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The 8 principles of a work of art? In the same way that a writer combines letters to form words and from there the sentences and paragraphs of his story, so an artist puts elements together to create an image. To be precise, 7 elements that can compose a work of art and which I told you about a few weeks ago in another post. And if the elements of a work can be considered as the letters, i.e. the building blocks that form the work, then the principles of art are the rules and techniques that the artists use to put them together. And over time the rules and techniques that art historians and critics have used to analyze the great masterpieces. 

I’m Clelia and today I’m telling you about the 8 principles of a work of art.

The 7 elements of a work of art

Let’s take a step back and summarize very quickly what are the 7 fundamental elements of a work of art, the famous bricks. Color, color value, line, structure, shape, space and texture. All these elements together or sometimes just some of them make up a work of art. Today, however, we discover how they relate to each other. 

In fact, while the complete work of art is seen by all of us as a single object, some of the most established theories of psychology of art and aesthetics tell us that according to them the whole is the result of the sum of the various elements that compose it and of how they interact. That said, their way of interacting, so these principles I’m talking about are taught in many Academies around the world, especially in the Anglo-Saxon one, but they are not always followed, respected or appreciated by all artists. 

In fact, like all principles, they can be upset, ignored or revolutionized at one’s pleasure but it is right to know them to know why sometimes a work particularly attracts us or distantly reminds us of another work. 

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – MOVEMENT

The first of the principles of art is the Movement. Even though most of the works may indeed appear to us as static objects, it is still possible for the visual artist to give the illusion of movement in space. 

The most intuitive way is to use lines, often wavy and therefore sinuous to create the illusion and make our eye perceive movement where there is none. 

Another trick is to use characters who are physically stationary in painting or sculpture within the work, but who in reality, as they are suspended or in the middle of an action, seem to us to be in motion. This is because our eye and mind complete the action itself unconsciously. 

Another type of movement is created by some artists by always unconsciously inviting our gaze to move from one area of ​​the work to another. This can be caused by the wind, for example, by the fake movement of water on a lake or, for example, by the position of a mountain that our western eye will read from left to right following the geometric shape. 

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – UNITY

The next principle behind the creation of the work is that ofUnity. By unity we mean the balance of the elements within the work, which make us perceive it as a single object, instead of making us focus on some points in particular which risk being disconnected. This is a typical example of a principle that some artists deliberately ignore in order to create a sense of rupture. However, the principle is that for which the elements of the time do not compete with each other to attract our attention but complement each other. A perfect example of this can be many still lifes, which are studied precisely to give us a feeling of unity of the image and to let our eye rest in front of the work, where, despite the various elements, the unity does not create contrasts. 

Many painters or photographers achieve this unity in their work by choosing colors that have the same value or tone or by choosing shapes that are not in contrast with each other. 

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – HARMONY

Similar to unity, the next principle isHarmony. It is a difficult term to define, but in general it refers to the consistency of the elements present in a work. So while the unity was related to even different elements that are however together as if it were a whole. Harmony can be defined as the consistent use of the elements throughout. So its opposite will be the contrast between these elements: disharmony. For example, the consistent curved lines in Van Gogh’s Starry Night give the whole painting a nice sense of harmony. If, on the other hand, somewhat horizontal, somewhat vertical, somewhat zig-zag lines were used, there would have been disharmony. I hope the difference with unit is clear, which instead we said serves to define how all objects relate to give us the feeling of a whole. 

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – VARIETY

is another principle that every great artist has applied and which could seem to be opposed to harmony and unity, which is that of Variety. Let’s start from the assumption that not all these rules must coexist, but even if they were, it is possible to make unity of the elements, harmony between them and variety coexist. Using different combinations of colors, shapes and tones and so on adds variety to a work of art. And it can make the artwork more interesting. In traditional pictorial art, the artist is often careful not to incorporate too much variety so as not to give a sense of jumble and chaos. on the contrary, some contemporary artists seek variety to give this idea of ​​confusion of elements.

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – EQUILIBRIUM

Next up isEquilibrium and generally refers to the idea that an artist finds himself dividing a work of art into various areas. These areas must be harmonious and therefore in balance with each other. This balance can usually be present in the works in three different ways. Symmetrical, asymmetrical and radial balance.


balance Symmetrical balance occurs when the various elements of a work are uniformly distributed on both sides, therefore top and bottom or right and left of the canvas if we consider the central point of the same. The most famous example of symmetrical balance is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. in fact we have Jesus Christ in the center with his twelve disciples distributed evenly both to the left and to the right. 

Asymmetrical Balance Asymmetrical

balance might seem like a contradiction in terms. But a masterpiece of art can be both asymmetrical and balanced if the different areas of the piece are not identical, but still contain areas of the same visual weight. The most consistent examples of a concept like this are the works of Kandinsky, who paid great attention to balancing shapes, colors and their tones on the work to maintain an asymmetrical balance. 

Radial Balance Radial

balance finally occurs in a work when various objects in a work branch out in an almost circular shape from a central point. Another perfect example of this and simple to understand above all comes again from abstract art but in this case from the Orphic Cubist works of Delaunay.

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – CONTRAST

Going back for a moment to the concept of variety, a similar principle that often arises from the use of variety is that of Contrast. By placing very different objects, colors or other elements close to each other, an artist can create a piece that is balanced, harmonious and visually interesting through contrast. This can arise thanks to the color. For example by mixing dark colors together with light colors. A striking example are some surrealist works by Magritte, which conceptually play on the contrast of the message as well. Or contrasting shapes can be used, such as hard-edged squares adjacent to circles as in some of Kandinsky’s works. Or again there can be a contrast in texture, as in Picasso’s first collage of 1912 where there was the use of a material that made a work that otherwise would have been two-dimensional three-dimensional. and all this through texture contrast. 

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – PROPORTION

In art we speak of the principle of Proportion. From my point of view it is among the principles the one most linked to the pictorial tradition of modern art. So in a sense the oldest principle of all. By proportion we mean the specific size of each element and how this relates to the size of the other elements of the work. An example of lack of proportion but still a great masterpiece could be the Dead Christ by Mantegna. But there are actually a thousand other examples of lack of proportion in great masterpieces of art. For example, Picasso has always completely ignored traditional proportions to create an image different from what the viewer would normally expect to see.

The 8 PRINCIPLES of a work of art – RHYTHM and PATTERN

Finally, there is my favorite concept which is actually divided into two types: rhythm and pattern. What are we talking about? Even if these are two principles that are presented separately in some texts, in reality, in my opinion, they are two sides of the same coin. In fact, we are talking about the arrangement of the elements of the work in space. The pattern indicates above all in the works that use geometric shapes or repeated elements the repetition of the same shapes. The rhythm might seem very similar but in reality it consists of placing the elements of the work to give movement but not necessarily always following the same pattern. 

The way in which an artist places the elements in a work, be it painting, sculpture or even performance if the object is one’s body for example dictates a pattern or a rhythm or sometimes a rhythm given by the pattern. I hope it’s clear even if it’s not easy to explain! 


These are 8 famous principles underlying the construction of a work of art which, as I said before, can be considered rules, more or less respected by artists. Or on the contrary, sometimes simply completely shocked by some artists creating great masterpieces that have upset the tradition of their period and have now entered history for us. 

And if you liked this post take a look at my channel too YouTube. Also, I suggest you check out my post about 7 elements of a work of art or alla series on the great masterpieces of art history.

Thanks and see you next time!

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