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The Principles of Design in Visual Arts

In the art room we have concepts that we revisit at the start of each year, including Building Foundation Vocabulary in Visual Arts, as well as the Principles of Design. Another one of the key concepts, that happens to spiral and allow for visual understanding in which sophistication grows, is composition.

My personal go-to was a breakdown of the Principles of Design and simple viewfinder cut out of an index card. First, I’d have students spend time observing, looking at master works, I would pull from the 250 selected works from the AP Art History Course and look to identify works that demonstrate strong contrast, unity, rhythm etc.

Then we’d spend time going outside with our viewfinders to observe and look for possibly strong compositions. Last we’d tie it all with gesture drawing and start sketching multitudes of thumbnails, looking for the strongest composition to scale up into a larger finished work of art. This isn’t a lesson that can be taught in a “one and done”, it’s something that is talked about with every work and revisited constantly.

I’ve been guilty of being trapped in the rule of thirds and taught it without many alternatives; so I’ve had to break free and find more resources. While the rule of thirds is a good start there are many other compositional methods as explained in the youtube video 10 Myths About the Rule of Thirds – Master Composition without it!

However you approach composition, you’ll undoubtedly circle back to the Principles of Design (more than once!) so I’ve included more visuals for you. Feel free to download and use the images in your presentations or print the .PDFs for posters in your classroom.

And make sure you share the work you create with your students on #FabArtsFri or everyday via #K12ArtChat – we’d love to see it!

Wishing you Amazing Compositions,

Laura and Matt Grundler

Principles of Design:

A design concept describing the ways in which the elements of an image are arranged (i.e. balance, contrast, dominance, emphasis, movement, repetition, rhythm, variation, unity).


  • A means of maintaining visual equilibrium.

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  • The differences in values, colors, textures, and other elements in an artwork to achieve emphasis and interest.

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  • The area in a work of art that attracts the viewer’s attention.

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  • A series of gradual changes.

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  • A blending elements in a pleasing way.

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  • The component that leads the viewer to sense action in a work or it can be the path the viewer’s eye follows throughout a work.

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  • A decorative visual repetition.

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  • The relationship of one part to another and to the whole.

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  • Repeating an element or elements to make a work seem active or suggest vibration.

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  • The arrangement of elements and principles with media to create a feeling of completeness or wholeness.

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  • The combining of one or more elements to create interest.

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Extra Resources:

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