About Design

Design is everything. It is the structure of the painting and sculpture. Among the major principles of design, unity is probably the most important... how the elements work together. (Marion Starr)

When art students and artists talk about art and when they create art, the following are some of the principles and terms that are used. 


The first way to think about a principle is that a principle is something that can be repeatedly and dependably done with elements to produce some sort of visual effect in a composition.

Space as a visual element is difficult to conceptualize and hard to explain. Is it worth it? Who needs to know it?

Artists create an Illusion of Space (depth) (a visual effect). I have added a category.

 1. Visual Elements (the basic things that can be seen - color, form, surface quality, line, etc.)

2.Design and Composition Principles (arranging the basic things better)

3.Visual Effects (ways to fool the eye - make an impression)

When we say a work of art has UNITY and BALANCE we are making a value judgment. Too much unity without variety is boring and too much variation without unity is chaotic. Unity and balance are examples of visual effects produced by the first definition of principle.

As an artist, these are the principles that I actually use. 

Percy Principles of Art and Composition




The principles of design help you to carefully plan and organize the elements of art so that you will hold interest and command attention. This is sometimes referred to as visual impact.

In any work of art there is a thought process for the arrangement and use of the elements of design. The artist who works with the principles of good composition will create a more interesting piece of art it will be arranged to show a pleasing rhythm and movement. The center of interest will be strong and the viewers will not look away, instead, they will be drawn into the work. A good knowledge of composition is essential in producing good artwork. Some artists today like to bend or ignore these rules and therefore are experimenting with different forms of expression. We think that composition is very important. The following will assist you in understanding the basics of a good composition:

Elements of Design

Line - is a mark on a surface that describes a shape or outline. It can create texture and can be thick and thin. Types of line can include actual, implied, vertical, horizontal, diagonal and contour lines. (note: Ken does not list "psychic line" - that was "new term" to me)

Color - refers to specific hues and has 3 properties, Chroma, Intensity and Value. The color wheel is a way of showing the chromatic scale in a circle using all the colors made with the primary triad. Complimentary pairs can produce dull and neutral color. Black and white can be added to produce tints (add white), shades (add black) and tones (add gray).

Texture - is about surface quality either tactile or visual. Texture can be real or implied by different uses of media. It is the degree of roughness or smoothness in objects.

Shape - is a 2-dimensional line with no form or thickness. Shapes are flat and can be grouped into two categories, geometric and organic.

Form - is a 3-dimensional object having volume and thickness. It is the illusion of a 3-D effect that can be implied with the use of light and shading techniques. Form can be viewed from many angles.

Value - is the degree of light and dark in a design. It is the contrast between black and white and all the tones in between. Value can be used with color as well as black and white. Contrast is the extreme changes between values.

Size - refers to variations in the proportions of objects, lines or shapes. There is a variation of sizes in objects either real or imagined. (some sources list Proportion/Scale as a Principle of Design)

These elements are used to create the Principles of Design. Principles are the results of using the Elements. When you are working in a particular format (size and shape of the work surface) the principles are used to create interest, harmony and unity to the elements that you are using. You can use the Principles of design to check your composition to see if it has good structure.

Principles of Compositional Design

The principles of design are the recipe for a good work of art. The principles combine the elements to create an aesthetic placement of things that will produce a good design.

Center of interest - is an area that first attracts attention in a composition. This area is more important when compared to the other objects or elements in a composition. This can be by contrast of values, more colors, and placement in the format.

Balance - is a feeling of visual equality in shape, form, value, color, etc. Balance can be symmetrical or evenly balanced or asymmetrical and un-evenly balanced. Objects, values, colors, textures, shapes, forms, etc., can be used in creating a balance in a composition.

Harmony - brings together a composition with similar units. If your composition was using wavy lines and organic shapes you would stay with those types of lines and not put in just one geometric shape. (Notice how similar Harmony is to Unity - some sources list both terms)

Contrast - offers some change in value creating a visual discord in a composition. Contrast shows the difference between shapes and can be used as a background to bring objects out and forward in a design. It can also be used to create an area of emphasis.

Directional Movement - is a visual flow through the composition. It can be the suggestion of motion in a design as you move from object to object by way of placement and position. Directional movement can be created with a value pattern. It is with the placement of dark and light areas that you can move your attention through the format.

Rhythm - is a movement in which some elements recurs regularly. Like a dance it will have a flow of objects that will seem to be like the beat of music.

The Principles of design are the results of your working with the elements of art. Use them in every piece of art you do and you will be happy with the results.

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 don't 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. 

 * . Percy Principle #2 - Keep everything connected. Every aspect of the composition should be connected 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 #4 - Challenge 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 simply support all popular ideas and assumptions fairly simple straight forward ways.

 * . Percy Principle #5 - Cherish Mistakes. Mistakes are fascinating gifts, and what we do with them makes all the difference. I find it 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. 

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. When a large bowl on the potters wheel falls flat and becomes a platter, it may not be functional, but it can be transformed into relief sculpture. . . or not. The point here is to be open to possibility. This particular piece of clay may be thrown in the rework, but the images presented to me are filed in my mental hard drive. They can be developed as a series of wall pieces that grow from the accident. Accidents and mistakes are prized by creative people precisely because they 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 students need to practice them. Some lessons need to have "intentional accidents" as part of the lesson. The following is one 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 are everybody's. 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, with paint and canvas, etc. Ideas are free. The ability to express a good idea in an effective way becomes good art. It is valuable. Leonardo da Vinci did it, every well known historical artist did it. It was a way to say, “This is how you painted the Last Supper? Watch me . . I’ll do it better!”


NO MORE SECONDHAND ART , LONDON (Shambalah 1989 P. 9-17)

"For the primal image-maker, craft was in the service of power. The more carefully wrought the object was, the more powerfully the object would serve as an instrument of transformation and the more likely the gods would be inclined to honor the supplication."

"Beauty was not the intended outcome. Beauty was a natural by-product of craft diligently applied to serious things."

"...the root and full practice of the arts lies in the recognition that art is power, an instrument of communion between the self and all that is important, all that is sacred."

"The solutions to the problems posed in art do not lie outside in the realms of technique and formula; they reside in the realm of fresh thinking about perennial issues, in honest feelings and awakened spirit....All creative journeys begin with a challenge to introspection, to fathom not only 'what's out there,' but 'what's in here."

London's book is available in paperback on Amazon.com very inexpensively, and is a great read.