The musings of a landscape painter, art teacher, and art history lover
A discussion of each of the principles of design with lots of color slides and examples, as well as a review of the elements of art. This lesson is interactive and offers a free downloadable version. Perfect for art teachers!
Learning the principles of design is fun and allows artists and designers to approach their work with greater intellectual clarity, as well as the ability to self-edit your work. By analyzing the principles of design, we examine why certain combinations of visual phenomena are more attractive to the eye than others. Why does a design or work of art attract our attention and lure us, while another leaves us flat and disinterested? Applying the principles accurately is similar to a chef who knows how certain ingredients complement or contrast with each other. A good cook uses the same ingredients that we all use, but somehow makes the food taste so much better! An artist uses the elements of art as ingredients, and the principles of design as combinations of those ingredients, to create truly dynamic artistic compositions.
This article is offered as a complete lesson that can be given to art students or used by casual learners. It reviews the elements of art and then discusses each of the principles of design. The lesson teaches first and then asks the reader or student to analyze and discuss works of art related to the Principle. It is suitable for middle school students to college-age students and complements art units based on the elements of art and principles of design. I have been an art teacher for over twenty-four years and use this lesson every year with my own high school students.
One of the first things a child does is draw and color. They begin to build shapes, lines, and colorful areas in an attempt to express their energy and spirit. Gradually, the child begins to mature and modify the arrangement into something orderly. This is where the elements of art come in. The elements of art, along with the principles of design, help us to organize space in interesting and beautiful ways. It's the difference between a musician just playing notes on their instruments and playing a song.
An interesting point of discussion is to consider the elements of art in relation to sculpture. In Michelangelo's Pietà, has the artist considered the element of color? Can you discuss how Michelangelo used lines?
The principles of design are often intuited by artisans and architects. After all, humans have been creating aesthetically pleasing buildings and works of art long before anyone set out to codify the parts of design. However, a knowledge of the principles of design does enable the creative person to work more deliberately and to evaluate their work in an effort to improve. The principles of design are employed by architects, interior designers, graphic designers, artists, and others. Really, anytime one is working to make something visually beautiful or organized, they are working with these principles.
Balance is crucial in design. The human eye enjoys seeing things that are balanced. Think of how our bodies are aligned in perfect symmetry. Or, how a flower is balanced. When compositions are out of balance, it creates a feeling of tension or discord. In the painting, Whistler's Mother, the woman is seated on the right side of the picture. How would that painting have been different if she had been seated in the middle of the picture? See the slide below.
When printing books, most publishers use black type on white paper. That is because the black against the white creates a high level of contrast. Imagine if publishers used soft gray type on white paper. It would be very difficult to read. Artists use contrast to draw attention to different areas of a composition, as well as to simply create visual impact. Contrast can be created using varying light and dark values, but also through varying colors and textures.
Emphasis is another major principle of design. Artists have lots of tricks to draw a viewer's eye around a composition and focus on a specific area. Landscape painters often soften or blur the areas of a painting that are of the least importance, so that the viewer will focus on the main area.
The concept of repetition with variation is very powerful. Look at the triangles in the picture above. What do you notice about them? While there is a repetition of triangular shapes, each one is a little different. What if I had made them all the same size and same color? How would that impact the design? You will see this concept demonstrated below in Kandinsky's painting, Composition VIII.
Now we look at the principle of unity. Colors can create a sense of unity in a composition. So can repetition or patterns. A composition should feel like each part belongs in the work of art. For example, if you are painting a night scene, you will want to use cool and muted colors so that everything appears to be affected by the nighttime light. Artists can also intentionally vary from unity in order to create a focal point.
Proportion can be a lot of fun to play with. You can make things look very big or very small, depending upon your proportions and juxtaposition of elements. The above image is Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man. The Vitruvian Man is meant to represent the ideal proportions of the human body as observed by da Vinci. Look at Alberto Giacometti's sculptures and discuss how he used proportion.
Much like music, a piece of art can have a strong sense of rhythm. This can be obtained through patterns and repetition, as well as lines moving together in harmony. Works of art that have a strong sense of rhythm are often very pleasing to the eye and seem to express a feeling of peacefulness.
Establishing a sense of movement in a work of art can be a challenge and is always an interesting struggle. When one is working with a static medium, such as painting or sculpture, it can be captivating to try to achieve a sense of movement, even though it is only an illusion. After all, paintings don't actually move. The artist must get the viewer's eyes to shift over the work or tell the story of movement through the use of the other principles of design. Look at Van Gogh's painting, Starry Night and discuss how he achieved a sense of movement.
At last, we come to pattern. Patterns can be intricate or simple, colorful or monochromatic. The eye loves a sense of pattern. Think of how we celebrate pattern with our clothing, or with tiles on the floor, or windows on a skyscraper. Pattern is everywhere, and it can be a great element to put into your works of art. For further research, you can look up the artist Henri Matisse and see how he used patterns in his paintings.
Lesson Plan for Principles of Design:
Below is the full slide show on Slide Share. You can download this slide show for free.
Author: Bruce Black
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