marvin bartel '99
Drawing to Learn DRAWING © 2010
by Marvin Bartel now available

Some Ideas About 
Composition and Design
Elements, Principles,
and Visual Effects

Marvin Bartel

formal aspects of composition and design.

Everybody immediately responds to subject matter in art. 

A picture of a butterfly and a picture of a snake do not get the same response.

In addition to subject matter*, the formal aspects of visual composition are like the grammar of a language. In writing, a story is written with words - subject matter. Like good literature and good poetry is more than words and subject matter, art is more than pictures. The organization, the sentence structure, the style, and so on can make or break a good story. In art, the way the formal elements are arranged can make or break a good picture idea.

The use of design principles applied to the visual elements is like visual grammar. When children learn art, it is like learning to read and write the language of vision. When they develop a style of expressing visual ideas, it helps them become visual poets. Looking for the visual effects of design principles does not have to limit an artist's options. It can focus an artist's experimentation and choice making.

Art vocabulary can be taught along with every project. Children can understand terms if the teacher explains them and posts them with illustrations. Including new art words in the weekly spelling list is a good way to integrate and reinforce new terms.

*Glossary: "Subject matter" is similar to "topic" or "content" when teaching art. "Content" may also include interpretations that go beyond the obvious subject matter used by the artist. Content generally includes "symbolic" meanings implied by the work.                  top of page

Six Visual Elements (art elements)
                                           top of page
    We think of the elements as the basic visual material with which to make art. Is hard to imagine anything visual without the use of one or more of these elements. 
    We think of the principles as ways to work with and arrange the elements.

Some Design Principles
or design rules (some creative artists purposely break rules)     top of page
This list is an example list. 
Every author seems to have a slightly different list of Principles.
  • Emphasis - say "Center of Interest." It is about dominance and influence. Most artists put it a bit off center and balance it with some minor themes to maintain our interest. Some artists avoid emphasis on purpose. They want all parts of the work to be equally interesting. 
  • Harmony - As in music, complementary layers and/or effects can be joined to produce a more attractive whole. The composition is complex, but everything appears to fit with everything else. The whole is better than the sum of its parts.
  • Unity - When nothing distracts from the whole, you have unity. Unity without variation can be uninteresting - like driving on a clear day through Western Kansas on the interstate. Unity with diversity generally has more to offer in both art and in life.  Of course some very minimal art can be very calming and at times even very evocative. Even a simple landscape can have a powerful effect.
  • Opposition - uses contrasting visual concepts. That same Western Kansas "big sky" landscape becomes very dramatic and expressive when a storm builds in the southwest. Principles can grow out of any artistic device that is used to produce an effect on the viewer.

Children as young as two or three can differentiate differences between rough and smooth, hard and soft, various colors, dark and light, big and little, and other opposites. Sorting and identification activities help them learn to focus on learning tasks. If students do some hands-on practice they learn these ideas better than when they asked to observe something shown by a teacher.

Students can be based to do curved and straight, dark and light (low key - high key), open and closed (in the frame and extending beyond), positive and negative (subject and background), soft and hard, smooth and rough, parallel and branching, spiral and concentric, and so on. After each practice routine, students stop a moment and tell each other how the vocabulary words are being shown.

    Balance is the consideration of visual weight and importance. It is a way to compare the right and left side of a composition.                                top of page
marvin bartel
Asymmetrical balance is more interesting. Above both sides are similar in visual weight but not mirrored. It is more casual, dynamic, and relaxed feeling so it is often called informal balance.

Radial balance is not very common in artist's compositions, but it is like a daisy or sunflower with everything arranged around a center. Rose windows of cathedrals use this design system.

Of course a sunflower can have many meanings and feelings beyond its "radiant" feeling. Farmers might hate it as weed cutting into their corn production. On the other hand, many of us can't help thinking about Vincent Van Gogh's extraordinarily textured painted sunflowers. Once we have contemplated those thickly expressed colors and textures with their luscious painterly surface, every sunflower we see becomes an aesthetic experience filled with spiritual sensations.
The butterfly below by itself is essentially symmetrical.  Both sides are similar in visual weight and almost mirrored. Because symmetrical balance often looks more stiff and formal, sometimes it is called formal balance.
Of course a butterfly, even though it is symmetrical, doesn't look stiff and formal because we think of fluttering butterflies as metaphors for freedom and spontaneity. It is a case of subject matter and symbolism overpowering formal design effects.

This is a simple diagram of radial balance.

  • Variety - You create variety when elements are changed. Repeating a similar shape but changing the size can give variety and unity at the same time. Keeping the same size, but changing the color can also give variety and unity at the same time. In visual composition, there are many ways you can change something while simultaneously keeping it the same.
  • Depth - effects of depth, space, projection toward the viewer add interest. Linear perspective in the real world makes things look smaller in the distance. Some artists try to avoid depth by making large things duller and small things brighter, and so on, to make the objects contradict realism. Many artists don't believe in realism even though they could do it if they wanted to. It seems too boring to them. Realism wouldn't be art for some artists.
  • Repetition - Some ways to use Repetition of the Visual Elements are:
    • Size Variation can apply to shape, form, etc. Notice how size can effect how close or far something can appear to be from the viewer.          top of page
top of page - marvin bartel
Here the same butterfly is shown twice.  Which one appears closer? Note how size relationships create depth or space in a composition. Children in first grade can already recognize closer and farther based on size even though they wouldn't typically use this in their pictures unless they were motivated to do so.
    • Repetition can be used on all of the Visual Elements. If things are repeated without any change they can quickly get boring. However, repetition with variation can be both interesting and comfortably familiar. Repetition gives motion.
    • Variation can be used with all of the visual elements. See "Variety" above. You can do this with all the elements. Artists do this all the time.
Color saturation, sometimes called "color intensity" or brightness can also give a feeling of depth and space. Which of these butterflies are farther away? Most second graders can see this effect when they are asked to look for it. These butterflies create the illusion of depth even though they are all the same size.

marvin bartel 
By the third grade, most children can reproduce effects like this that they observe in nature if the teacher has them observe these effects in the landscape. A foggy morning is an excellent time for a lesson in "atmospheric perspective". Atmospheric perspective causes colors and shapes to get blurrier and foggier in the distance. 
Overlapping is often used by artists to create depth. Young children try to avoid overlapping in their work. 
TEACHING TIP   By first grade if asked, most can explain how overlapping makes some things look closer and other things farther away.

marvin bartel 

Visual Effects
When we analyze artwork we often start with visual effects. We notice something happening. Then we try to figure out why it happens.                                       top of page

  • Motion. Motion isn't a principle. It is one those magic effects when a still picture has motion. There are lots of ways to get motion. 

    Sometimes it has to do with orientation.

    • A diagonal line is more dynamic than a horizontal or vertical line.
    Sometimes motion depends on the character of the element itself.
    • A straight line may be less dynamic than a zigzag or a curving line.
    • A blended area may appear to flow.

    Depth. Depth is another magic effect. Illusion and magic are two threads of the same cloth.

    Sometimes the illusion of depth has to do with orientation.

    • If you want a chair or person to appear further away, you can place them higher on the picture plane.
    Sometimes the illusion of depth depends on the character of the element itself.
    • A warm color can appear to project and cool color can appear to recede, other things being equal.
    • A light tone (value) can appear to project and dark tone can appear to recede. top of page

Teaching Creative Thinking Habits with this page

Andy Goldsworthy, makes artwork based on Six Elements of Visual Art. To avoid blocking individual innovative and thinking, what if we show Goldsworthy's work and discuss it AFTER students have done their own creative work? Creative teachers study the work of great artists, inventors, scientists, and so on. These teachers "reverse engineer" the ideas, creative process, and basic questions the creative experts probably used.

Instead of showing preliminary examples from artists, I often start students with prescribed media practice (warm-ups), ways to experiment (discover what works), ways to generate their own original ideas. The sequence is described in How to Plan Studio Art Lessons to foster artistic thinking and creativity - starting studio lessons without showing examples and teaching art world connections at the end of the lesson. If students are stuck, I ask them open questions to jog their thinking, or ask them to try some experiments to see what works best. Many artists and inventors do many preliminary drawings. They have learned that when they start to draw they will see many new ideas suggested.

Bartel, M. "The art of motivation and critique in self-directed learning." This is Chapter 13, pp. 131- 142, in an anthology of choice-based art education contributions edited by Jaquith, Diane B. and Hathaway, Nan E. The Learner-Directed classroom. © 2012, Teacher College Press.

Hetland, Lois. Studio Thinking: the real benefits of visual arts education. 2007, Teachers College Press.

Jaquith, Diane B. and Hathaway, Nan E. The Learner-Directed classroom. 2012, Teacher College Press

Simpson, J.W. Creating Meaning Through Art . 1998, Prentice Hall, pp. 87-88, 113.

 If you liked this page, you may also like one of these.  

Aesthetics and Ethics in Everyday Life (these are two versions of a similar essay)

Percy Principles of Composition - - my personal list of principles - as an artist - - what are yours?
Common Classroom Creativity Killers - what we do everyday that discourages creativity

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Photos, layout, and text Marvin Bartel 1999, 2000 - author bio
Updated February 27, 2012.

Goshen College Art Department Goshen College

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