The Principles of Art

In another Tutorial 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 by Jax

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)

Mother by Jax

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 irritates 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.

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.

Direction 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.

Colour 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. Remember too that warm colours come forward and cool colours retreat. Therefore, consider the temperatures of your colours too.

Modigliani 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.

Modigliani Portrait of the Art Dealer -Paul Guillaume

Lines 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.

Contrast This is the value, or degree of lightness and darkness, used within the picture. Shadows and highlights. In my opinion, this is probably the most important principle in Art. Contrast catches the attention of the viewer. It creates interest, and can mean the difference between a good painting or one of those that you may walk right past because it seems insipid. Contrast is usually found near the focal point – the first place where the viewer will look when they look at your painting.

The Golden Mean and The Fibonacci Ratio

Composition 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. The old Masters would teach students (as do we) how to use the Golden Mean or Fibonacci ratio for laying out your composition. After the Impressionist era, it was almost as if Artists became lazy. instead of continuing with the way that the masters taught, they changed the rules to make them easier by applying the Rule of Thirds. (dividing their canvasses up into thirds and using the cross-points for focal points) There are so many reasons why we should use the Masters rules and at The Painting Cave, we work with these old rules.

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. To do this we rely on light and colour, creating additional secondary focal points that guide the eye. This is what makes the painting work.

The Fibonacci ratio and The Golden Mean is a fascinating topic to research and I would encourage it if you have the opportunity to do so.

Warming In Sunshine By Eric Wallis

I won’t go into too much detail, however this image 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.  Note too the secondary focal points on the feet that drags the eye along  and across the entire painting

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.

During the time of the Renaissance, triangles were used in composition and still are used 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 class. Remember that the focal point is important. The viewer has the ability to allow the rest to catch up, so concentrate on attracting the viewers attention and allow their brains to fill in the rest.

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. If you really get into the Fibonacci ratio, this will make even more sense to you.

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.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!