Test Your Knowledge of Fine Art: Elements and Principles of Design

an introduction to the principles of good design.Test your knowledge of the elements and principles of good design. Take this simple test by writing your answers on paper, then check your answers at the end of the test. Don’t peek!

1. The principles of good design are _______.

A.    color, depth, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value
B.    balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, proportion, repetition, simplicity, space, and unity
C.    all of the above
D.    none of the above

2. The elements of design are _______.

A.    color, depth, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value
B.    balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, proportion, repetition, simplicity, space, and unity
C.    all of the above
D.    none of the above

3. A type of balance in which both sides of a composition are balanced yet different is called _______.

A.    asymmetrical
B.    radial
C.    symmetrical
D.    geometric

4. Formal balance is another word for _______ balance.

A.    asymmetrical
B.    radial
C.    symmetrical
D.    geometric

5. Another word for “center of interest” is _______.

A.    focal point
B.    emphasis
C.    dominance
D.    all of the above

6. The choice of colors used in a design plan is called a _______.

A.    color spectrum
B.    color wheel
C.    color scheme
D.    color mix

7. A circular chart used to show color relationships is called a _______.

A.    color scheme
B.    color wheel
C.    color ray
D.    color circle

8. Colors that are different in lightness and darkness are said to be _______.

A.    contrasting
B.    light in value
C.    dark in value
D.    bright and intense

9. Which of the following can be used to create contrast in a composition?

A.    Smooth and rough textures
B.    Large and small shapes
C.    Plain areas against areas of patterns
D.   All of the above

10. _______ is another word for the brightness of a color.

A.    Value
B.    Intensity
C.    Hue
D.    Complementary

11. _______ is an element of art that refers to the sense of touch.

A.    Value
B.    Pattern
C.    Texture
D.    Shape

12. Negative space is the background or area surrounding an object in a composition.

True | False

13. Rhythm is created when various visual elements are repeated.

True | False

14. Variation is the use of the same lines, shapes, textures, and colors within an artwork.

True | False

15. Unity is obtained when all parts of a design are working together as a team.

True | False

16. Blue and orange are _______ colors.

A.    primary
B.    related or analogous
C.    secondary
D.    complementary

17. Red, yellow, and blue are _______ colors.

A.    primary
B.    related or analogous colors
C.    secondary colors
D.    complementary colors

18. Visual _______ is achieved when all parts of a composition have equal weight and appear to be stable.

A.    focal point
B.    unity
C.    balance
D.    pattern

19. _______ is a three-dimensional geometrical figure showing height, width and depth.

A.    Space
B.    Form
C.    Balance
D.    Line

20. Various art elements, like lines, colors, or shapes, that are repeated over and over in a planned way creates a _______.

A.    focal point
B.    unity
C.    balance
D.    pattern

21. The lightness or darkness of a color is referred to as the _______.

A.    shape
B.    value
C.    intensity
D.   texture

22. _______ may be geometric or organic.

A.    Shape
B.    Value
C.    Intensity
D.   Texture

23. _______ is the suggestion of action or direction, the path our eyes follow when we look at a work of art.

A.    Proportion
B.    Simplicity or visual economy
C.    Rhythm
D.    Movement

24. _______ is the relation of two things in size, number, amount, or degree within a design.

A.    Proportion
B.    Simplicity or visual economy
C.    Rhythm
D.    Movement

25. _______ is the elimination of all non-essential elements or details to reveal the essence of a form.

A.    Proportion
B.    Simplicity or visual economy
C.    Rhythm
D.    Movement

26. Symmetry, asymmetry and radial are all types of _______.

A.    Texture
B.    Balance
C.    Patterns
D.    Form

27. Creating a sense of visual oneness in a work of art is called _______.

A.    Form
B.    Value
C.    Unity
D.    Texture

28. _______ is a mark with greater length than width. They can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, sraight, curved, thick, or thin.

A.    Color
B.    Shape
C.    Texture
D.    Line

29. Shapes and/or forms similar to those found in nature are _______.

A.    geometric
B.    pattern
C.    organic
D.    texture

30. The element of art referring to the emptiness or area between, around, above, below or within objects:

A.    color
B.    shape
C.    form
D.    space

31. Space is the element of art that helps create the illusion of a foreground, middle ground and background.

True | False

Additional Reading

For more information on this subject see:

Answers: 1B 2A 3A 4C 5D 6C 7B 8A 9D 10B 11C 12T 13T 14F 15T 16D 17A 18C 19B 20D 21B 22A 23D 24A 25B 26B 27C 28D 29C 30D 31T

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

Principles of Good Design: Balance

design principle balanceThe first basic principle of good design is balance. It is a significant design element because without it a composition will look off. In two dimensional art, balance is all about the visual weightiness of a composition and not the physical weight.

Defining Balance

Balance in art can be defined as a sense of equilibrium and is achieved when the visual weight of objects are distributed equally within a composition. When no single part of the design can overpower or appear heavier than another part in the same design, a sense of visual balance is created.

Some elements within a painting that effect the degree of visual balance are:

  • Lights and darks — light colors will appear lighter in weight than dark colors
  • Brightness — brilliant colors appear to weigh more than neutral colors
  • Warmth and coolness — warm colors, such as yellow tend to enlarge or expand an area in size, while cool colors like blue tend to contract or shrink an area
  • Transparency — Transparent areas seem to visually weigh less than opaque areas

Horizontal, Vertical and Radial Balance

Balancing the components within a painting is best illustrated by visualizing weighing scales or a playground see-saw. As you can see, balance is not achieved through an actual physical weighing process, but through visual judgment on the part of the observer. In this respect, to balance a 2D composition requires a skillful distribution of its components in such a way that the viewer is satisfied the piece is not about to topple over.

horizontal balance

When components are balanced left and right of a central axis they are balanced horizontally. When they are balanced above and below they are said to be balanced vertically. And when components are distributed around the center point, or spring out from a central line, this is referred to as radial balance.

vertical balanceradial balance

Types of Balance

There are two types of balance — symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is also referred to as symmetry or formal balance. And asymmetrical balance is also called asymmetry or informal balance. Of these two types, symmetrical balance is the most stable visually.

Symmetrical Balance

symmetrical balanceSymmetrical balance is when the weight is equally distributed on both sides of the central axis. Symmetry is the simplest and most obvious type of balance. It creates a secure, safe feeling and a sense of solidity. Symmetrical balance can be achieved in two ways. One way is by “pure symmetry,” and the other way is by “approximate symmetry.”

In pure symmetry identical parts are equally distributed on either side of the central axis in mirror-like repetition. A good example of pure symmetry is the human face. It is the same on both the right side and the left side of the nose. Pure symmetry has its place in certain art works, however, because of its identical repetition, pure symmetry for a composition can easily become too monotonous and uninteresting to look at.

Approximate symmetry on the other hand has greater appeal and interest for the viewer. The two sides of a composition are varied and are more interesting to view. Even though they are varied somewhat, they are still similar enough to make their repetitious relationship symmetrically balanced.

Asymmetrical Balance

asymmetrical balanceAsymmetrical balance is when both sides of the central axis are not identical, yet appear to have balance. The way to use asymmetry is by balancing two or more unequal components on either side of the fulcrum by varying their size, value or distance from the center. If the artist can skillfully feel, judge or estimate the various elements and visual weight, this should allow him/her to balance them as a whole, and as a result, achieve a more interesting composition.

The artist will quickly discover the use of asymmetry allows for more freedom of creativity because there are unlimited arrangements that may be devised by using asymmetrical balance.

Some Examples of the Effective Use of Balance

Radial Balance

example of radial balanceradial balance sample

Horizontal Balance

horizontal balance, sample ofexample of horizontal balance

Vertical Balance

example of vertical balancevertical balance, sample of

Do you see the vertical balance suggested in the painting on the left? Look at where the foreground ends and you will quickly see how balance is implied by the visual weightiness of the building in the background.

The painting on the right is a little more obvious in it’s vertical balance. Notice how the three objects in the top part of the painting balance the apparent heaviness of the one object (the plate of pancakes) in the lower part of the painting.


  1. Why is balance so important in a good composition?
  2. In what way is asymmetry beneficial to the artist?

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: Contrast

contrast design elementAnother important principle of good design is contrast. This is principle that is often applied when an artist wants to add visual interest, excitement and drama to an art piece.

Defining Contrast

Contrast in art refers to the positioning of opposing components in a work of art. It occurs when two or more related elements are strikingly different. The greater the difference the greater the contrast.

Opposing Elements in Art

The key to working with contrast is to make sure the differences are obvious. The most common ways of creating contrast are by creating differences in:

  • Color — complimentary colors on the color wheel, i.e. red vs. green, blue vs. orange, yellow vs. violet
  • Hue — saturated vs. muted colors
  • Movement — fast vs. slow
  • Shape — organic vs. geometric shapes
  • Size — large vs. small shapes
  • Space — positive vs. negative
  • Temperature — warm vs. cool
  • Texture — rough vs. smooth
  • Value — light vs. dark

The Significance of Contrast

Contrast is significant because it adds variety to the total design and creates unity. It draws the viewer’s eye into the painting and helps to guide the viewer around the art piece.

Contrast also adds visual interest. Most designs require a certain amount of contrast, if there is too much similarity of the components in any design, it will become monotonous. Too little contrast results in a design that is bland and uninteresting to view. However, don’t over do it as too much contract can cause the design to be confusing. It takes just the right amount of contrast to engage the viewer’s participation in comparing various components of the work. For instance, the viewer will compare light and dark areas of a painting, wide lines and thin lines, light-weight forms and heavy forms, filled spaces and unfilled spaces, etc.

Some Examples of the Effective Use of Contrast

contrast in artThe contrast in the illustration coffee pot and cups is quite obvious. Notice the contrast of the light background (wall) with dark foreground (table cloth) and the contrast of the dark shadows on the tea pot and cup against the wall and with the lights of the same objects against a dark window.

There is also a contrast of thin and thick lines in the napkin, straight and curved lines, and don’t miss the contrast created by the use of geometric shapes (coffee pot and cups) with organic shapes (steam and clouds). The dark steam is also contrasted with the light clouds off in the distance.

design elementIn the illustration of the lady and parrot is a good example of contrast between lights and darks. A contrast of color exists between the red parrot and white dress. Also notice the contrast in the roundness of shapes in the foreground against the flatness of the dark background. Contrast of texture is also implied by the softness of the silk dress and soft feathers of the bird against the hard, flat background.

Contrast in this painting is much more subtle. There is contrast in texture. Notice the hard texture of the fence in the background as contrasted with the softness of the butterflies and kittens. Also a contrast exists between the soil and the foliage. The kittens themselves have a contrast depicted in their colors verses the color of the fence in the background and even with each other. And the red flowers verses green grass promotes a contrast of complimentary colors.


  1. Why is it important to include contrast in a composition?
  2. How can contrast be used to create unity in a 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

Good Design Principle: Unity

Principles of Good Design: Emphasis

design principle emphasisThe principle of emphasis is another important design element. It is applied when an artist wants to attract more attention to a certain element or area within a painting by giving it dominance that makes it stand out.

Defining Emphasis

Emphasis in art is when the artist gives dominance to or stresses a particular area or element of focus in a painting. Without it a composition is nothing more than a presentation of a group of details with equal importance. When a composition has no emphasis nothing stands out as demonstrated in the illustration below. However the effective use of this design principle calls attention to the important areas of the painting. Thereby creating elements of interest causing the eye to return to again and again.

emphasis added
no emphasis added

Adding Emphasis

The way of achieving emphasis is by creating a center of interest, also called a focal point. A focal point is an area where the eye tends to center and is the focus of the viewer’s attention. It is created by making one area or element in the painting standout or most important visually while all other elements are contributing but subordinate. Subordinates are other compositional elements that have been minimized or toned down in order to bring attention to the center of interest. The focal point may be the largest, brightest, darkest, or most complex part of the whole, or it may get special attention because it stands out for some other reason. No more than one component should vie for primary attention. When more than one component gets equal billing, emphasis is canceled out.

Some ways to create emphasis might include:

  • Contrast — the more strongly an element contrasts with its surroundings, the more it stands out and draws attention it to itself. See the discussion on Contrast for information about how to use this design principle.
  • Isolation — similar to placement, isolating an element from a group of other elements will make it stand out.
  • Line — an arrow, line, or other similar objects can be used to indicate movement or direction and lead the eye towards an element. Where lines converge also creates a focal point. See discussion on Movement for about this good design principle.
  • Placement  — elements centered on the canvas will command the viewer’s attention, however, artists tend to avoid putting the focal point in the center of the canvas. It is best to off center it a bit and still achieve the same effect. Off center placement is much more pleasing to the eye.
  • Size or Scale — this refers to how something seems in scale or size as it is compared to the objects around it. The larger the scale the more it will stand out and attract the eye. Smaller elements tend to recede into the background.

No matter what element is chosen for emphasis it should never demand all the attention. It is important to note that emphasis is necessary, but a good composition is one in which all the elements work together for a unifying effect.

Examples of the Effective Use of Emphasis

emphasis in art

In this painting it is easy to see how the artist used light to put emphasis on the chef. He stands out as the main focal point of the entire the painting.

design element

The artist creates emphasis in this painting through the use of color. By painting the cowboy’s shirt red he was able to create a center of interest. Your eye is drawn right to his shirt.


  1. What are some ways emphasis can be added to a painting?
  2. What happens when too many elements are emphasized?

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 Principles: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity

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: Visual Economy

simplicity in artVisual Economy in art, also known as simplicity, is the omitting of all non-essential or unimportant elements and details which don’t really contribute to the essence of the overall composition in order 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 in 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 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 the face of Mary and that of baby Jesus. More detail would have been a distraction.


  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

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