Reading: Artistic Principles | appreciation of art (2023)

Art as visual input

Fine arts manifest through media, ideas, themes and sheer creative imagination. However, all of this rests on fundamental structural principles which, like the elements we have examined, come together to give voice to artistic expression. Incorporating the principles into your artistic vocabulary not only allows you to objectively describe works of art that you may not understand, but also aids in the search for their meaning.

The first way to think of a principle is that it's something that can be done repeatedly and reliably with elements to create some sort of visual effect in a composition.

The principles are based on sensory responses to visual input: elements appear to have visual weight, movement, etc. The principles help determine what can happen when certain elements are arranged in a certain way. Using a chemical analogy, the principles are the way the elements "stick together" to create a "chemical" (an image in our case). Principles can be confusing. There are at least two very different but correct ways of thinking about principles. On the one hand, a principle can be used to describe an operational cause and effect, such as: B. "bright things come forth and dull things recede". On the other hand, a principle can describe a high quality standard to be striven for, such as “unity is better than chaos” or “variety beats boredom” in a work of art. The word "principle" can therefore be used for very different purposes.

Another way to think about a principle is that it's a way of expressing a value judgment about a composition. A list of these effects may not be exhaustive, but there are some that are more commonly used (Unity, Balance, etc.). When we say that a painting has unity, we are making a value judgement. Too much ofUnitwithoutdiversityis boring and too much variation without unity is messy.

The design principles help you to carefully plan and organize the elements of art so that they arouse interest and grab attention. This is sometimes referred to asnoticeable effect.

In every work of art there is a thought process for the arrangement and use of the design elements. The artist working with the principles of good composition will create a more interesting piece; it is arranged to show a pleasing rhythm and movement. The center of interest will be strong and the viewer will not look away but will be drawn into the work. Good compositional skills are essential for creating good works of art. Some artists today like to bend or ignore these rules, experimenting with different forms of expression. Important compositional principles are explained on the following page.

visual balance

All artworks possess some form of visual balance - a sense of weighted clarity that arises in a composition. The artist arranges balance to establish the dynamics of a composition. A really good example is in theworkby Piet Mondrian, whose revolutionary early 20th-century paintings used non-representational balance rather than realistic subject matter to create the visual power in his works. In the examples below you can see that the placement of the white rectangle makes a big difference in activating the entire image layer.

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Image by Christopher Gildow. Used with permission.

The above left example is weighted upwards, and the diagonal orientation of the white shape gives the entire surface a sense of movement. The example above in the middle is weighted down more, but still keeps the feeling that the white shape is floating. In the upper right, the white shape is almost completely out of the picture plane, leaving most of the remaining area optically blank. This arrangement works when you want to convey a sense of grandeur or simply draw the viewer's gaze to the top of the composition. The example below left is perhaps the least dynamic: the white shape rests below, mimicking the bottom horizontal edge of the floor. The overall impression here is calm, heavy and without any dynamic character. The lower middle composition is weighted decidedly towards the lower right corner, but again the diagonal orientation of the white shape leaves a certain sense of movement. Finally, the bottom right example places the white shape squarely in the center on a horizontal axis. This is optically the most stable, but lacks any sense of movement. Refer to these six charts when determining the visual weight of specific works of art.

There are three basic forms of visual balance:

  • Symmetrical
  • asymmetrical
  • Radial

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Examples of visual balance.Left: Symmetrical. Middle: Asymmetrical. Right: Radial. Image by Christopher Gildow. Used with permission.

SymmetricalBalance is the most stable visually and is characterized by an exact - or near exact - compositional design on one (or both) sides of the horizontal or vertical axis of the picture plane. Symmetrical compositions are usually dominated by a central anchoring element. There are many examples of symmetry in nature that reflect an aesthetic dimension. The moon jellyfish fits this description; eerily lit against a black background, but with absolute symmetry in design.

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Moon Jellyfish, (detail). Digital image by Luc Viator licensed by Creative Commons

But the inherent stability of symmetry can sometimes preclude a static quality. Look at the TibetanRole imageto see the implied movement of the central figure Vajrakilaya. The visual busyness of the shapes and patterns surrounding the figure is balanced by their compositional symmetry, and the wall of flames behind Vajrakilaya tilts to the right while the figure itself tilts to the left. Tibetan scroll paintings use the figure's symmetry to symbolize their power and spiritual presence.

Spiritual paintings from other cultures use the same balance for similar reasons. Sano di Pietros'Madonna of Humility"Painted circa 1440, is positioned centrally, holding the Christ Child and forming a triangular pattern, her head the apex and her flowing gown form a broad base at the bottom of the picture. Her haloes are visually enhanced by the angels' heads and the arch of the frame.

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(Video) How to Look at an Artwork

Sano di Peitro, Madonna of Humility, c. 1440, tempera and embossed gold and silver on panel. Brooklyn Museum, New York. Image is in the public domain

The use of symmetry is also evident in three-dimensional art. A famous example is thearchwayin St. Louis, Missouri (below). To commemorate the westward expansion of the United States, its stainless steel frame soars over 600 feet in the air before gently curving back to the ground. Another example is that of Richard SerraTilted bullets(also below). The four solid steel plates display a concentric symmetry and take on an organic dimension as they twine around each other, almost seeming to float above the ground.

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Eero Saarinen, Gateway Arch, 1963-65, stainless steel, 630 feet high. St. Louis, Missouri.Image licensed through Creative Commons

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Richard Serra, Tilted Spheres, 2002-04, corten steel, 14' x 39' x 22'. Pearson International Airport, Toronto, Canada. Image licensed through Creative Commons

asymmetryuses compositional elements that are offset against each other, creating a visually unstable balance. Asymmetric visual balance is the most dynamic as it creates a more complex design construction. A graphic poster from the 1930s shows how staggered positioning and strong contrasts can increase the visual impact of the entire composition.

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Posters from the Library of Congress archives. The image is in the public domain

Claude MonetsStill life with apples and grapesfrom 1880 (below) uses asymmetry in its design to enliven an otherwise mundane arrangement. First he puts the whole composition on the diagonal and cuts off the lower left corner with a dark triangle. The arrangement of the fruit appears random, but Monet intentionally places most of it in the top half of the canvas for lighter visual weight. He balances the darker fruit basket with the white of the tablecloth and even places a few smaller apples in the lower right to complete the composition.

Monet and othersImpressionistPainters were influenced by Japanese woodcuts, whose flat surfaces and graphic colors appealed to the artist's sense of design.

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Claude Monet, Still Life with Apples and Grapes, 1880, oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago. Licensed under Creative Commons

One of the most famous Japanese print artists isAndo Hiroshige. In his woodcut you can see the creative power of asymmetryShinagawa auf dem Tokaido(below), one of a series of works exploring the landscape around Takaido Strait. You can view many of his works via the hyperlink above.

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Hiroshige, Shinagawa on the Tokaido, Ukiyo print, after 1832. Licensed under Creative Commons

Bei Henry Moorelying figureThe abstract figure's organic form, the powerful lighting, and the precarious balance achieved through asymmetry make the sculpture a powerful example in three-dimensionality.

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(Video) The Organizational Principles of Art

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951. Painted bronze. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Photo by Andrew Dunn and licensed under Creative Commons

radial balancesuggests a movement from the center of a composition to the outer edge - or vice versa. Radial balance is often another form of symmetry that provides stability and a focal point at the center of the composition. BuddhistMandalaPaintings offer this kind of balance almost exclusively. Similar to the scroll painting considered previously, the image radiates from a central ghost figure. In the example below, six of these figures form a star shape in the center. Here we have absolute symmetry in the composition, yet a sense of movement is created by the concentric circles within a rectangular format.

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Tibetan Mandala of the Six Chakravartins, c. 1429-46. Central Tibet (Ngor Monastery). The image is in the public domain

Raphael's painting of Galatea, a sea nymph in Greek mythology, contains a double set of radial patterns in one composition. The first is the swirl of figures at the bottom of the painting, the second is the four putti circling above. The entire work is a stream of figures, limbs and suggested movement. Note also the stabilizing classical triangle formed with Galatea's head at the top and the positions of the other figures leaning toward her. The cherub stretched out horizontally at the bottom of the composition completes the second circle.

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Raphael, Galatea, Fresco, 1512. Villa Farnesina, Rome. Work is in the public domain

Within this discussion of visual balance, there is a relationship between the natural formation of organic systems and their ultimate form. This relationship is both mathematical and aesthetic and is expressed as the golden ratio:

Here is an example of the golden ratio in the form of a rectangle and the enclosed spiral created by the ratios:

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The Golden cut. Image from Wikipedia Commons and licensed through Creative Commons

The natural world expresses a radial balance, manifested through the golden ratio in many of its structures, from galaxies to tree rings and ripples created by dropping a rock on the water's surface. You can see this organic radial structure in some natural systems by comparing the satellite image of Hurricane Isabel and a telescopic image of spiral galaxy M51 below.

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Images from the National Weather Service and NASA. Images are in the public domain.

A snail shell, unaware of its occupant, is formed by the same universal ratio, and in this case takes on the green hue of its surroundings.

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Image by Christopher Gildow. Used with permission.

Created by environmental artist Robert SmithsonSpiralsteg,an earthwork of rock and earth, in 1970. The jetty extends nearly 1500 feet into Utah's Great Salt Lake as a symbol of our connectedness to the rest of the natural world.

(Video) Art Appreciation: Principles of Design and The Rule of Thirds

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Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Image by Soren Harward, CC BY-SA


repetitionis the use of two or more similar elements or shapes within a composition. The systematic arrangement of repeated shapes or forms createsMuster.

patterns emergerhythm, the lyrical or syncopated visual effect that carries the viewer and the artist's idea throughout the work. A simple yet stunning visual pattern created inthis photoof an Orchard, by Jim Wilson for the New York Times, blends color, form, and direction in a rhythmic left-to-right flow. Setting the composition on a diagonal enhances the sense of movement and drama.

The traditional art of Australian Aboriginal culture uses repetition and pattern almost exclusively for both decoration and to give imagery symbolic meaning. Thatcoolamon,or carrying vessel, pictured below, is made of tree bark and painted with stylized patterns of colored dots representing paths, landscapes, or animals. You can see how quite simple patterns create rhythmic waves on the surface of the work. The design on this particular piece indicates that it was probably made for ceremonial purposes. In the Other Worlds module, we will delve deeper into the works of the natives.

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Australian Aboriginal softwood coolamon with acrylic paint design. Licensed under Creative Commons

Rhythmic cadences take on complex visual forms when subordinated to others. Elements of line and form merge into a formal matrix that depicts the leaping salmon in Alfredo Arreguin's "She painted diptych".Abstract arches and water spirals echo in the scales, eyes and gills of the fish. Arreguin here produces two rhythmic beats, that of the water flowing downstream to the left, and that of the fish gracefully leaping against it on their way upstream.

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Alfredo Arreguin, Malila Diptych, 2003 (detail).Washington State Arts Commission.Digital image by Christopher Gildow. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The textile medium lends itself well to incorporating patterns into art. ThatChainandshotof the yarns create natural patterns that are manipulated by the weaver through position, color and size. The Tlingit culture of coastal British Columbia produces spectacularceremonialBlankets characterized by graphic patterns and rhythms in stylized animal shapes separated by a hierarchy of geometric shapes. The symmetry and the high contrast of the design are stunning in their effect.

scale and proportion

scale and proportionshow the relative size of one shape in relation to another. Scalar relationships are often used to create illusions of depth on a two-dimensional surface, with the larger shape in front of the smaller. The scale of an object can provide a focal point or emphasis in an image. In Winslow Homer's watercolourA good shot, AdirondacksThe stag is centered and highlighted in the foreground to ensure its important place in the composition. In comparison, in the background at center left is a small puff of white smoke from a rifle, the only indicator of the hunter's position. Click on the image for a larger view.

Scale and proportion are incremental in nature. Artworks don't always rely on large scale differences to create a strong visual impact. A good example of this is Michelangelo's sculptural masterpiecePietafrom 1499 (below). Here Mary is cradling her dead son, the two figures forming a stable triangular composition. Michelangelo models Mary on a slightly larger scale than the dead Christ in order to give the central figure more importance, both visually and psychologically.

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Michelangelo's Pietà, 1499, marble.St. St. Peter's Basilica, Rome. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons

In terms of scale and proportionaregreatly enhanced, the results can be impressive, lending a work of impressive space or fantastical implications. Painting by René Magrittepersonal valuesconstructs a space with objects whose proportions are so out of balance that it becomes an ironic play on how we see everyday things in our lives.

American sculptor Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen create works from everyday objects on enormous scales. youStake Hitchreaches a total height of more than 53 feet and connects two floors of the Dallas Museum of Art. Large as the work is, it retains a comic and playful character, also because of its gigantic size.


emphasisthe area of ​​primary visual importance - can be reached in a number of ways. We just saw how it can be a function of differences in scale. Emphasis can also be achieved by isolating an area or a specific subject by its location or color, value and texture. The main focus in a composition is usually supported by less important areas, a hierarchy within an artwork activated and maintained at various levels.

Like other artistic principles, the emphasis can be extended to the main pointIdeaincluded in a work of art. Let's look at the following work to explore this.

We can clearly identify the figure in the white shirt as the main accent in Francisco de Goya's paintingThe third of May 1808among.Although left of center, a candle lantern in front of him acts as a spotlight, and his dramatic stance reinforces his relative isolation from the rest of the crowd. In addition, the soldiers, with their rifles aimed, create an implied line between themselves and the figure. There is a rhythm created by the heads of all the figures – which are at roughly the same level throughout the painting – which continues in the legs and scabbards of the soldiers on the lower right. Goya counters the horizontal emphasis by including the distant church and its vertical towers in the background.

(Video) Elements and Principles of Art

Regarding the idea, Goya's narrative painting testifies to the summary execution of Spanish resistance fighters by Napoleon's armies on the night of May 3, 1808. He depicts the white-shirted figure as suggesting crucifixion in the face of his own death. and his countrymen around him either hold their faces in disbelief or stand stoically beside him and look their executioners in the eye. As the carnage unfolds before us, the church stands dark and still in the distance. Goya's genius is his ability to direct narrative content through the emphasis he places in his composition.

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Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Third of May, 1808, 1814. Oil on canvas. The Prado Museum, Madrid. This image is in the public domain

A second example with emphasis can be seen inLandscape with Pheasants, a silk carpet from 19th-century China. Here the emphasis is achieved in several ways. First the pair of birds is woven incolouredsilk, which makes them stand out visually against the gray landscape in which they live. Second, their placement at the top of the ledge allows them to stand out against the light background, with their tail feathers being mimicked by the nearby leaves. The intricate treatment of the ledge keeps it center stage in competition with the pheasants, but in the end the pair of birds wins the paint.

A final example for emphasis, taken fromThe Art of Burkina Fasoby Christopher D. Roy, University of Iowa, covers both design features and the idea behind the art. Many world cultures incorporate works of art into ceremonies and rituals. AfricanBwaMasks are large, graphically painted in black and white, and usually attached to fiber costumes that cover the head. Depicting mythical figures and animals, or abstract, they have a stylized face topped by a tall, rectangular wooden board.* In any guise, the mask and the dance for which it is worn are inseparable. You become part of a corporate outpouringcultural expressionand emotions.

time and movement

One of the problems artists face when creating static (single, fixed images) is giving them a sense oftime and movement. Some traditional solutions to this problem use spatial relationships, particularly perspective and atmospheric perspective. Scale and proportion can also be used to represent the passage of time or the illusion of depth and movement. For example, when something fades into the background, it becomes smaller in scale and weaker in value. Also, the same figure (or other shape) repeated in different places within the same image conveys the effect of movement and passage of time.

An early example of this is the carved sculpture byKuya Shonin. The Buddhist monk leans forward, his cloak seems to move in the wind of his steps. The figure is remarkably realistic in style, her head is slightly raised and her mouth open. Six small figures emerge from his mouth, visual symbols of the song he is uttering.

Visual movement experiments first emerged in the mid-19th centurythCentury. Photographer Eadweard Muybridge photographed black and white sequences of figures and animals walking, running and jumping, then placed them side by side to explore the mechanics and rhythms created by each action.

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Eadweard Muybridge, sequences of himself throwing a disc, taking a step and walking. Licensed through Creative Commons

In modern times, the rise of Cubism (see our study of 'space' in Module 3) and subsequent related styles in modern painting and sculpture have had a major impact on how static artworks represent time and movement. These new formal developments arose in part from the Cubists' initial exploration of how to represent an object and the space around it, depicting it from multiple angles and incorporating all of them into a single image.

Painting by Marcel DuchampNude descending a flight of stairsfrom 1912 formally condenses Muybridge's idea into a single image. The figure is abstract, a result of Duchamp's influence of Cubism, but gives the viewer a distinct sense of left-to-right movement. This work was exhibited inThe gun showin New York City in 1913. The show was the first to feature modern art from the United States and Europe on such a large scale in an American location. Controversial and fantastic, the Armory show became a symbol of the burgeoning modern art movement. Duchamp's painting is representative of the new ideas that are generated in the exhibition.

In three dimensions, the effect of movement is achieved by providing the subject with a dynamic pose or gesture (remember that using diagonals in a composition helps create a sense of movement). Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture byDavidfrom 1623 is a study in tortuous visual tension and movement. The artist shows us the figure of David frowning, even biting his lip in concentration as he gazes at Goliath and prepares to release the rock from his slingshot.

The temporal arts of film, video and digital projection, by definition, show movement and the passage of time. In all of these mediums, we watch a narrative unfold before our eyes. Film essentially consists of thousands of static images divided into a long roll of film that is fed through a lens at a certain speed. The term comes from this apparatusMovie.

Video uses magnetic tape to achieve the same effect, and digital media streams millions of electronically pixelated images across the screen. An example can be seen in the work of Swedish artist Pipilotti Rist. Your large-scale digital workPour out your bodyis fluid, colorful and absolutely captivating as it unfolds across the walls.

unity and diversity

Ultimately, a work of art is strongest when it expresses a wholeUnitin composition and form, a visual sense that all the pieces fit together; that the whole is greater than its parts. This same sense of unity is projected to encompass the idea and meaning of the work as well. This visual and conceptual unity is sublimated by thediversityof elements and principles used to create it. We can think of it in terms of a musical orchestra and its conductor: directing many different instruments, sounds and feelings into a single understandable sonic symphony. Here the objective functions of line, color, pattern, scale, and all the other artistic elements and principles give way to a more subjective view of the work as a whole, and out of this comes an appreciation of the aesthetic and meaning it resonates with.

We can see Eva Isaksen's workOrange lightbelow to see how unity and diversity work together.

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Eva Isaksen, Orange Light, 2010. Print and collage on canvas. 40" x 60". permission of the artist

Isaksen uses almost every element and principle, including flat space, a range of values, colors and textures, asymmetrical balance and different focal points. The unity of her composition remains strong, keeping the different parts in check against each other and the space they inhabit. In the end, the viewer is transported into a mysterious world of organic forms that float across the surface like seeds caught in a summer breeze.


1. Aesthetic Appreciation: Crash Course Philosophy #30
2. Visual Arts - Painting (Art Appreciation)
(Sheila Gutierrez-Sabugaa, PhD)
3. Who decides what art means? - Hayley Levitt
4. What is Art?
5. Art Appreciation Class: Renaissance Period
(Edward John Padilla)
6. Introduction to Art Appreciation Part 1
(Megan Franklin)


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