In addition to the Fundamentals of Art known as the seven art elements, it is just as important to know and understand the Art Principles. These principles are used by artists and designers of every stripe, from car designers to interior decorators to civic sculptors. The art principles are tools on how to arrange or organize the art elements of line, shape, space, value, color, texture, or form. There is not total agreement among art critics about the art principles – some believe there are only seven, and some feel there are nine.

As a great learning activity, plan to do some art projects based on an understanding of the eight art principles listed here.

Balance

Balance is the distribution of visual weight in an art work. Supposing an artist placed a large tree on the left side of a painting. It could be balanced out with a large house on the right. Or, with a smaller house, or a medium hill with some smaller bushes around. Although there are smaller elements, their combined “weight” visually balances out the large tree. Think of a two-dimensional piece of art as being a see-saw, with placement (how far from the fulcrum center) and size determining if the see-saw balances.

To do a quick project on balance, ask your student to cut out (from colored construction paper) a variety of shapes in different sizes. Arrange and then glue the shapes in a design on a white piece of paper that results in a balanced composition. Shape placement should consider size, color, and type of shape (geometric or organic).

Pattern

Pattern is when a motif is repeated. A motif is a shape or object that is repeated in a pattern. Just look around you at upholstery, curtains, tablecloths, wallpaper, even clothing for examples of pattern used in everyday design. A master of the use of pattern was the French painter, Henri Matisse.

Have your students paint a still life scene with a lot of bold pattern. You can set up a vase of flowers on a patterned tablecloth in front of a window with a patterned drapery or a patterned wallpaper wall. Rather than a distraction for the painting, the patterns are a key element.

Movement

Movement as a principle is when the artist uses art elements to direct the viewer’s eye around the piece. Look at American artist George Bellow’s famous painting, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. Bellows used the diagonal lines of the legs and arms of the falling boxer to convey the dramatic moment and action of a knockout punch. Even the referees right arm is pointing to the stricken boxer to lead the viewer’s eye downward toward the surprised spectators.

Harmony

Harmony is when all of the elements work together in an uncomplicated manner; everything seems to belong. This is very similar to unity. Color choices are often what provides a work its harmony.

For a harmonious project, plan a landscape painting using one primary color, the secondary colors made from that one primary, and the tertiary colors. For example: YELLOW as the primary, green as the secondary, and yellow-green as the tertiary, as well as orange as the other secondary, and yellow-orange as the tertiary. Yellow as the root in each color provides the harmony.

Unity

Unity can be achieved in a work of art when all the components work together to give the work a sense of being complete.

Contrast

Contrast is created by using elements that conflict with one another. Strong value differences, such as black against white, are an example of contrast. But contrast can be achieved with hard against soft, bright against dull, smooth against rough, etc. Sometimes the subject matter of the art work contains elements of contrast.

Rhythm

Rhythm is achieved when there is a repetition of elements (lines, shapes, colors, forms) in an art work. The poured paintings of Morris Louis provide a rhythm with the free-form stripes that flow down the surface of the canvas.

Emphasis

The focal point in an art work – where your eye goes first – provides the piece with emphasis. Winslow Homer’s painting, Artist Sketching in the White Mountains, is an example of emphasis (the bright white umbrella) as well as rhythm, which is achieved by the repetition of the artists seated outside on the hill.

Ask your student to make a drawing of their favorite outdoor game with friends. Remind your student to provide emphasis: a real focal point that someone will spot immediately. An example would be a game of football, and the emphasis could be on the receiver just jumping up for the winning catch!

Some artists naturally consider all of these principles when they are planning a work of art. But young artists need to be intentional about developing these eight principles in order to really understand how their work can be impacted and improved. Though art styles may change over the centuries, and techniques may differ between artists, the fundamentals never go out of style!

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Pat Kneply

Pat has been drawing and painting since she was able to hold a crayon. Pat has a degree in art education, a teaching credential, and has taught art in Pennsylvania and California. Pat lives in a windy part of southern California with her husband and two almost-grown sons.