Two Composition Techniques to Use In Your Paintings

In art, composition is how you arrange the various elements to create a pleasing and eye-catching arrangement or design in your oil painting. Good composition is paramount to whether or not your painting will be a strong and interesting work of art or a weak and disordered one. When the composition is done well, you do not notice it so much. You just know there is something interesting about the painting that you find appealing. However when it is done poorly, the painting doesn’t look quite right and just feels awkward.

Creating a good composition will be challenging in the beginning and you will have to work at producing a strong one, however eventually with practice, it will become second nature. Here are three easy methods of good composition that you can use to dramatically improve your oil paintings.

Rabatment of The Rectangle

Rabatment diagram
Rabatment of The Rectangle

A technique for creating better compositions is called “rabatment of the rectangle.” Rabatment is a way to divide up the space within a rectangular shape to create a square with four equal sides that are equal to the short side of the rectangle. In other words, it is the perfect square that can be found inside any rectangle.

For each landscape (horizontal) rectangle, there is either a right or left rabatment and for each portrait (vertical) rectangle there is an upper or lower. It is within these squares that you would place the most important aspects of your composition, thereby creating a center of interest. Compositions are much more interesting to view if they are not located directly in the center of your canvas. See diagram above.

rabatment exampleWhen you use this simple technique to compose your oil paintings, you are more likely to create a composition that is unified, harmonious and balanced. Next time try enclosing the main center of interest within the rabatment square on the canvas. You can use either upper or lower square on a vertically oriented canvas, or left or right square on a horizontally oriented canvas. The elements outside of the rabatment should compliment the center of interest that is located within the square.

The Golden Ratio

golden ratio diagram
The Golden Ratio

The next technique used for compositions in art is called “the golden ratio” and is a little more complicated than the first one talked about. The golden ratio is a mathematical ratio commonly found in nature that can be used to yield pleasing, harmonious proportions within a painting. It has many names, with the most common ones being the Golden Section, Golden Ratio or Golden Mean. Some lesser known names for this rule is called the Golden Number, Divine Proportion, Golden Proportion, Divine Section, Golden Cut, Fibonacci Number and Phi (pronounced “fie”).

golden ratio exampleThe gold ratio isn’t merely a definition, it’s an actual ratio of 1:1.618. There is a simple way to demonstrate this ratio and that is by using a rectangle with a width of 1 and a length of 1.618. Within this rectangle is a square with a ratio of 1:1 and another rectangle with a ratio of 1:1.618. If you were to draw another square within the smaller rectangle, once again you have a 1:1 ratio square and another rectangle whose proportions are 1:1.618 just like the larger original rectangle. You can continue to divide the resulting smaller rectangle as before on into infinity. Give it a try.

The golden ratio can be used to create beauty and balance in the layout and design of all your paintings. Note the point where the diagonal lines intersect. That particular point is key when using this ratio to compose your paintings. You want to place your key elements or focal point at this intersection. As already stated, the golden ratio is infinitely divisible. This means multiple intersections can be identified where sub elements of a scene can be placed.

Great compositions don’t just happen by accident. They require a lot of thought, planning and patience, as well as a familiarity with the visual elements.

Additional Reading

Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

A composition is the careful placement of the various elements within a painting. It can either be a good composition or a not so good one. When the composition is done successfully, however, it will draw the viewer’s gaze into and around the painting surface leading it from one element to another taking everything in and finally resting on the main subject of the painting.

The purpose of this article is to equip the painter with the tools needed to help him/her build better compositions within all their paintings. Some composition techniques that any painter can and probably should use include:

Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds example
Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a useful guideline used by many professional photographers to aide them when composing the subject matter of their photographs. It is also a very helpful technique that can be used by painters as well.

The idea behind this rule is to divide your painting surface into 9 equal parts. Then position the most important elements in the scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect.

To create a landscape composition, follow these steps:

  1. Divide your canvas into 9 equal segments by drawing 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines at the 1/3 and 2/3 measurements creating a grid.
  2. Determine where the horizon is going to be, ether on the top horizontal line or the bottom line.
  3. Arrange the most important elements of your subject matter at one or more of the points where the lines intersect (also referred to as ‘hotspots’).

The rule of thirds states that a painting has a stronger composition and is much more interesting to view if the center of interest is not directly in the center of the canvas, but rather at one of the four focal points where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. By placing a secondary object at the opposite intersection, balance in the composition can be achieved.

In the instance of the example above, note how the horizon falls close to the bottom grid line, and how the subject matter (the tree) is placed at an intersecting area on the left. By doing this, it has served to add balance and create interest in the composition.

When you apply the rule of thirds to your work, it guarantees you’ll never have a painting that’s split in half, either vertically or horizontally, nor one with the main focus right in the center like a bull’s-eye. When a subject matter is placed directly in the center of the canvas it tends draw the eye into the center and the rest of the painting is ignored. When the subject matter is located on or near a hotspot, the eye is drawn to the focal point and then around the painting creating a flow or movement from one element to the next.

Rule of Odds

rule of odds example
Rule of Odds

The rule of odds states that a composition is much more interesting to look at when it contains an odd number of elements rather than an even amount. An even number will have the tendency to create symmetries that can quickly become boring and uninteresting to look at.

When we see multiple objects that are even in number our mind tries to group them into pairs, which often leaves the center of a scene empty. The human eye is naturally attracted to the center and an even number of elements creates an empty space in that center. Having an odd number of things in a composition means our eye and brain can’t pair them up or group them easily. There’s somehow always one thing left over, which keeps our eyes moving across the composition.

The rule of odds also applies when there is a single subject surrounded by an even number of supporting subjects. In this way there will always be an element in the center “framed” by an even number of surrounding objects. This framing is more comforting to the eye and thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure.

Rule of Space

rule of space example
Rule of Space

The rule of space as it applies to art is a simple technique that creates a sense of motion, activity or conclusion in a composition. It involves creating negative space that relates to the focal point. Some things to keep in mind are:

  • When painting a portrait (whether a person or animal), if your subject is not looking directly at you, leave some negative space in the direction the eyes are looking even if they are looking at something off-canvas.
  • When picturing a moving object, such as runner or vehicle, placing negative space in front of the runner or object rather than behind creates a sense of direction or implication of eventual destination.
  • If your subject is pointing at something or aiming an object place some negative space where the subject is pointing or aiming.

These techniques can be very useful to the artist in creating a good composition. They work best when used together and not individually.

Additional Reading

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Two Composition Techniques to Use in Your Paintings

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

an introduction to the principles of good design.An introduction to the principles of good design. Learning more about what it takes to create a good composition.

What exactly are the principles of good design?

Simply put, the principles of good design are the tools every artist uses to create an effective composition. These tools are: balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, proportion, repetition, simplicity, space and unity. How well an artist understands and uses these tools will determine if the composition is a weak or strong one. The desired outcome should be a work of art that is both unified and aesthetically pleasing to look at. In a series of discussions we’ll take a look at each one of these principles.

Anyone who studies design will soon discover there is no longer a clear-cut line between fine art and applied art anymore. All art, whether it is web or graphic design, architectural or industrial design, commercial or fine art, is subject to the same principles that make up all good design. Just as a fine artist arranges various elements within a painting to create a pleasing composition, so it is with the graphic artist. For example, the fine artist may use objects such as a vase of flowers, bowl of fruit, or a figurine to design a lovely still life composition in a painting, while the graphic artist will use headlines, bodies of text, photos, illustrations and clip-art images to compose a page for print or a webpage for the Internet. It’s not the objects in and of themselves that determine if the design is a good composition or not, it is their arrangement as governed by the principles.

Defining the principles

  • Balance – a feeling of equality of weight, attention, or attraction of the various elements within the composition as a means of accomplishing unity.
  • Contrast – the difference between elements or the opposition to various elements.
  • Emphasis – the stress placed on a single area of a work or unifying visual theme.
  • Movement – the suggestion of action or direction, the path our eyes follow when we look at a work of art.
  • Proportion – the relation of two things in size, number, amount, or degree.
  • Repetition and rhythm – the act of repeating an element either regularly or irregularly resulting in a rhythm of the repeating elements.
  • Simplicity (a.k.a. visual economy) – the elimination of all non-essential elements or details to reveal the essence of a form.
  • Space – the interval or measurable distance between objects or forms (two dimensional or three dimensional).
  • Unity – the relationship between the individual parts and the whole of a composition. This is the desired result in all great art.

Good art always starts with an idea.

Before beginning any work of art every artist needs to keep in mind that every composition starts with an idea. To use the design principles effectively it is necessary that the artist have an idea to express or an objective in mind. This is vital to the success of any art work. Without a clear objective, even the most conscientious attention to the principles of good design, will result in uninteresting work. However, with an idea clearly in mind a beautiful composition can emerge. Every artist’s goal should be to create a composition in their work that is both unified and interesting to look at.


  1. In its simplest term, what are the principles of good design?
  2. What is the end result when the good design principles are effectively applied?

Your Next Art Lesson

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

Good Design Principles: An Introduction

Good Design Principles: Balance

Good Design Principles: Contrast

Good Design Principles: Emphasis

Good Design Principles: Movement

Good Design Principles: Proportion

Good Design Principles: Space

Good Design Principles: Visual Economy

Good Design Principles: Unity

The Basic Elements of Art

Learning about the basic art elements and how they work in conjunction with the principles of good design.

The basic elements of art are the “building blocks” used to create any visual art piece. The elements are color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value. Without them, it would be impossible for an artist to create art. Every artist, whether they realize it or not, uses at least two or more of these elements in their art-making. For example, in sculpture an artist uses both space and form, and a painter will utilize line and shape when creating a painting.

Defining The Elements

  • Color — A pigment used in artwork, along with their various values and intensities, such as the primary colors – red, yellow and blue.
  • Form — The mass of the shapes created by the forming of two or more shapes or as three-dimensional shapes when showing height, width and depth.
  • Line — A mark (actual or implied) that spans the distance between two points used to define shape in two-dimensional work. Implied line is the path that the viewer’s eye takes as it moves along a path from form, color, or shape within a work of art. Click for more information about lines in art.
  • Shape — Any area defined by edges within the piece bound by line, value, or color. It can be geometric (for example: square, circle, hexagon, etc.) or organic (such as the shape of a puddle, blob, splatter, etc.).
  • Space — Refers to the empty or occupied areas around, between or within components of an art piece. It is either negative (empty space) or positive (occupied space).
  • Texture — The way a surface feels or is perceived to feel. The actual or implied structure and minute molding of a surface (rough, smooth, etc.) which can either be seen or felt with the sense of touch.
  • Value  Shading used to emphasize form. The degree of lightness or darkness of any given color within a piece of art. Adding white to lighten the color is called “tint” while addition of black is called “shade”.

An artist will skillfully use these elements, mixing them in with the principles of design to compose a sensational piece of art. Not all of the elements have to be utilized, however, there will always have to be at least two present.


Why are the elements of art so important?

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The Basic Elements of Art

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Form

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Shape

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

Principles of Good Design: Movement

movement in artMovement is the principle of good design which gives the artist control over what the viewer sees next. Using this principle, the artist can create the path our eyes will travel as we look at a work of art. For example, our attention is first captured by the main focal point and then it proceeds to move around the composition as one element after another catches our attention.

Defining Movement in Art

Movement shows action and creates a feeling of motion within a composition. It also serves as a guide to direct the eye from one element to the next. An artist controls and forces the progression of the viewer’s eyes in and around the composition of the painting using eye travel. For instance, the eye will travel along an actual path such as solid or dotted line, or it will move along more subtle paths such as from large to smaller elements, from dark to lighter elements, from color to non-color, from unusual to usual shapes, etc.

Repetition and Rhythm

Movement also contributes to the overall unity in a piece by creating a relationship between the various components of a work. There are various ways to create this relationship, it can be done by using repetition and  rhythm.

rhythm in artThe use of repetition to create movement occurs when elements which have something in common are repeated regularly or irregularly thereby creating a visual rhythm. Repetition doesn’t always have to mean exact duplication either, however, it does require similarity or near-likeness. Slight variations to a simple repetition are good, as this will add interest. Repetition tends to relate elements together whether they are touching or not.

Rhythm is the result of repetition which leads the eye from one area to another in direct, flowing, or staccato movement. It can be produced by continuous repetition, by periodic repetition, or by regular alternation of one of more forms or lines. A single form may be slightly changed with each repetition or be repeated with periodic changes in size, color, texture, or value. A line may regularly very in length, weight, or direction. Color may also be repeated in various parts of the composition in order to unify the various areas of the painting.

Movement Through Action

implied movement in artMovement can also be created by action. In two-dimensional works of art, action must be implied. Implied action in a painting creates life and activity. This is best illustrated by the direction the eye takes along an invisible path created by an arrow, a gaze, or a pointing finger. Action can also be indicated by the “freeze frame” effect of an object in motion, such as a bouncing ball suspended in mid air, a jogger about to take that next step, or a swimmer taking a dive, etc. You get the idea.

Examples of the Effective Use of Movement

Movement in the painting on the left is created in several ways. You see it as your eye travels from the little girl on the blanket and moves up the stairs. You will also see repetition in color. The color of the building is very similar to the blanket the child is sitting on. In addition, the stairs create a repetition effect.

repetition in design

Repetition creates the movement in the painting right. The color of the gowns is repeated leading the eye into the painting. The pattern on the floor also creates repetition. You also get the feeling of movement created by implied action.


  1. What are some specific ways movement can be created in a composition?
  2. In what way does movement create unity in a work of 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

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity

Principles of Good Design: Proportion


Proportion in art is the relationship of two or more elements in a composition and how they compare to one another with respect to size, color, quantity, degree, setting, etc.; i.e. ratio.

When two or more elements are put together in a painting a relationship is created. This relationship is said to be harmonious when a correct or desirable association exists between the elements. This refers to the correct sizing and distribution of an element which then creates good proportion. Good proportion adds harmony and symmetry or balance among the parts of a design as a whole.

When the principle of proportion is applied to a work of art it is usually in the relationship of size. That is, the size of one element as compared to the size of another related element within the same composition. In this instance, a comparison of size is made between the:

  • Height, width and depth of one element to that of another
  • Size of one area to the size of another area
  • Size of one element to the size of another element
  • Amount of space between two or more elements

bad-proportionProportion is usually not even noticed until something is out of proportion. When the relative size of two elements being compared seems wrong or out of balance it is said to be “out of proportion”. For example if a person has a head larger than their entire body, then we would say that they were out of proportion.

good-proportionThere are several ways for achieving good proportion:

  1. Place like elements together which are similar in character or have a common feature.
  2. Create major and minor areas in the design, as equal parts can quickly become monotonous and boring. However, the differences in size must not be so great as to make the parts appear unrelated and therefore, out of harmony with each other.
  3. Arrangement of space should be in such a way that the eye does not perceive a standard mathematical relationship. Dividing up the composition in halves, quarters and thirds should be avoided. A subtle relationship creates a more dynamic design.
  4. Create harmony in the art work. Harmony is an agreement between the shapes that stresses the similarities of all parts. In other words, the shape of one part should “fit” the shape of the adjoining elements. Shapes should “fit” properly in their positions and spaces.


Examples of the effective use of Proportion


There is a real sense of proportion in the painting left. Without the effective use of the principle of proportion you would not experience the majesty of the mountain in the background.


In this painting right proportion is instrumental in emphasizing the distance of the ship in the background.

Examples of the effective use of Harmony


It is easy to observe harmony in action in nature. Notice how the individual wedges “fit” the orange painting.


In the coat of arms we observe how the different elements “fit” together perfectly inside each other to create harmony.


  1. How is good proportion created?
  2. What does good proportion bring to a painting?

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 Principles: 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

Principles of Good Design: Space

Space 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-spacePositive space is the “occupied” areas in a work of art that is filled with something such as lines, colors and shapes. It is the primary subject matter of a painting; the animals, plants, building, mountain, vase, people, etc., that forms your area-of-interest. It dominates the eye and is the focal point in a composition.

In the example here, positive space (the area in black) is represented as the forms themselves… i.e. the vase, the individual letters, or the words “positive space”. It is the opposite of negative space.

negative-space Negative space is the unoccupied areas that surround the subject matter. It is more passive in nature and is defined by the edges of the positive space it surrounds. It is what gives definition to our composition.

In the example, it is 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? These shapes have substance or mass and is not simply the absence of something. This is important to remember. Negative space has weight and mass, and plays an important role in defining your subject.

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 the use of negative space is very much a key element of the artistic composition. In the example above, the negative space forms a shape of two men face to face.

Negative space is important in a composition because it gives balance to positive space by giving the eye a place to rest. This is a basic element that is often overlooked as a principle of a good design.

Two and Three-dimensional Space

two-dimensionalRubins_vaseTwo-dimensional space is found on a flat surface such as a canvas. It has no depth, only length and width. In our example, the image appears flat because all the objects and forms lie on the same plane. There is no feeling of depth. However, the same space can be used to make a two-dimensional artwork appear three-dimensional by giving a feeling of depth. Three-dimensional space has width, height and depth.

When we look at a flat surface and have the sensation of looking at spaces and objects that appear to have depth, then we are receiving and believing a group of visual signals working to create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes and spaces within the painting.

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. This occurs when a sensation of space which seems to have height, width and depth are visually created as it has been done with the vase in the example shown on the right.

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 simplest 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 by changing size and placement of related objects. When two shapes are the same size and are placed on the same plane, the image tends to appear rather flat and not have much depth to it. However by simply varying the size and placement of the shapes a greater 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 which are placed higher up.

linear-perspectiveLinear 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 be visible (on the canvas) or imaginary (somewhere off the canvas).

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

Atmospheric perspective combines several tools already described above. This important 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 the way 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. Objects become less defined and lack detail.

Deep Space

When used effectively all of these tools to create the illusion of three-dimensional space will create a sense of what is referred to as 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 of a painting that visually appears to be far away in the distance at or near the horizon. It is usually located on a higher plane of the canvas.


Since a flat surface such as a canvas contains only two-dimensional space, an artist may wish to create the illusion of three-dimension. 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 a number of 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 by. 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. The viewer senses that he or she is 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. Parallel lines, as they move away into the distance, appear to come closer together to form a vanishing point which may or may not be seen. A good 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


The flat back shadows and background in the painting on the left provides a good 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.

The Statue of Liberty in the painting on the left overlapping the river and the horizon helps to create a greater sense of depth than the painting that is on the right. On the left we get the sensation of deep space. On the right the space a shallow.

Changing Size and Placement

size-placement1 size-placement2

Changing the size and placement of the objects in these two paintings helps give more depth to the painting. Changing the size of the Indians makes them appear far away in the painting on the left. On the right, the ballerinas are on a higher plane than the ones in the front pushes them farther away into the background.

Linear Perspective

perspective1 perspective2 perspective3

Can you see how perspective has given the three paintings above a sense of depth?

Both of these paintings have very strong one-point perspective which helps create the illusion of three dimension.

Perspective gives you the sensation that the train is moving away from you and yet it pulls you down the hallway with it in the painting on the right.

Perspective can also make objects appear 3D. The artist of this building used two point perspective to create an object that appears 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 painting on the left is a good example of this tool in use.

On the right, light moves toward you and darkness moves off into the background.

Atmospheric Perspective

atmospheric-perspective1 atmospheric-perspective2

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

For more information about atmospheric perspective see article titled 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.


  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

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity

Principles of Good Design: Unity

unity design principleUnity is the hallmark of every good design. It is the final result when all the design elements work harmoniously together to give the viewer a satisfying sense of belonging and relationship. You know unity has been achieved when all aspects of the design complement one another rather than compete for attention. It serves to reinforce the relationship between the design elements and relates them to the key theme being expressed in a painting.

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

Unity within art accomplishes two things:

  1. It creates a sense of order. When a design possesses unity there will be a consistency of sizes and shapes, as well as a harmony of color and pattern. One way this is accomplished is by repeating the key elements, balancing them throughout the composition, and then adding a little variety so that the design has its own sense of personality. Learning to juggle the elements and principles in such a way as to achieve the right mix is a key to good design.
  2. It also gives elements the appearance of completeness, that they belong together. When a composition has unity the design will be viewed as one piece, as a whole, and not as separate elements with the painting. Using too many shapes and forms may cause a design to be unfocused, cluttered and confusing. A well organized design will be achieved by using a basic shape which is then repeated throughout the composition.

When unity is achieved:

  • The individual elements within a composition do not compete for attention.
  • The key 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 effectively communicate.
  • You must stay focused on achieving the objective and not deviate from it. If there is an element you are considering adding and it does not contribute to the objective then 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 the purpose and message you intend to portray is consistently understood the same way by several people 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 having to rework the entire composition. The relationship of all the elements should be so strong it would actually 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 different 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 elements to these axes creates a visual relationship which 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 that are positioned close to one another are perceived as being related while elements that are farther apart are considered less related. 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 near-by elements with distant ones also helps to create a sense of relationship between the forms which are not grouped together.

Examples of the effective use of 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 grouping of similar objects,  proximity was used to create unity within this painting.


The road in this painting is the “third element” that helps to create a relationship between the people in the foreground to 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 the use of 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. 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 own personality into your art. Without this touch, your work may be well designed, but lack character.
  5. As you become more confident in your ability at achieving unity, then dare to violate one or more of the principles of design 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.


  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