The 7 principles of art

By BBC Maestro

Do you ever look at a painting and think, “Yes – that looks perfect!” or alternatively, “There’s something not quite right about this…”?

That’s down to how the artist has worked with the seven principles of art, which determine how all the elements of an artwork are pulled together to create something special.

While our response to the finished artwork tends to be instinctive rather than analytical, the principles themselves are quite a technical way to approach painting. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what they are and how artists use them.

What are the principles of art?

The principles of art determine how harmonious an artwork is. The seven principles of balance, movement, rhythm, pattern, contrast, unity and emphasis allow the artist to pull together their work in such a way that the audience has a better understanding of their vision.

These seven principles are based on another list of seven: the elements of art. Before we examine the principles in more detail, here’s a quick rundown of these elements.

The elements of art

The seven elements are the building blocks of any artwork. When combined, they create the principles, which in turn make up the overall composition of the piece.

Think of a painting as putting together a complete outfit to wear. The principles are the garments (trousers, a sweater, socks, etc), and the elements are things like the fabrics, buttons, dyes, and stitches that the garments are made up of. There are usually seven elements of art, which are:

  1. Line ­– thick, thin, straight, curved, implied, dotted, diagonal—is the most important element in art.
  2. Shape – when the lines are enclosed, a 2D shape is formed. The shape can be positive (a square, for example) or negative (the space outside the square).
  3. Form – This is a shape that has added depth to create an implied 3D form. Think of form as a cube as opposed to a square.
  4. Space – this is what’s around or inside an object or in between two or more objects.
  5. Texture – in 2D painting, the artist creates the impression of texture – look at the incredible grass in the Renoir painting above. In mixed media artwork, the different materials help to create texture.
  6. Value – there’s a scale of how light or dark something is, which is used to create contrasts and highlights.
  7. Colour – made up of primary colours, secondary colours (created by mixing primary colours) and tertiary colours (made up of the other two).

The principles are a combination of elements, with different artists giving greater weight to some over others. We’re about to look at a painting by Sir John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who placed great emphasis on colour and texture in his work.

The 7 principles of art

The principles of art are how those seven elements are combined to create something unique. The painting above is called ‘Mariana’, and it was painted in 1851 by Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais. Its vivid colours and striking composition make it a useful example for illustrating the seven principles of art.

1. Balance

The balance principle of art refers to how the different elements in the artwork are weighted. That feeling when something doesn’t simply look quite right, is often down to the work being out of balance.

Balance in an artwork can be achieved through symmetry, asymmetry and radial symmetry (where the design encircles a point). Millais achieves balance by placing Mariana in the centre of the composition, with contrasting light and shade to either side of her.

2. Movement

How do you make a painting seem alive? Even though it captures a moment in time, an artwork shouldn’t feel static. In theory, you should be able to see the dancers moving or the horse cantering or know that the breeze is making the leaves flutter.

The movement principle of art uses the elements to guide your eyes around the piece in a dynamic way. In the Millais painting, Mariana is caught mid-movement in a position that the audience can relate to. We can feel her muscles stretch as we look at her familiar pose.

3. Rhythm

Like movement, rhythm stops an artwork from feeling static. The rhythm of a painting is how we’re invited to look at the piece: where are our eyes drawn, and at what tempo? Rhythm does more than guide us, however – it also sets the pace of the piece. Does it feel relaxed, frenetic, lively? How quickly or calmly do we take it all in?

Mariana’s stillness, the figure’s slow movement, and the neglected leaves on the table and floor give the painting a slow and somewhat melancholy rhythm.

4. Pattern

This principle refers to the repetition of one or more of the elements of art – so it could be a repeated shape, colour or form. The Pre-Raphaelite artists used pattern to create extraordinary richness in their works: look at the wallpaper, the girdle and the background of the painted glass windows.

5. Contrast

Many of the elements of art can come into play to create contrast: value, colour, texture, space… The artist arranges opposite elements to highlight certain areas: in this case, our eyes are drawn to Mariana’s face, which is lit from the left, and her rich blue dress, standing out against the patterned but muted wallpaper.

6. Unity

The unity principle of art ensures that the final piece is harmonious. It’s how all the principles are composed to create a pleasing whole. The artist needs to find the balance between unity and variety—a minimalist or maximalist approach if you like. Millais’ style leans towards variety; however, the measured rhythm and muted palette prevent the artwork from becoming chaotic.

7. Emphasis

Painters emphasise the most significant parts of the artwork using elements such as value and colour. Emphasis and contrast work closely together, as we’ve seen in the way that Mariana’s face glows in the gloomy room.

Portrait artist Jonathan Yeo comments that “Lighting is possibly the most important element to learn how to get right”. For Jonathan, lighting helps to “describe a face” as well as create mood in the painting.

This is just one of the areas of portrait painting that Jonathan Yeo covers in his in-depth BBC Maestro course. Learn more about the elements and principles of art in practice as he discusses the techniques and intricacies of his work as a top portrait painter.

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