you complete those rules for the best project outcome.

Principles of Design, as said before, are the laws of designing anything! When making a design the seven principles are contrast, emphasis, balance, unity, pattern, movement, and rhythm. Consider each of these carefully for any design and you’ll be a guaranteed a great project!Contrast means showing differences in two different sections of the design or showing somehow that the design being created is very different from other designs because of its contrast. Contrast can also be used to show emphasis in any part of the design.

Emphasis is given to an area within the design because that area is meant to be seen or is more important to be noticed when compared to other places of the design. For example, your design might be to have white parallel lines going up and down. In the center of this design, you could have a circle. This circle would be a part on the design that is emphasized.

Balance means keeping your design like a pattern. A balanced pattern would be if you had a border on your pattern in black. Unbalanced would be if approximately one-third of the border was orange and the other two-thirds in pink. To keep your design balanced, make your measurements as accurate as possible. Keeping your design symmetric is a good technique for good balance, but not necessarily the best for all types of designs.

Unity means keeping your design in a sort of harmony in which all sections of the pattern make other sections feel complete. Unity helps the design to be seen as one design instead of randomness all around your design.

Pattern is simply keeping your design in a certain format. For example, you could plan to have wavey lines all around your design as a pattern, but then you must continue those wavey lines throughout the design for good patterns. It wouldn’t look good if suddenly you stopped all the wavey lines and drew a picture of a dog.

Movement is the suggestion or illusion of motion in a painting, sculpture, or design. For example, circles going diagonally up and down from right to left could show that the design moves up and to the right or down and to the left.

Rhythm is the movement or variation characterized by the regular recurrence or alternation of different quantities or conditions. In simpler words, it’s just like pattern and shows that the desing has a ‘beat’ or ‘flow’ going with it. A plain white box has almost no rhythm what so ever.

Elements of Design, as said before, are things that are involved within making a design. The seven elements of design are color, value, texture, shape, form, space, and line. Elements of design will help your design look a lot more unique from other designs, and can help make the design symbolize anything!Color is an easy one. Just make sure your design’s color is right for the mood! Also make sure that each section’s color matches another section’s color. Colors is probably the biggest element to pay attention to.

Value is the relative darkness or lightness of a color. Just as said in the paragraph above, make sure the colors you put on your design are dark or light enough for the proper mood. If you want to show a sad figure in your design, most people would give the design a darker value. On the other hand to show happy children playing around most people would recommend lighter colors.

Texture helps your design to be distinctive or have identifying character and characteristics. With the proper texture, your design will look more fascinating than the average design.

Shape is something distinguished from its surroundings by its outline within your design. You can make your whole work a certain shape besides the common square, and then have shapes within the design shape. This makes the design more complex.

Form is similar to the idea of shape. Form is the structure of your design and how everything in the design looks like it’s meant to go together. If the form is well planned and then carried out, it almost guarantees your design in black and white will be a success.

Space has to be included in your design. Space means leaving some blank areas. Why would you wanna leave parts of the design blank? Sometimes a human’s eye needs space to feel confortable, and space will let the human’s eye distinguish the part that’s meant to be noticed compared to just the background. Sometimes not including space in your design is ok, but make sure it doesn’t make it look messy.

Line defines the position and direction of the design. If you have lines or shapes that seem to be running horizontally, then the design would seem like it’s running in a left and right line. Make sure your design identifies some sort of line so that the human eye can recognize which side is the top of the design or on which side the design is suppose to start with interest.

1. The Ideal Size. The most natural and pleasing size ground upon which to draw or paint is a Golden Rectangle, or a rectangle whose dimensions are 1 unit by 1.62 units.

2. Divide the rectangle into thirds. This will aid us in locating the “sweet spots” in which to place the center of interest. Do not divide the picture into equal spaces. This is boring, and can lead to producing four pictures in one painting.

3. Lead the viewer’s eye around the composition by providing a path to follow, such as the one shown. The path you provide can vary from the one shown. It could be more oval, or another shape such as a pentagon. The path should connect with the top, bottom, and sides of the picture, and should provide an entrance to and an exit from the picture. The entrance is most often at the bottom of the painting. The exit you provide is an area that is progressively less important. A door, window or patch of sky can provide a place to “rest” the viewers’ eye, a subtle exit. The path should, of course, lead to the center of interest. If the path begins to point out of the picture, adjust it accordingly, using a bending twig, a shimmer in the glass, a cloud, or whatever trick you might come up with to lead the viewers’ eye back to the path.

4. Putting the concepts together. These concepts will help us remember how to quickly adjust our picture for a good design, and help locate the center of interest in a pleasing location. Lightly draw these grids on your paper to help place your center of interest, and develop your pathways around the composition. Remember, one of the “sweet spots” must dominate, (Center of Interest).

5. Draw a grid, (like rectangle #2) on a 4” by 6.5” sheet of clear plastic or an overhead transparency sheet with a suitable marking pen. Use it to help locate the center of interest and pathways on your thumbnail sketches. Or, hold it up and view a scene through it. It should help you analyze the compositional elements of the scene.


Percy Principles of Art and Composition

  • Percy Principle #1 –  Avoid a sore thumb.  Nothing in the composition should be so strong that the rest of the composition looks neglected. When you have a sore thumb, you do not notice the rest of your hand.  Avoid the SORE THUMB.  I study my composition to see if anything looks too important, I change that part to make it less important, OR I find something else in the composition and make it more important. However, even scars add interest, emphasis, and expression if they are integrated into the whole. .
  • Percy Principle #2 – Keep everything connected. Connect each part of the composition to something else in the composition. I think of this as Theme with Variation. If I use a big red circle, perhaps I need another circle or another red or another big thing.  I probably should not have another big red circle.  If I use a black and white cow, I may need another animal or organic shape, or I may need another instance of black and white spots, etc., and so on.
  • Percy Principle #3 – Include Secrets. Artwork is more interesting and expressive if it has hidden features and ideas that it only reveals to diligent observers.The popular arts, by contrast with fine art, make everything obvious at first glance.
  • Percy Principle #4Challenge common assumptions. Strong artwork often makes the viewer question prior assumptions about the world. Is my artwork making an ARGUMENT? What does my artwork have to offer that the viewer may find incomprehensible, disagreeable, or contentious?  By contrast, popular arts tend to support all popular ideas and assumptions in simple straightforward ways.
  • Percy Principle #5 – Cherish Mistakes. Mistakes are fascinating gifts, and what we do with them makes all the difference. It is hard to plan creative work, but when a mistake happens, I am given a gift.  When I respond to the mistake and make a new thing from it, I do not have to borrow other artist’s ideas to be creative.  It has emerged as my solution.  On the other hand, when the mistake is an obvious failure, it means that I have to get to work, do research, experiment, or simply PRACTICE MORE.  These are all positive outcomes.  Percy Principle #1was about sore thumbs. Mistakes are sometimes like sores that make something less boring and more fun to see. I leave enough scars to keep the story interesting and expressive.
    Also see – Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) “How to Make Mistakes.” In: J. Brockman, K. Matson (eds.) How Things Are. New York: William Morrow and Company: 137-144.
  • Percy Principle #6 – Be Accident Prone.  Accidents in art are tragic or happy – depending on the artist’s disposition to respond.  The benefits of accidents and mistakes are very similar.  They both present unexpected problems or opportunities.  If one of my soft clay pieces accidentally falls off a ware board, it presents itself to me as an idea for a wall plaque, wall vase, mirror frame, or something else not yet imagined.  If a large bowl form falls flat and becomes a platter, it may not be functional, but it can be transformed into relief sculpture.  This particular piece of clay can be thrown in the rework, but the images presented to me are filed in my mental hard drive.  A series of wall pieces or platters may emerge from the ideas presented by the accident.  Creative people prize accidents and mistakes precisely because accidents move the mind to places it does not voluntarily go.  Creativity is not simply problem solving.  Experts may be good at problem solving, but the highly creative also love the art of “problem finding”.
    Accidents and mistakes are such useful problem finding techniques that we need to practice them.  Some lessons can have “intentional accidents” as part of the lesson.  It is a way to learn how to generate problems and ideas.
  • Percy Principle #7 – Never borrow other artist’s ideas.  Steal ’em! Ideas are free for the taking. Ideas are all around us in the vapor of existence. Images and particular arrangements of words, on the other hand, are copyrighted. Inventions are patented. Copyrights and patents are “intellectual property”, but ideas and concepts belong to everybody. They are in the public domain – always have been. If I find a good idea, a truth, I do not want to borrow it. I do not want to return it. I want to appropriate it, test it, and make it my own. I own it. Like the thief, I want to steal it so I can tell it, paint it, and fling it with clay and glaze.  Ideas are free.  The ability to express a good idea is a valuable artisitic ability.
    Source: I was introduced to this Principle by Nick Lindsay, poet and son of Vachel Lindsay, poet.  In 1972, as he was helping me build our house, I asked Nick if he felt like borrowing another poet’s ideas.  He said, “Never borrow ’em.  STEAL ‘EM.  Make ’em your own.  Don’t plan to give ’em back.”

written by Marvin Percy Bartel