He eight principles of design

The eight principles of design are tools we can use to produce balanced compositions in which harmonious and varied shapes, tones, textures and colors create visual interest in all parts of the painting, while the principles of conflict and dominance are used to direct the viewer's attention to the most important features, so that they all come together in a unified whole.

It is said that amateurs paint pictures, while professionals build pictures with these bricks of knowledge. With them artists can think, plan, build, organize, express themselves and communicate. Let's look at the principles one by one.


Whatever you design on your paper must look like a complete unit rather than a collection of bits. What I'm saying is that an element that appears in one section of the painting should be echoed in another part so that all the sections are related. In musical terms, lack of unity could be expressed by playing a bar of "St. Louis Blues" in the middle of "Ave Maria". Unity can be achieved in many ways, for instance, a large foreground tree can be echoed by a small distant tree; a cloud shape can be repeated in a foreground bush; a large building can be echoed by a distant building.


While we can use gradation to prevent boredom in the less important areas of a painting, we can use conflict to generate excitement and interest, and to focus attention on the main subject. Conflict is created by placing opposites next to each other: a light next to a dark tone, a warm color against a cool one, a large shape next to a small one or a rounded shape next to an angular one, horizontal lines next to vertical ones, and so on. For example, if you want to emphasize a white building in a painting, no matter how small the building is, you can do this by placing a dark tree or some other dark shape behind it.

This picture has unity because it was painted spontaneously and wet-into-wet. No stopping and starting here! There's a wonderful flow about this work, and colors and shapes have been repeated throughout.

By placing red opposite green, and blue against yellow the attention is drawn to the main object of interest.

Here you see how conflict of lone draws attention to the cart. Leaving white paper around it emphasizes the effect.

Principle Design Watercolour

Here we see dominance of shape in the repetition of the awnings — the rest of the picture plays only a supporting role.


Dominance is the most important aspect of designing a painting, and we need to think about it in relation to all aspects - shape, line, direction, texture, edge qualities, tonal values and color. It is vital because it makes clear what is most important in an}' painting. Of all die different types of shapes in your painting, one should be dominant; of the different types of lines, one should be dominant; there should be dominant direction, a dominant tone, a dominant color mood and a dominant texture.

The dominant features are obviously the dark tones, with the mid-tones playing a subservient role.

Varied Repetition DesignTonal Drawings Examples

This painting shows repetition in the vertical lines of the buildings, but these are varied in length of line and tonal strength.


Repetition in art is used for several reasons. One is to unify and make the painting hold together. Another is to create visual rhythm so that the eye can enjoy a variety of interesting intervals between repeated shapes or colors. These shapes or colors must be varied, because without variation repetition is boring. For example, with a row of trees, some should be large, some small; make one or two grow at an angle and vary the colors. Once you begin to think about repetition, your imagination will supply an endless variety of repeats.

This is repetition of horizontal lines, but the shapes within those horizontals are varied in size and shape to prevent boredom.

Alternation is achieved by the negative shapes between the trees.


This is closely connectcd to repetition because it is what occurs between the repeats. Color alternation can consist of intense colors alternating between neutrals, or warm colors between cools. Alternation is simply a repeated interrelationship of sequences, rhythms in intervals between any of the design elements. It achieves unity with variety. It is a rhythmical sequence.

There is alternation in the use of color; warm and cool, intense and soft.

Variety Alternation Pictures


One of the most important aspects of composition is balance. If a painting doesn't have a sense of balance it will look unsatisfactory, no matter what else you do. Unfortunately, nature doesn't present us with nicely balanced scenes, and it's always tempting just to paint a scene without thinking about balance. Balance is a way of making things look right. It's a matter of arranging features that are different in size, tone, color, shape and texture, so that they balance each other visually. For example, a large shape closer to the center of the picture can be balanced by a smaller shape farther out, close to the paper's edge.

In this case the large boat on the left is balanced by the two smaller boats on the right.

The large tree mass near the center of the picture is balanced by the smaller one on the right.

Sails Shading Elements Between Trees

The subtle difference between the angles of the lines of shading lends a harmonious feel to this sketch.


Harmonious elements in a painting are those that are similar. They are vital to our paintings because they can create interest in less important areas, while at the same time unifying the composition. Harmonious colors arc close to each other on the color wheel, such as orange and red. Harmonious shapes are similar — a circle and an oval for example, or a square and a rectangle. Harmonious sizes are those that are close together. Straight and slighdy curved lines are harmonious, as are close tonal values. In short, harmony is the opposite of contrast. Unlike contrast, harmony involves subtle, gentle changes that you can use to introduce interest into a subject.

Illustrated here are various forms of harmony of color and shape.

Principle Design Watercolour

In this sketch we see the gradual change from cool to warm color together with the change from soft to strong.

8 Gradation

Gradation is the tool we use to add interest and variety in an area, large or small, without drawing attention to it through abrupt contrast. Yet, because gradation isn't always obvious in nature we often don't think about it when we are painting. We see green grass, or a brown shed, and that's how we paint it — all one color. But, if all areas of a painting are done with washes of flat color, the result is dull. So, to create interesting paintings, we have to use gradation, which basically means creating a gradual change — from a warm color to a cool one, or from a light tone to a dark one, from one type of line to anodier, or one size or type of shape to anodier.

Here we see gradation in the gradual change in the background from warm to cool color, while in the foreground we see a similar gradation in a rough, dry brush effect.

pplying the principles of design

Principles Design GradationPrinciple Design Watercolour

Afternoon Shadows, Mt. Martha, 15 x 22" (38 x 56cm)

David has wade excellent use of conflict here. There is light against dark, opposing colors in the foreground field and the background trees, and light roofs against dark trees. The introduction of strong red into the largest building has made it the dominant feature. Gradation in the foreground field promotes interest, as does the Venetian Rythms, variation in color in the background hills. Harmony is achieved by repetition of

14 x 20" (36 x 51cm) co/or in various parts of the painting.

Alternation Principle Design

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  • Mewael
    Why does the human eye enjoy harmonious repetition?
    7 years ago

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