Tutorial - Principles of Art

In an earlier blog called " Breaking the Rules" I spoke about the principles in Art. I mentioned that once we know the rules and are able to understand them well enough, we can break them.

To be truthful, I don't consciously pay attention to rules. I go with my gut feeling. If I find that something is not working as I would like it to, I then apply the rules while examining the piece and see where I may have gone wrong. This is not ideal, as I always tell my students that planning is of utmost importance and this is true; however, the rules are always there to fall back on once you know them, and one usually tends to apply them as we go along anyway. (Provided we know them)

I have had students ask me about these rules. I don't particularly like to write them down as I don't want students to start applying them as one would the "Ten Commandments". Art is about creativity. If you start concerning yourself with rules you become restricted. This is why planning is so important. Understand the rules then get creative - If your understanding is good, you will apply them naturally.

Golden Morn

Golden Morn by Jacqui Simpson

I prefer to think of them as guidelines. In fact, they are known as the Principles of Art - a nice way of saying that they aren't rules :o)

For the sake of this blog, I am going to briefly touch on some of them, just so that you have some idea while planning a painting.

Please note that there are many, many guidelines in Art. Some Artists make these rules as they go along, some swear by them and some touch on them as and when they need them. Whichever way you decide to use them, please do not let these guidelines distract you from being creative. Creativity and freedom of expression are so much more important than painting a "politically correct" piece.

Remember though that if you are going to break a rule - BREAK IT. Better yet - destroy it! Make it so blatantly, defiantly, rebelliously obvious, that it counts for something. That way, you cannot be accused of not knowing the rules. You may be labelled a rebel - but hey! That's ok...we"ll love you anyway :o)


Shape and Proportion.

It is important to remember that if you are creating a piece of Art that you intend to create in a realistic style that you pay attention to this. There is nothing that irks me more than seeing a painting of the human form that has been beautiful executed with magnificent shading technique, where the Artist has spent hours creating, and it is horribly out of proportion.

It infuriates me because what it tells me is that the Artist did not do his or her homework. If you want to paint a portrait, at least study the human face. Get your hands on an encyclopedia if you must. Learn about muscles, bone structure, the way an eyeball fits into the human skull - you know...how the ear bone is connected to the cheek bone is connected to the jaw bone is connected to the neck bone ...and so on. Don't wing it! You are wasting valuable time and effort (and paint) if you start painting and you haven't done your homework.

Mother by Jax

Mother by Jax

Positioning, Balance or Harmony

This is basically about bring harmony amongst the elements. The elements being line, shape, color, texture, form, value and space.
This basically is what makes the whole piece aesthetically pleasing. It is a combination of all the elements working together.

Field of view

Basically this is how you crop your view to create the Artwork from your reference. You don't need to use the whole reference (sketch or photograph). You can crop it to create a portion of it or combine a few references to create one piece of Art.

Consider what you want the viewer to see first and how their eye will be guided around the Artwork. This is part of "composition" that I will cover a little further on.

Negative Space 
These are the spaces between and behind the subject. They are important! Don't rush the background just to get to the subject. Pay attention to harmony.

Bare in mind that colours have been associated with different moods, dependent on the society of the time. It is emotional and personal. It is important to have your own palette. Consider this always. Chose your colours with an emotional mind. I will post a blog on emotion in colour too, but this is a subject that you already know. "Feel" your colours. Question this all the time. Your instinct won't fail you.


Portrait of the Art Dealer -Paul Guillaume

If you want to paint like Modigliani, then by all means do, but remember, Modigliani's paintings were not about the human form. They were about emotion and color and mood. He broke the rules, he virtually destroyed them to take the emphasis off the human form. It was deliberate and intentional.

Many lines without a clear subject point suggest chaos in the images and may conflict with the mood the artist is trying to evoke.
Oblique lines convey a sense of movement 
Angular lines generally convey a sense of dynamism and possibly tension.
Straight lines add affection and can make it look more detailed and challenging. 
Horizontalvertical, and angled lines often contribute to creating different moods of a picture
Curved lines are generally used to create a sense of flow within an images. They are also generally more aesthetically pleasing, as we associate them with soft things.

This is the value, or degree of lightness and darkness, used within the picture. Shadows and highlights.


Henderson Cisz - Street Scene Paris

Composition is basically the layout of the picture that creates a sense of unity. For example, a work of Art is said to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye if the elements within the work are arranged in a balanced compositional way. There are numerous approaches to this.

They have changed through the ages and some ideas are more complex than others. I will show you an example of one, however, I must stress that this is not a hard and fast rule. It can be applied loosely. Depending on the shape of your canvas and your subject. I would rather say this to you:-

There should be a center of interest or focus in the work, to prevent it becoming a pattern in itself. Once you have decided where to place your focal point (the area that the viewer will look at first when looking at your Art piece) ensure that the elements guide your viewers eye around the picture in a way that will allow the viewer to see the picture in its entirety. This is what makes the painting work.

The sample below is what is called the Rule of 3rds or The Golden Mean. This is a fascinating topic to research and I would encourage it if you have the opportunity to do so.

The Rule of Thirds



Warming In Sunshine By Eric Wallis

I won't go into too much detail, however the diagram on the above is quite self explanatory. The focal point is placed more or less where the curl starts and the eye moves out more or less along the shape of the curl. An example of this is in the painting by Eric.


Some additional points to consider.

The subject should not be facing out of the images;

A moving subject should have space in front;

Exact bisections of the picture space should be avoided;

Small, high contrast, elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements;

The horizon line should not divide the art work in two equal parts but be positioned to emphasize either the sky or ground; showing more sky if painting is of clouds, sun rise/set, and more ground if a landscape.

Generally pictures are viewed as one would read - from left to right. Therefore, roads or diagonal line leading out to the right are considered more appealing that roads leading to the left for example.

Diagonal lines going up are more pleasing than diagonal lines going down.

Da Vinci

During the time of the Renaissance, triangles were used in composition and still are in portraiture by many Artists.



images with clutter can distract from the main elements within the picture and make it difficult to identify the subject. 
Less is always more! Don't sweat the small stuff! Decide what is important and work on that! These are phrases that you will hear often in my Art Class

Trilogy by Jax

Trilogy by Jax


The Rule of Odds

This suggests that an odd number of subjects in a picture is more interesting than an even number.
3 figures create suspense where 2 become an assumption.

These principles can be means of a good composition yet they can not be applied separately but should act together to form a good composition.



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Criticizing Art | Bad Artists Copy | An Artists Reference | Make your Own Canvas Board | Colour Palette | Finding Models | Interpretation and Style | Log Book | Painting Demonstration | Principles of Art | Selling in Galleries | Photographing Your Work | Breaking the Rules


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