Principles of Good Design: Visual Economy

Principles of Good Design Visual EconomyVisual Economy in art, also known as simplicity, omits all non-essential or unimportant elements and details that don’t contribute to the essence of the overall composition to emphasize what is important. Simplicity suggests that a good composition is the most simple solution to the design problem. Much of the beauty and skill in good design focuses on what is left out rather than trying to include everything you can. The secret to a great composition is knowing when to stop, when to put the brush down, stand back and say, “that’s just about right.”

Keeping it Simple is a Key to Good Design

Good design means as little design as possible. It involves a paring down to only the essential elements required to achieve the desired effect. Restraint and simplicity are key in the creation of a good design. There are no rules for using economy; if an element works in the composition with respect to the whole design, it should be kept. If it distracts from the desired effect, it should be re-evaluated for its purpose. Never use anything for its own sake; always consider and justify its inclusion for the contribution it makes to achieve the overall design effect.

Examples of the effective use of Simplicity

visual economy

Simplicity is suggested in the painting of the cowboy by zooming in, thus eliminating the extra surrounding elements that would otherwise detract from the main focus of the painting.

There is simplicity in the design of the buildings in the painting right. Detail has been left out to call your attention to the unique architecture.

In the painting of Egypt, detail has been deliberately left out, so the shapes rather than the features become the areas of interest.

minimal design

In the painting on the right, the background and clothing are done in a very simplistic manner so that the viewer’s attention is drawn to Mary’s face and that of baby Jesus. More detail would have been a distraction.

Questions

  1.  Why is visual economy in art so important to a great composition?
  2. In what situations would an artist want to use this principle of good design?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy — You are here

Good Design Principle: Unity

More Art Lessons

Basic Elements of Art, The

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

Have a question?

If you have a question about this painting, please contact us, and we’ll be happy to answer any of your questions.

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UPDATED: 26 October 2020

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Principles of Good Design: Space

Space, as used in art, refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within shapes and forms found within a composition. In this discussion, we will be taking a closer look at several different ways space is used in art. These are:

    • Positive space
    • Negative space
    • Two-dimensional space
    • Three-dimensional space

Positive and Negative Space

There are two types of space in art: positive and negative. Both positive and negative space are important factors to be considered in every good composition. They occur in both two-dimension and three-dimension art and are complementary to one another. One impacts on and affects the reading of the other.

Positive Space

Principles of Good Design: SpaceThe “occupied” areas in a work of art filled with lines, colors, and shapes are called “positive space.” In other words, the primary subject matter of a painting; the animals, plants, buildings, mountains, vases, people, etc., that make up your area of interest. It usually dominates the eye and is the focal point in a composition.

In the example, positive space (the area in black) is the form itself, i.e., the vase, the individual letters, or the words “positive space.”

Negative Space

Principles of Good Design: SpaceOn the other hand, “negative space” is the unoccupied areas that surround the subject matter. It is more passive and is determined by the edges of the positive space it surrounds. Negative space helps to give meaning to the composition.

In the example, it’s the “empty space” (the area in black) or unoccupied areas that lies between objects, shapes, and forms within a composition, and is also the space in the background that is not at first noticeable. It goes in all directions and goes on forever. It flows in, around, and between shapes and objects.

Do you see the shapes in negative space? Negative space has weight and mass and plays a vital role in defining your subject. It is not simply the absence of something.

Negative space is most evident when the space around a subject matter, and not the form itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape. In this case, negative space is very much an essential element of artistic composition. In the example above, the negative space forms a shape of two men face to face.

Also, negative space is vital in a composition because it gives balance to positive space by giving the eye a place to rest, especially when the composition is quite busy.

Two- and Three-dimensional Space

two-dimensionalTwo-dimensional (2D) space is found on a flat surface such as a canvas or paper. It has no depth, only length and width.  It consists of straight or curved lines or both and may have any number of sides.

In the example, the two-dimensional image appears flat because all the objects and forms lie on the same plane. It has no feeling of depth. However, the same two-dimensional space can be made to appear three-dimensional by giving it a sense of depth.

Rubins_vaseThree-dimensional (3D) space has width, height, and depth. When we look at a flat canvas and have the sensation of looking at spaces and objects that appear to have depth, we are receiving and believing a group of visual signals working to create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes and areas. This occurs when a sensation of space that seems to have height, width, and depth is visually created, as it has been done with the vase in the example shown.

These three-dimensional signals are so common in nature that we are almost unaware of them. Yet, in the hands of a skilled artist, these 3D cues can be used to create the illusion of three-dimension on a flat canvas surface.

Creating 3D Space on a Flat Surface

The tools needed for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space are:

    • Overlapping objects
    • Changing size and placement of related objects
    • Linear perspective
    • Relative hue and value
    • Atmospheric perspective

Overlapping objects within your composition is the most straightforward tool you can use for creating three-dimensional space in your painting or drawing. The effect is achieved by allowing the contour of one form to be interrupted by the contour of another form so that it looks like one form is physically sitting in front of the other.

Another simple tool for creating the illusion of 3D space is changing the size and placement of related objects. For example, when two shapes are the same size and are placed on the same plane, the image appears relatively flat and does not have much depth. However, by simply varying the size and placement of the shapes, a stronger sensation of depth is created.

As a rule of thumb, larger objects tend to appear closer to the viewer, and smaller ones tend to recede into the background. Also, objects placed lower on the canvas appear closer in distance than those set higher up.

Principles of Good Design: SpaceLinear perspective (a.k.a. converging lines) is a graphical system used by artists to create the illusion of depth and volume on a flat surface. As objects move away from the viewer, they appear to grow smaller and converge toward a vanishing point at the horizon line. The effective use of linear perspective creates this illusion of diminishing size by treating the edges as converging parallel lines. The vanishing point may be in any direction the viewer looks, including up, and may also be visible (on the canvas) or imaginary (somewhere off the canvas).

Using relative hue and value to create 3D space on a flat canvas surface are essential cues that tell us whether an object is nearby or far away. In general, warm colors or hues tend to appear closer, whereas cool shades tend to recede away from the viewer. On the same token, close objects tend to exhibit brighter, richer hues and more contrasting values, including extremes of dark and light. However, distant objects tend to be either similar or neutral in value and exhibit grayer shades. Thus, colors close in value are perceived as being on or near the same plane, but colors with strong contrast in value appear on separate planes.

Atmospheric perspective combines several tools already described above. This essential tool operates when objects that are far away lack contrast, detail, and texture. As objects get farther away, atmospheric perspective shows color gradually fading to a bluish-gray and details blurring, imitating how distant objects appear to the human eye.

As a rule of thumb, when using this tool, remember that colors tend to pale and fade as they recede into the distance, and objects become less defined and lack detail.

Deep Space In Art

When used effectively, all the tools needed to cultivate the illusion of three-dimensional space will create a sense of “deep space” within your painting. In deep space there are three terms used to describe depth:

    • Foreground is the area of a painting that visually appears closest to the viewer. It is often located on a lower plane or bottom of the canvas.
    • Middle ground is space that makes up the distance between the foreground and background of a painting. There is no specific measurement for what the limits are. Typically it is located somewhere on the middle plane of the canvas.
    • Background is the area in a painting that visually appears far away in the distance at or near the horizon. It is usually located on a higher plane of the canvas.

Recap

Since a flat surface such as a canvas contains only two-dimensional space, an artist may choose to create a three-dimensional illusion. When an artist begins to cut, divide and rearrange the surface space of a flat surface, the illusion of depth may appear. Even the slightest manipulation of line, value, or color will generate the illusion of three-dimensional space.

There are several ways to create the illusion of distance or depth on a flat surface. Here are some of those ways:

  1. Objects that are further away will appear smaller than those close up. Those same objects will also grow less distinct the further away they are. Their colors will fade and blend into the background colors.
  2. Objects which are placed higher on a plane create the feeling of depth or distance. Thus, the viewer senses that they are standing away from the objects and that there is a large amount of space in the foreground.
  3. Overlapping shapes tend to create a feeling of depth.
  4. Arrangement of lights. When light is contrasted against dark, a sense of depth is felt.
  5. Converging lines. As they move away into the distance, parallel lines appear to come closer together to form a vanishing point that may or may not be seen. An excellent example of this is a road or a path.
  6. Colors. Warm and bright colors appear closer, whereas cool or dull colors tend to recede into the distance.

Click for more information about perspective in drawing.

Examples of the effective use of Space

Positive and Negative Space

Good Design Principle: Space3D-negative-space

The flat back shadows and background in the painting on the left provide an excellent example of the effective use of positive and negative space in this two-dimensional painting.

The painting on the right demonstrates positive and negative space in a three-dimensional painting. Can you see the positive and negative here? The fish occupies the positive space, and the water represents the negative space around the fish.

Overlapping Objects

overlapping-objects1 overlapping-objects2

Overlapping objects is a helpful tool for creating an illusion of 3D. Depending on how it is applied can give a sense of deep or shallow space within a composition.

For example, the Statue of Liberty overlaps the river and the horizon, which helps create a greater sense of depth than the other painting. In the painting with the statue, we get the sensation of deep space, and in the other painting, the space is shallow.

Changing Size and Placement

size-placement1 Good Design Principle: Space

Changing the size and placement of the objects in these two paintings helps give more depth to the painting. For example, changing the size of the Indians makes them appear far away in the painting with the cowboy. Likewise, placing the ballerinas are on a higher plane than those in the front pushes them farther away into the background.

Linear Perspective

perspective1 perspective2 perspective3

Can you see how perspective has given the paintings above a sense of depth? The three paintings above have powerful one- or two-point perspective, which helps create the illusion of three-dimension.

In the first painting, perspective gives the sensation that the train is moving away, yet it pulls you down the hallway in the next painting.

Perspective can also make objects appear 3D as it does in the painting with the building. The artist has used two-point perspective to create an object that seems to have volume. Without two-point perspective, this building would lack depth and appear flat.

Hue and Value

hue1 hue2

Warm colors pull you up close. Cool colors recede off into the distance. The landscape painting is a good example of this tool in use.

In the second painting, light moves toward you, and darkness moves off into the background.

Atmospheric Perspective

Good Design Principle: Space atmospheric-perspective2

As objects move off into the distance, they become less detailed and grayer. For example, notice the horizon and the mountain in these two paintings.

For more information about atmospheric perspective, see Creating Depth in Your Paintings via Atmospheric Perspective.

Deep Space

deep-space1 deep-space2

When used effectively, all the tools (overlapping, perspective, atmosphere, hue, and value) can create the sensation of deep space.

Questions

  1. What is the definition of space when it is applied to art?
  2.  What are some ways space is used in art?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space — You are here

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity

More Art Lessons

Basic Elements of Art, The

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

Have a question?

If you have a question about this painting, please contact us, and we’ll be happy to answer any of your questions.

Thanks for reading this art lesson!

Feel free to share this with your friends.


UPDATED: 24 July 2021

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Principles of Good Design: Unity

Principles of Good Design UnityUnity is the hallmark of every good design. The final result is when all the design elements work harmoniously to give the viewer a satisfying sense of belonging and relationship. When all aspects of the design complement one another rather than competing for attention, you know you’ve achieved unity. It reinforces the relationship between the design elements and connects them to the painting’s main theme.

Unity is achieved when all design principles (balance, movement, emphasis, visual economy, contrast, proportion, and space) are applied correctly. Everything selected for use in a composition must complement the central theme and must also serve some functional purpose within the design. Achieving unity in your compositions will only result from practicing, knowing, selecting the correct visual elements, and using the best design principles to relate them.

Unity within art accomplishes two things:

  1. It creates a sense of order. There will be consistency of sizes and shapes, as well as color and pattern harmony, in a design with unity. This is achieved by repeating key elements, balancing them throughout the composition, and then adding a little variety to give the design a personality. A key to good design is learning to juggle the elements and principles in order to achieve the right mix.
  2. It also gives elements the appearance of completeness, that they belong together. When a composition has unity, the design is seen as a whole, rather than as individual elements within the painting. Using too many shapes and forms can result in a design that is disorganized, cluttered, and difficult to understand. The use of a basic shape that is then repeated throughout the composition will result in a well-organized design.

When Unity is Achieved:

    • The individual elements within a composition do not compete for attention.
    • The central theme will be communicated more clearly.
    • The design will evoke a sense of completeness and organization.

To Create Unity:

    •  You must have a clear objective in mind, one that you wish to communicate effectively.
    • You must stay focused on achieving the objective and not deviate from it. For example, if an element you consider adding does not contribute to the objective, it should not be added to the design.
    • You must be analytical about your work, maintaining objectivity at all times, and accept critiques from peers, friends, and family members. When several people consistently understand the purpose and message you intend to portray, then unity has been maintained within your painting.

When you feel your composition is complete, take a step back and observe it with an objective eye. The final test of unity is one in which nothing can be added to or taken away without reworking the entire composition. The relationship of all the elements should be so strong it would hurt the design to add or remove any one thing. When nothing can distract from the whole, you have unity.

A word of caution regarding unity: too much unity without variety is boring, and too much variation without unity is chaotic.

Some easy ways to achieve unity in your compositions include:

Similarity: Try repeating colors, shapes, values, textures, or lines to create a visual relationship between the elements. Repetition works to unify all parts of a design because it creates a sense of consistency and completeness.

Continuity: Treat different elements in the same manner. Continuity helps to create “family resemblances” between various forms. This helps to tie them together by creating an uninterrupted connection or union.

Alignment: Arranging shapes so that the line or edge of one shape leads into another helps creates unity in your design. When an element is placed in a composition, it creates an implied horizontal and vertical axis at its top, bottom, center, and sides. Aligning other aspects to these axes creates a visual relationship that unifies them.

Proximity: Group related items together so that these particular items are seen as one cohesive group rather than a bunch of unrelated elements. Elements positioned close to one another are perceived as related, while elements farther apart are considered less connected. How close together or far apart elements are placed in a composition suggests a relationship (or lack of) between otherwise disparate parts. Using a “third element” such as a road to connect nearby elements with distant ones also helps create a relationship between the forms not grouped.

Examples of the effective use of Unity

Principles of Good Design Unity     Principles of Good Design Unity

The painting on the left creates a sense of unity by the effective use of repetition. See how the artist has repeated similar forms (ducks) and color (brown) throughout the composition?

On the right, the grouping of similar objects;  proximity was used to create unity within this painting.

     Good Design Unity

The road in this painting is the “third element” that helps create a relationship between the people in the foreground and the people in the background.

This painting is another good example of how proximity creates relationships between related objects.

IN CONCLUSION: Using The Design Principles

This study on the design principles would not be complete without giving some practical guidelines on using the principles of design.

  1. Apply the principles in every assignment.
  2. Don’t apply the principles equally because one may be more important than another depending on the mood and purpose of the design. For example, one design may be strong in balance, another in proportion, another in movement, and so on.
  3. Try to include as many and as much as will work of each principle into each design.
  4. You should always add a bit of your personality to your art. Without this touch, your work may be well designed but lack character.
  5. As you become more confident in your ability to achieve unity, then dare to violate one or more of the design principles to promote growth in your creativity.

Once the designer has an objective in mind, the effective use of the design principles of balance, movement, emphasis, contrast, proportion, and space will aid in the achievement of unity in a work of art. Unity should always be the goal of every artist.

Questions

  1. How do you know when unity has been achieved in a work of art?
  2. What is the final test of unity?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity — You are here

More Art Lessons

Basic Elements of Art, The

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

Have a question?

If you have a question about this painting, please contact us, and we’ll be happy to answer any of your questions.

Thanks for reading this art lesson!

Feel free to share this with your friends.


UPDATED: 23 October 2020

Enjoy this page? Please share it. Thanks!