Inside: The ultimate collection of principles of design examples and definitions, plus helpful resources for teaching the elements and principles of art.
What are the Elements and Principles of Art?
The elements of art and principles of design are the fundamental pieces that make up an artwork. Most works of art will make use of many or all of the elements and principles of art. We often judge art by how effectively the artist used these design fundamentals even before we learn about them.
The elements of art are the building blocks of an artwork: color, line, shape, form, value, texture, and space. They are the tools artists use when creating an artwork. See Elements of Art Examples and Definitions for more on the elements of art.
The principles of design are how those building blocks are arranged: contrast, rhythm, proportion, balance, unity, emphasis, movement, and variety. They are the ways an artist can organize the elements of art to create a wide range of effects.
Each of these art fundamentals are closely related and many of them overlap. When combined, they produce a complete artistic vision.
Why are the Elements and Principles of Art Important?
Knowing the elements and principles of art boosts visual literacy. Artists and creators make more powerful works when they utilize the principles of art. When viewers are familiar with the elements of art, they become more aware of the details and can better appreciate what they see and the message behind it. Connecting with art makes us more empathetic and strengthens the fabric of society. In the age of the internet, understanding how and why advertisers make design decisions can empower students with information and make them less susceptible to manipulation.
Teaching the Elements of Art and Principles of Design
I once said that I hate the elements and principles of art, but that’s not quite accurate. The elements and principles of art are a lens through which to view and understand art, but they are not what makes art education vital. Art inspires higher level thinking, focus, a growth mindset, visual literacy, curiosity, respect, and connection. The elements and principles of design are an artist’s toolbox. Knowing the tools not only improves students’ studio art skills and gives them deeper appreciation when viewing artworks, it helps make them better, more informed citizens and prepares them for a visually complex and culturally interconnected modern world in need of creative problem solvers.
Below you’ll find an explanation of each of the principles of design, including artwork examples and links to helpful materials for teaching the individual concepts.
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Download the Free Elements and Principles Printable Pack
This pack of printables was designed to work in a variety of ways in your classroom when teaching the elements and principles of art. You can print and hang in your classroom as posters/anchor charts or you can cut each element and principle of art in its own individual card to use as a lesson manipulative.
Principles of Design Examples and Definitions
Scroll below for each element or click the link to be taken to the appropriate principle of design:
As a principle of art, contrast refers to the arrangement of opposite elements and effects. For example, light and dark colors, smooth and rough textures, large and small shapes. Contrast can be used to create variety, visual interest, and drama in an artwork.
In this example of contrast in art, Caravaggio created a scene of action and energy by contrasting both light/dark and directional lines.
Käthe Kollwitz adds contrast using the elements of art line, value, and shape, but she also adds contrast of emotion showing the despair of the mother in dark values and lighter sweeter elements like the heart on the chair in the background.
Contrast in Art Resources
- The Paper Mill Store: Design Principles, Contrast
- Jon Lovett: Contrast, Principles of Design
- Edvard Munch Art Lesson with Project
- Judith and Holofernes Paintings: A Compare and Contrast Art Lesson
Rhythm is a principle of design that suggests movement or action. Rhythm is usually achieved through repetition of lines, shapes, colors, and more. It creates a visual tempo in artworks and provides a path for the viewer’s eye to follow.
In this rhythm example, the artist uses pattern, repetition of line, and contrast between curved and straight lines to create rhythm in art.
In this example of of rhythm in art, Mondrian repeats shape, color, and line to bounce the viewer’s eye around the artwork.
In this fun rhythm in art examples video, the differences between pattern, repetition, and rhythm are described and put to music.
Rhythm in Art Resources
- Art Soup Video: Principles of Design: Rhythm
- Horse in Motion & The First Moving Pictures
- Early Photography Inspired Flipbook Project
The human figure is scaled to appear larger than the city skyline. The proportions could indicate depth of perspective or could symbolize the relationship of laborers in building a city.
In this example of proportion in art, the artist manipulates the individual proportions of the child as well as create varying size relationship (scale) between the objects in the painting and the child to create meaning in the artwork.
In this proportion in art example, the artist make the hands out of proportion with the rest of their bodies to enhance the meaning of the artwork. These men work with their hands, and their hands are exaggerated to show how important their hands and work are to all the people of France.
Looking for more examples of proportion in art? Check out The Ultimate List of Proportion and Scale in Art Examples post!
Scale in art describes the size of one object in relation to another and also refers to our perception of perspective and proportion. Artworks that look realistic are scaled similarly to real world objects. Scale in art can also refer to the overall size of the work.
In this scale in art example, the artist uses scale to show the space or depth between the girl and the house in the background.
In this example of scale in art, Magritte plays with scale to create an amusing composition.
Hierarchical scale is a technique used in art, most often in sculpture and painting, in which the artist depicts objects with an unnatural scale to show their importance or lack thereof. This size manipulation draws the viewer’s eye where the artist wants attention.
Ancient Egyptian artists are well-known for their use of hierarchical scale. In this example of hierarchical scale in art, the artist shows the man as largest (most important) and the child smallest (least important). The figures are in proportion within the figure but out of proportion with the other figures in the picture.
For more examples of scale in art, check out our proportion and scale in art blog post!
Proportion in Art Resources
- The Ultimate Collection of Proportion in Art
- How Artists Depict Space
- Art Around the World in 30 Days – Day #24 – Columbia’s Fernando Botero
- Sophia.org: Design in Art: Scale and Proportion
As a principle of art, balance refers to the distribution of weight in a composition. While actual weight is a factor in sculpture and architecture, the principle of balance most often refers to the visual heaviness of shapes and forms in an artwork. An artwork’s balance affects the equality and tension of the composition and can lend a feeling of calm or chaos to the work.
An artwork with symmetrical balance is well-balanced and looks even and stable. When one side of an artwork mirrors the other, it has absolute symmetry. When the symmetrical balance is not exact, it is called bilateral symmetry.
In this example of symmetrical balance in art, each animal on the left has its equal counterpart on the right. The colors are not exact, but it is still considered symmetrical balance.
An artwork with asymmetrical balance is “heavier” or “lighter” in some areas, looks unstable, and can make the viewer uncomfortable. Asymmetric balance adds a dynamic look to artworks and often draws attention to focal points in the composition.
In this example of asymmetrical balance in art, the artist balances the heavy black figure on the right with the curtain on the left. If the curtain were a different size or a different color, the balance would be thrown off.
An artwork with radial balance is arranged around a central component. Forms and objects in a radially balanced composition appear to radiate out of the circular focal point of the artwork.
With radial balance, like in the example of radial balance below, one can imagine the artwork as equal pieces of a pie.
Looking for more examples of balance in art? Check out The Best Examples of Balance in Art post!
Balance in Art Resources
- The Ultimate Collection of Balance in Art
- Smashing Magazine: Design Principles: Compositional, Symmetrical, and Asymmetrical Balance
- Lifewire: Balance: The Basic Principles of Design
Unity, also known as harmony, is a design principle that refers to the cohesiveness of an artwork—how whole, consistent, and complete it appears. Unity in art is not necessarily just a repetition of the same element over and over again, but it is the pleasing combination of elements to create a harmonious composition.
In this example of unity in art, Botero creates unity through subject matter, through rhythm, and through repetition of form, shape, and color.
In unity blog post, you will find more examples of unity in art created with shape/form, color, texture, line, style, and in architecture.
Unity in Art Resources
- Examples of Unity in Art
- Natomas High School Design Department
- Virtual Art Instructor: Teach harmony and unity with a game
As a principle of art, emphasis refers to the area of an artwork that dominates attention or draws interest. It is often the place a viewer looks first. Artists create emphasis by contrasting the elements of art, such as color or shape.
In this example of emphasis in art, Goya highlights the man in white through putting him in a spotlight, having the man wear bright clothes, having many lines throughout the composition pointing to the man, and having his emotional face be one of the only faces shown.
Looking for more examples of emphasis in art? Check out The Best Examples of Emphasis in Art post!
Emphasis in Art Resources
Movement can be thought of in two ways – the first refers to how an artist depicts movement using the elements and principles of art. The second way refers to the visual flow of an artwork, indicated by the path a viewer’s eyes take as they look at the artwork.
Lines, edges, shapes, and colors can be utilized by the artist to point the way through an artwork as a map for our eyes to follow.
In this example of movement in art, the artist shows the movement of the wind through the shapes of the paper. The lines of the figures and the lines of the billowing clothing convey movement in art as well.
Movement in Art Resources
- Classic Graphic Design Theory: Principles of Design: Movement
- Art, Design, and Visual Thinking: Movement
- Art About Love: Oskar Kokoschka’s The Bride of the Wind
- Fate of the Animals by Franz Marc
A lot of variety can make an artwork look busy or overwhelming. When paired with unity, variety offers the viewer points of interest.
In this example of variety in art, Kandinsky uses a variety of lines, shapes, values, and colors.
Variety in Art Resources
The principles of design examples can be a powerful way to engage and interpret a work of art. To help your students engage, don’t forget to download these free art worksheets:
8 Free Art Appreciation Worksheets
includes the Elements & Principles!
Download 8 Free Art Appreciation Worksheets – including 2 Elements and Principles pages! Activities designed to work with almost any work of art. Help your students connect with art while having fun!
More Principles of Design Examples
For more examples of elements and principles of art, check out more from our elements of art examples series below.