Basic Elements of Art & Design

What makes for a harmonious design? Why are some pieces of art more pleasing than others? How do you create great composition? These are some of the questions that I will address briefly in this post.


What every illustration or graphic should include:

1. Scale, Symmetry and Proportion - All things are relative to each other. That means that objects in themselves are subjected to comparison. When you draw an object, the subject matter can be contained within a geometric shape in order to establish both scale and symmetry. For example, a pot or a lamp can be placed in an imaginary ‘box’ in order to see if the left side equals the right side. If you draw a straight line down the middle and divide the pot, you should be able to see that there is equal and weighted balance between the two sides. In nature, symmetry defines ‘beauty’.
Scale: how big or small the object is
Symmetry: Does the left side or top side match the opposite side in terms of shape? (if indeed the shape calls for symmetry?)
Proportion: Are parts of your object smaller or larger than particular areas? By how much? twice as big? three times smaller? What is the ration?

2. Tonal Value - Tonal value describes the greyscale of the object that you are drawing. In each drawing, the greyscale spectrum goes from white to black in increments. Grey Scale illustrations are known as tonal value drawings.

3. Simultaneous Contrast - refers to the act of comparing and discerning tonal values between objects. The level of grey scale that you place on your first object provides the baseline that dictates how dark or light the other objects are in relation to it. ex. a white egg beside a medium valued apple should look different in value scale beside a dark vase. Value scales are divided into 10 segment strips indicating changes from light to dark and vice versa.

4. Hierarchy - Hierarchy refers to the strongest point of interest in your composition. In any given illustration, an odd number representing which object is highlighted and seen first establishes what is known as compositional dominance. In any given composition, each entity showcases the main subject matter first followed by secondary and tertiary objects.

5. Contrast - Contrast is used to highlight certain parts of the object or the actual object itself in a bid to accentuate important aspects of your composition. Contrast is the difference between opposite values: light versus dark, small versus big, cold versus warm.

6. Modulation - modulation refers to the way you create tonal value transitions throughout your painting or drawing. Subtle modulations are the key to establishing harmonious compositions.

7. Rhythm - This refers to the repetition of particular items such as stroke marks or particular objects in your illustration. Elements ‘repeat’ themselves moving either in the same direction or mirroring provide similar patterns singularly or within groupings. Rhythm accentuates movement in your composition and serves to move your eyes around the composition.

8. Composition - refers to the overall placement of the elements in the picture. Composition defines HOW and where you would like to place your images/subject matter. The entire drawing depicts pieces of subject matter than make up the entire composition. Composition can be formal balance (left side = right side) or informal balance (no mirror or symmetrical image)

9. Plasticity - refers to the way that you render or draw your elements. The question of ‘does it look like what you intended’ is at the crux of its definition. ex. Does your object really look like silk? or rocks or aged barnacles or a beloved woolen sweater? Did you render your drawings realistically?

10. Color - colour adapts itself to light. It’s main job is to highlight certain parts of your composition, to push back receding elements and to focus on dominant places of hierarchy. Color theory can be tricky but if you remember one basic tenet: that opposite colors are used to tone down, highlight or magnify certain elements, you’re more than half way there toward understanding how to mix and blend colors. ex. Opposite colors accent each other in its purest form or subdue each other when mixed.

(see color wheel)
-red vs green,
-orange vs. blue
-yellow vs purple

Colors can be either ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ depending on how your object looks and how you decide to apply them. ex. Shadows are both ‘cool’ and ‘warm’. Juxtaposing warm/cool colors creates a dynamic effect.

11. Modeling - Modeling is the MOST important element of drawing and refers to the artist’s ability to create form and shapes that actually curve, protrude… basically look like 3d forms. Modeling isn’t easy and is reliant on whether or not the artist can actually accurately discern greyscale shades rather than guess at values. Modeling requires a knowledge of prominent versus recessive planes. This describes in essence parts of the object that are moving toward you versus the other parts that are moving away from you.

12. Reflective Plane - refers to the area that picks up light as they move away in areas such as the recessive planes. As objects move away from prominence, they become less defined and able to pick up bounced light. Bounced light sources help to give the illusion of 3d.

13. Balance - refers to the overall composition and relationship between scale re: objects. Normally the dominant object must be equal the sub-dominant groups in shape and or color. For example, a large pot can be offset by 3 small cherries that equal when grouped together the relative shape of the pot.

14. Form - construction, layout, basic shape of the object.

15. Unity and Harmony - the result of creating congruent shapes, accentuating dominance, designing dynamic composition and pleasing color values.


I’d say that I’ve written everything I can remember within 20 minutes. I know that each element deserves more thought and examples so I will do this in a subsequent blog post.

It’s sunny out so… i’m going to let these artist fingers get a little vitamin D. I’d advise you to do the same!