Painting:Elements And Principles Of Design

Painting:Elements And Principles Of Design

The design of a painting is its visual format: the arrangement of its lines, shapes, colours, tones, and textures into an expressive pattern. It is the sense of inevitability in this formal organizationthat gives a great painting its self-sufficiency and presence.

Elements of design


Each of the design elements has special expressive qualities. Line, for example, is an intuitive, primeval convention for representing things; the simple linear imagery of young children’s drawings and prehistoric rock paintings is universally understood. The formal relationships of thick with thin lines, of broken with continuous, and of sinuous with jagged are forces of contrast and repetition in the design of many paintings in all periods of history. Variations in the painted contours of images also provide a direct method of describing the volume, weight, spatial position, light, and textural characteristics of things. The finest examples of this pictorial shorthand are found in Japanese ink painting, where an expressive economy and vitality of line is closely linked to a traditional mastery of calligraphy.

In addition to painted contours, a linear design is composed of all of the edges of tone and colour masses, of the axial directions of images, and of the lines that are implied by alignments of shapes across the picture. The manner in which these various kinds of line are echoed and repeated animates the design. The artist, whether acting consciously or intuitively, also places them in relationship to one another across the picture, so that they weave a unifying rhythmic network throughout the painting.

Shape and mass

Shape and mass, as elements of design, include all areas of different colour, tone, and texture, as well as individual and grouped images.

Children instinctively represent the things they see by geometrical symbols. Not only have sophisticated modern artists, such as Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet, borrowed this untutored imagery, but the more arresting and expressive shapes and masses in most styles of painting and those to which most people intuitively respond will generally be found to have been clearly based on such archetypal forms. A square or a circle will tend to dominate a design and will therefore often be found at its focal centre—the square window framing Christ in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, for example, the hovering “sun” in an Adolph Gottlieb abstract, or the halo encircling a Christian or Buddhist deity. A firmly based triangular image or group of shapes seems reassuring, even uplifting, while the precarious balance implied by an inverted triangular shape or mass produces feelings of tension. Oval, lozenge, and rectangular forms suggest stability and protection and often surround vulnerable figures in narrative paintings.

The negative spaces between shapes and masses are also carefully considered by the artist, since they can be so adjusted as to enhance the action and character of the positive images. They can be as important to the design as time intervals in music or the voids of an architectural facade.


In many styles and periods of painting, the functions of colour are primarily decorative and descriptive, often serving merely to reinforce the expression of an idea or subject communicated essentially in terms of line and tone. In much of modern painting, however, the full-spectrum range of pigments available has allowed colour to be the primary expressive element. The principal dimensions of colour in painting are the variables or attributes of hue, tone, and intensity. Red, yellow, and blue are the basic hues from which all others on the chromatic scale can be made by mixtures. These three opaque hues are the subtractive pigment primaries and should not be confused with the behaviour of the additive triads and mixtures of transparent, coloured light. Mixtures of primary pairs produce the secondary hues of orange, violet, and green. By increasing the amount of one primary in each of these mixtures, the tertiary colours of yellow-orange, orange-red, red-violet, violet-blue, blue-green, and green-yellow, respectively, are made. The primary colours, with their basic secondary and tertiary mixtures, can be usefully notated as the 12 segments of a circle. The secondary and tertiary colour segments between a pair of parent primaries can then be seen to share a harmonious family relationship with one another—the yellow-orange, orange, and orange-red hues that lie between yellow and red, for example.


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