Skip to main content

Principles of Art and Design

Emmanuel Kariuki has been an Art and Design lecturer and an Exhibition Designer in a Museum. He has also authored several story books.

Two village huts in a work of art

Two village huts in a work of art

The least that one can do in a work of art is to make a dot or draw a line. It is generally agreed that a dot is the beginning of line, and is therefore the most basic element in art. Art is a general term for all man-made products, from artefacts, architecture, sculpture to drawings and paintings. Art is man’s attempt to gain by the use of his own creativity what nature has not provided in the environment. The materials used in Art are all derived from nature and are therefore a reflection of the Artist’s environment. Art is also a universal language unique to man since animals do not consciously produce works of art. The other elements besides the dot and line are: Lines, Shapes, Textures, Values (the effect of light or shadow), Colour and Plane.

In this hub, we shall focus on Principles of Art and Design. These principles are Balance; Emphasis; Variety; Proportion; Movement; Harmony, Rhythm and Unity.

The knowledge of these principles will help you to consciously improve any art that you are working on. Improving a work of art can also be referred to as “increasing the aesthetic value.” Aesthetics is a theory of beauty in works of art and its value increases or reduces, depending on the qualities of the following principles.

1.Balance The objective of creating balance in a work of art is to ensure that one part of the work does not seem heavier than other parts. This feeling of weight by the person perceiving the art is purely psychological, but very real when assessing the aesthetics. Balance is achieved by several kinds of “balance.”

i. Symmetrical - In this kind of balance, a mirror image of some of the elements is repeated on one half of the art work. This kind of balance is common in gate designs, table cloths and other works of art where a ‘Pattern’ is recognisable

ii. Asymmetrical or informal balance – In this kind of balance, one half of the art work has forms that approximate the weight of one or more forms on the opposite side.Artists consciously use this kind of balance when composing portraits, landscapes and imaginative compositions. For example, a tree on the left can counter balance a mountain on the right side of a picture.

There are two kinds of asymmetrical balance; radial and Approximate balance. A flower or the spokes of a tyre are good examples of radial balance.

2. Emphasis – When an element or object in a work of art is made to stand out from the rest, emphasis is achieved. This can be done in several ways:

i. By making the element or object much bigger than other surrounding elements.

ii. By using strong colour when others around it are in dull colours or a grey scale.

iii. By using a unique texture that is markedly different from surrounding textures.

iv. By using thicker lines than the lines defining surrounding elements.

Emphasis is enhanced by any method that gives a strong contrast between elements or objects in a work of art.

Radial Balance in a flower

Radial Balance in a flower

Nature: symetrical balance in a moth

Nature: symetrical balance in a moth

Scroll to Continue

3. Variety -This is the combining of two or more elements; two or more colours; two or more textures to avoid monotony and increase the viewer’s interest in the work. Curved lines in a picture that has straight lines can bring the much needed variety. The use of warm colours in a picture with cool colours can also heighten variety.

4. Proportion – This is the relationship between the various parts of a work of art to each other; mainly in terms of size. It also matters how these relationships appear when the whole work of art is taken as a unit which may help to create the illusion of space and distance.Proportion is not limited to size, since the way that different colours are used can also add to the perception of proportion.

5. Movement – the arrangement of elements in a work of art can create a path for the eye of the viewer to follow. This is quite obvious in pictures that already have a railway line, road or power cables. In some pictures, movement is that straight forward. Birds flying in a curve, trees growing in a row or the outstretched hand of a human figure can all create movement. Other forms of movement are created by patterns in geometric designs. If you stand where you can view a visitor looking at a work of art, you can determine which elements are at the beginning and the end of movement. The visitor’s eyes will follow that movement and back to the beginning. This can be verified by observing several visitors.

6. Harmony – The manner in which the elements or objects in a work of art are arranged or organised can give a feeling of order and harmony. This is the opposite of chaos. Harmony adds to the pleasure of viewing works of art as all the elements appear to complement each other. A landscape with a blooming shrub in winter would appear to be in disharmony with other freezing objects.

7. Rhythm – Artists repeat certain elements “to make a work seem active (Mittler and Ragans 1992, p.91)” Repeating elements creates patterns. Mittler and Ragans compare rhythm in a work of art to the “beat” in music.

Movement is expressed here by the hand and the spiralling smoke

Movement is expressed here by the hand and the spiralling smoke

8. Unity - There is a feeling that a work of art is complete when all the elements are working together to create the whole. This is a pleasing arrangement of the elements in a work of art to make them appear to belong together. Removing one element in a picture with excellent unity can only degrade it because all the elements should be united to create the whole.

It is worth mentioning that each artist becomes a master by developing his or her own methods of putting the elements of art together. This is referred to as technique. It may include how the paint is applied to the canvas (by brush, finger, and palette knife) or in the case of a sculpture, the tools and methods used to cut the stone or wood. An artist gains popularity for being consistent with his or her technique. Taking technique to perfection is a sign of Craftsmanship that can be emulated by others who must study under the direction of the Craftsman. Once an artist has established a technique, the next goal is to the take it to the level of craftsmanship. This would require persistence and dedicated practice.


Works of art are made due to the value that society attaches to them and it is well worth being conscious of the principles detailed above. High points of human achievements have tended to be associated with an abundance of art on a grand scale. Two good examples are the Renaissance in Europe and the culture that produced the bronzes of Benin in Africa.

The value of art can be grouped into five categories.

1. Material value

2. Intrinsic value

3. Religious value

4. Nationalistic Value

5. Psychological Value.

Art collectors have increased the value of art by internationalising it and thereby making the stealing of art objects a lucrative business today much as it was in the tomb raiding days of ancient Egypt.

Look at a work of art in a room right now. Which of the five values would you attach to it?


1.Mittler and Ragans, 1999, Exploring Art, McGraw Hill, New York.

2.Adams, L. S., 1999, Art Across Time, McGraw-Hill College, New York.

3.Home Library Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4, 1965, Parents Institute, a division of Parents Magazine enterprises, INC., New York.

4.Stewart, M., 2002, Launching the Imagination- Three dimensional Design,McGraw- Hill higher Education, New York.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Emmanuel Kariuki


GILBERT MWANGI from NAIROBI,KENYA on August 04, 2014:

Thanks alot Emmanuel.For your information I am from location 12-the area around Kangema town.

On another hand,Nyanjirus story has to be told-she is one of our unsung heroeines.I am trying to get in touch with one Fr Gitonga from Murang'a-am sure she has something about her story.When I am done with my researches I will let you know.

Thanks alot and all the best.

Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on August 04, 2014:

Good Questions GILBERT MWANGI,

1. From my research, the Kikuyu are a mixture of all the races in the world. Captives in Egypt were not grouped according to race but were kept together, some from the middle east, Asia and Africa. When the core of the Kikuyu people was released for whatever reason and chose to return home (micii mikuru), they were joined by willing migrants from other races (caucasian included). Remember Race is a recent invention that may not have bee relevant three thousand years ago. So going by present day classifications, the Kikuyu have a big proportion of Cushitic blood, having settled for a while in what is present day Ethiopia.

2. I think Mary Nyanjiru's story is still waiting to be told. The best place to start would the National archives - get colonial papers, books etc on the Nofolk hotel, the Central police station and the freedom struggle especially the Kikuyu Central Association.

4. I will have to guess that the waltz was picked up in squatter camps on settler plantations and with it the accordion.

5. The locations were given numbers by the colonial government for administrative reasons, I doubt there was a serious rational. I only know that my home area is location 17. Getting hold of Hobleys and Francis Hall's notes at the National archive might help to solve the riddle of the locations.

I hope that helped, and thanks for your compliments

GILBERT MWANGI from NAIROBI,KENYA on August 04, 2014:

Hi Emmanuel

Your works in the hub makes most interesting reading. They are balanced, unassuming and well-researched I am private researcher who is interested in our recent history with a view of recording it correctly for the posterity.Now,after reading your articles, I thought I had finally found the person to answer some nagging questions I have always had:

1.Amongst the Kikuyus,you find people who are naturally very light skinned and this is across the board. Sometimes it runs in some families. We also have some Kikuyus with curly hair-normally called ‘njuiri ya kimira’.Does these point to some Cushitic connections?

2.Mary Njanjiru-the protestor who was killed in 1922 when a group of Gikuyu women protested at Central Police Station to have Harry Thuku freed- was from Weithaga in Murang’a.Do you know the exact village where she hails from? Has anybody written a book about her? Where can I find her documented story?

3. Thirdly,at what point did the accordion become an intergral part of Kikuyu music? Who taught the Agikuyu the ‘waltz’(waci)that is evident in mwoboko dance?

4.Finally,the locations in Murang’a.Why were they given numbers instead of names? What was the rationale? Do you have a list of the corresponding names for each Loc?

Looking forward to hearing from you.Hope am not asking for too much

Kind regards

Gilbert Mwangi


Related Articles