Understanding art can appear intimidating to the untrained eye. However, there are several simple key principles of art, and once you understand these, the vast pleasure of art-viewing begins to open up before you.
Balance refers to the weight of objects, and their placement in relation to each other. It’s a sense of stability you might feel from elements in alignment. This can take three forms: symmetrical, asymmetrical and radial. Symmetrical balance refers to the exact mirroring of objects across an axis (i.e. an invisible line on the page). Asymmetrical balance is the opposite of this – when objects do not mirror each other perfectly, shifting the balance to one side or the other of the axis. This is often done to highlight an object in relation to another. Radial balance is when objects are distributed all around a central point.
Proportion is the size of objects in relation to each other, or within a larger whole. This could be natural (e.g. a nose which fits onto a face the way you would expect it), exaggerated (e.g. a nose that is vastly over or undersized), and idealized, in which parts have the kind of perfect proportion that you just don’t see occurring naturally.
Emphasis is an extension of these first two principles: it is when contrast, placement, size, color or other features are used to highlight one object, area, or other elements of the artwork. This is used to draw attention – a focal point – or accentuate a feature.
Variety is a sense of difference between elements of an artwork – the opposite of unity, or harmony. Variety adds a sense of chaos to a work, and this is often used to highlight certain powerful emotions. When unity is used instead, it immediately calms – though this can also lead to being boring!
In follow on from variety, harmony is the use of related elements. This might be similar colors, shapes, sizes of objects, etc. It’s about repetition and a relationship between elements. This creates a sense of connection between the objects, creating a sense of flow. Harmony is one of the most important aspects when it comes to principles of art
This indicates the direction your eye takes as you view the work – in what order does your eye travel? If emphasis is used, this often means you start with this element first and travel away from it. The movement inherent in the image is important, as it tells you a story through the use of lines (whether they are literal or implied).
This can also be thought of as a kind of relationship between patterned objects. Rhythm is often the use of regular, evenly distributed elements – they could occur in slow, fast, smooth or jerky intervals, and this tells you something about the feelings invoked. Like listening to an upbeat pop song versus a slow ballad, the arrangement of notes creates a kind of pattern you naturally respond to. The important part is recognizing the relationship between the objects.
It might sound similar to proportion, but they differ slightly: scale is about the size of objects, but in relation to what you’d expect them to be in reality. If an object occurs in a natural scale, then the object is the size we would expect to find it. Diminutive refers to an object being smaller than expected, and monumental is when the object is much larger.
Not to be confused with harmony, unity is the overall cohesion of the work. You might achieve this through any kind of grouping of objects. Any kind of similarity will help to strengthen the sense of unity you feel when looking at a series of objects.
This is the pattern itself. A combination of shapes, colors, or other elements recurring across the composition. Objects might be repeated such that they slowly get smaller, or slowly change color – where the pattern starts and stops is important! Patterns usually evoke feelings of security and calm.
In all, these ten principles of art combine and contrast to create the effects we respond to visually. By breaking down the elements, we begin to understand more about the intention or meaning of art.