Elements and Principles of Art

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For many of us, the choices made in color and other elements while creating artworks is instinctive and often produce harmonious results and through practice and study we can refine these choices a great deal. Usually its easier to tell whether a painting is working or not than to identify the exact reasons why it is not working. But luckily, we have a whole wealth of information that has been studied and collected by generations of artists. Success in creating any kind of visual arts requires  the basic understanding of the design elements and principles of art.


            The elements of art are the basic building blocks of an image:

1. Line:  A line is a continuous movement of a point along a given surface. Outlines or edges of shapes and forms are also called lines and can be dotted, dashed, zigzaged, irregular etc. They can have different thickness, length and direction. Lines can have qualities like of pent up energy of a tight spring shape, lazy lines, calligraphic lines, lacy lines. Adding color to these lines gives them other interesting qualities.

2. Shape: A shape is a two dimensional, enclosed area that is created by an obvious boundry like a line or one that is only implied by differences in color, texture or value.

3. Form: A form is a three dimensional object or something that is made to appear as three dimensional in a two dimensional artwork. Shapes and forms should be arranged so that they are well related to one another. Individual forms placed at equal distances will usually not work. Overlap some of them together a little. This will also give the impression of depth, as one form will be slightly behind another.

4. Space: Space is the area between, around, above or below the different elements. A positive space is the area occupied by the subject and a negative space is the area around it.

5. Color: Color has three componenets

1.Hue of the element, e.g red, yellow.

2. Intensity or Chroma: how bright or dull a hue is. E.g: cadmium yellow has a higher chroma than a raw sienna.

3. Value: how light or dark a hue is. E.g: blue mixed with white makes for a lighter value than the unmixed blue.

6. Texture: Texture is the feel of an object, smooth,fluffy,rusty… Texture can be actual or implied. Actual texture can be felt on the surface whereas implied texture appears as smooth or furry but cannot be felt.

The principles of art are the tools that are used to organise the elements:

1.  Unity: Unity is achieved when we get a sense that the work is united and whole and each element belongs in its place. It comes from the use of the other principles.

2. Emphasis: Emphasis refers to the centre of interest or focal point of the work. One focal point is easier to manage than two, if there are two, they are usually placed diagonally to each other and one is made more dominant than the other. Other elements are used in such a way as to guide the eye through out the painting and to the focal point. Unless it is a formal composition, the focal point is not placed at the dead centre of the work. Moving it off-centre makes it look much more interesting. Divide the entire area into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The intersecting points are good locations for the focal point.

3. Balance: Different elements have different visual weights and balance refers to the way they are arranged in a composition such that the work looks stable. Balance can be symmetrical, assymmetrical or radial. An architectural artwork usually has vertical symmetrical balance, meaning that the two opposite sides of a line drawn vertically along the centre of a building will be identical or near identical. Horizontal balance happens when the two sides of a line drawn horizontally along the centre of the work are identical or near identical. Radial balance happens when the elements are distributed about a centre point like in a wheel or flower for example.

Assymmetrical balance is harder to achieve but is more often used by artists because this looks more interesting and more energetic. Here, the two sides are not identical yet appear to have the same visual weight and therefore the artwork looks balanced. Different elements have different visual weights and these have to be judged and placed on both the sides so that it does not look like one side has more weight than the other and give a feeling that it might tip over. E.g: Darker values have more visual weight than lighter values, so a smaller darker value balances out a larger lighter value. Higher chroma colors have more visual weight than neutral or subdued colors. A heavier object like a piece of lead has more visual weight than a lighter object like a feather.

4. Proportion: Proportion refers to the relationship of the sizes of the different elements of the artwork. The different elements must be brought to scale with each other. For e.g the head should be in porportion to the rest of the body; another example is in a landscape: one can only feel the sense of vastness of the open skies when the objects in the foreground are proportionally smaller.

5. Movement:  Movement is the path that the eye travels as it moves through the artwork. Movement can be created through

1. Rythm: Rythm is created by the recurrence or repetition of similar elements throughout the painitng. The eye then follows these repetitions which can be varied a little to add interest. E.g: the same or slightly modified color can be echoed through out the painting to make the eye move through the entire painting and then reach the focal point. A similar form or shape can be repeated, alternate lights and darks can be used, abstract works sometimes donot have a focal point and repetition is used here to unify the painting.

2. Gradation: Gradation is the gradual change of any element, which creates movement. For e.g the receding posts in a fence is a great way to lead the eye through it towards the horizon. Gradation can also be in color, value or temperature. Usually solid blocks of color next to each other donot work unless you want to represent something forceful like violence. Gradual and subtle changes in color is always more graceful.

This is a painting by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (Composition with Yellow). The white squares have been painted in layers and they are not completely white. Some are a warm white, (creamish) and some a cool white, (bluish) and this makes for a very subtle gradation in color and the eye as it moves from one rectangle to another sees this jump in color which makes the whole area seem to pulsate. There forms a path between these pulsating whites and the four pure spots of colors. The red square, the focal point is placed roughly according to the rule of thirds and the yellow one diagonally opposite to it. The little bit subdued blue and the small red rectangle donot attract attention away from the focal points but add interest. The distances between the black lines from left to right first keep decreasing, keep same for the next two coloumns then increase, this also forms a rythmic movement. This forms a simple, yet effective and harmonious composition.

Piet Mondrian

3. Action: Movement can also be created by action, that is from an outstretched hand, the direction of a gaze, a falling ball, a flying bird etc such actions can be used to lead the eye effectively and so should not be arranged haphazardly.

In this painting, Woman with a parasol by Claude Monet, the blue skies and directional lines of the twisting skirts and blowing veil very effectively convey to us the movement of the wind on a warm, summer day. These lines lead the eye upward along the line of the parasol to the green of the parasol which again has lines leading radially downwards, connecting the eye to the green of the grassy path. The shadow on the path connects the figure with the path, the boy gives added depth to the scene as he is placed behind the grass and so on another plane, the upper portion of the parasol and the white dress reflect the blue skies. The boy, woman and the parasol form a triangular composition and their gazes connect with the viewer inviting us into the warm and windy scene.

Claude Monet, Woman with a parasol

6. Contrast:  Contrast occurs when two different elements are placed next to each other. The greater the difference the greater the contrast. The eye is naturally attracted to the region of highest contrast. Contrast adds variety and interest to the composition. Too many similar components will make the work monotonous but on the other hand, too much contrast will make the work confusing and jarring to the eye. So a balance must be achieved between similarity and contrast. Different textures like soft feathers and hard stones create contrast. Round and sharp objects create contrast.

— Hue contrast is achieved by placing different, pure hues next to each other.

—A light dark contrast of values (Value Contrast) is a very effective way to create a dramatic scene which demands immediate attention from the viewer. In this painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) (French artist who led the Impressionism movement ), La Loge (The Theatre Box), we can see the extreme contrast between white and black on the stripes and also on the man`s costume. The light-dark stripes on the skirts and the arms move upwards and converge towards the woman`s face.  Despite this strong contrast it is amazing how  Renoir has brought about a delicate look to the woman. He has done this through the beautifully and subtly toned whites, which have dusky pinks, mauves, blues and dull golds, this treatement of whites in itself is stunning. Also, he has brought out the delicate look through the transparent frilly cuffs, the light peach roses at her bosom, the light pink roses in her hair, the red-orange of her lips, the shimmering pearls at her throat and ears, his treatment of the skin, and mainly through the innocent look in her eyes and on her face. There is also contrast at the cuffs of the man`s sleeve but it is not as strong as the contrast between the pearls and two black stripes at the woman`s neck and bosom. The man is kept almost entirely in a cool, bluish shadow except for the the area of warm white at the bottom of the shirt which actually points upwards towards the woman`s face and so the figure of the man does not interfere with the foreground woman`s figure. The gaze of the man is upwards and out of the picture plane but this also does not pull the viewer`s eye out of the picture because it is blocked by the opera glasses .

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La loge (The Theater Box)

—Temperature contrast is the contrast created between warm and cool colors.  JMW Turner, who was called the painter of light, first painted in these techniques of intensity and value contrast. This painting shows how he has effectively placed the warm , yellow, orange, red colors of the sunset and the smoke blowing out of the funnel of the tugboat against the cool, blue  of the skies to pull the eye towards the focal points and around the painting (through the directional lines of the clouds)

                  — Intensity contrast is a very interesting technique, it is formed by the contrast between pure, strident colors against subdued colors so that the pure color looks even more brilliant due to the surrounding large area of subdued color. Claude Monet, influenced by JMW Turner`s painting tehcniques founded the French Impressionist painting, the philosophy of which is to paint the ever subtle variations in the atmospheric and light conditions in nature as applied to plein-air landscape painting. In intensity contrast, the important thing is that the values remain more or less in the mid tone range, only the intensity of the colors changes from pure and bright to subdued and greyed down. Introducing large areas of darks will ruin the delicacy of the work. In this painting, Impression, Sunrise (This name was first coined by an art critic to describe away the work in a derisive way, as it gave only an impression of a sunrise and looked to be unfinished, but that name became popular with the public and later the Impressionists themselves adopted it) The broken, orange lines against a subdued purple gives a shimmering effect of light forming a path on the waters leading the eye towards the brilliant sun which is red-orange against the dusky purple of the sky which also has downward strokes of a pale orange.

Claude Monet, soleil levant, 1872 

8. Harmony: Harmony results from the proper relationship between similar elements in a composition.

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Painting the Tanager


                                                                  Brazilian Tanager

               For the bird, the first layer that I`ve put in, wet in wet, is a very light mix of  Daniel Smith hansa yellow medium and Schminke translucent orange, favouring the yellow, leaving the white of the paper for two regions 1. where the throat overlaps the mantle 2. where the wing converts overlap the breast area. These two regions have light- valued feathers which I`ve saved in all the successive layers. Also, save the white for the eye, beak and feet.

base layer

                          The next layer has a mix of hansa yellow medium and ruby red, the colors I`ve used for the leaves and flower. Using translucent orange alone here in this area will set it apart from the rest of the painting, as though it does not belong to this painting, always spread your colors throughout the painting.

second layers

                 The upper part of the bird is brighter, more of the mix in the previous layer here, favouring the red. The lower portion is in shadow, I`ve used a mix of ruby red and cobalt blue to make a violet, to tone down the yellow-orange mix.

third layers

                   In this layer, I`ve used the same shadow mix as above, to further define the bird, favouring the yellow for the lower portion and the red for the upper portion. I`ve used a violet mix for the wing area, large areas of pure black can sometimes look like holes in the painting. This violet mix contains ruby red, cobalt blue tone and also cerulean blue tone because you need a darker value here which cobalt blue alone cannot make since it has a low tinting strength. Cerluean blue tone has a medium tinting strength (phthalo blue, on the other hand is quite strong) The lesser wing converts have some orange as well. Wash in a little bit of orange in the eye, then drop in a dark violet. Don`t flood in the highlight, the eye will look dead without it.

fourth layers


                 For the final step, paint in feathers with light strokes. You can do this on a slightly damp wash, or lightly wash them away after painting them, so that they don`t look too harsh. The feathers have the same colors as the body, translucent orange and the shadow mixes. Paint in just enough to capture its essence, too much will look laboured… although the effortless look really comes with practice and not through any technique. You can observe this yourself  if you`ve painted the same subject a couple of times. The outlines in all layers have been softened with a damp brush near the head and  chest area, to get that fluffy look. This can be more refined while putting in the background. The feet and beak have the same violet mix. You can grey it down a bit by adding some yellow for the feet. Leave a highlight for each of the claws. Dry brush a little on the feet and beak.

Brazilian Tanager

Painting the Foreground Leaf videos


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Foreground leaf..


              I`ve painted the leaf with the following colours: Daniel Smith Hansa yellow medium and Schminke`s Ruby red, cobalt blue tone and cerulean blue tone. Hansa yellow medium is a cool yellow, the veins in this leaf appear cool although not as cool as Hansa yellow medium but its always easier to make an yellow warmer than to make it cooler. I`ve chosen Cobalt blue tone mainly because a warm blue is needed to make a good violet (for the flower) but it also makes for nice, subdued highlights on the leaf. It has a fine, powdery texture which works well here because this is not exactly a smooth leaf. I work mostly wet in wet except for the final layers. I usually put a lot of water and wait for it to sink into the paper, then start working so that the paper stays damp for a longer time. Thoroughly dry between layers, otherwise the colors from the previous layers will mix into the ones you are applying now, creating mud.

Leaf in watercolor


                        The first layer is the yellow, leaving the white of the paper for the highlight areas. 

base washes

                  A very light blue-grey mix (tending toward blue) of cobalt blue tone-ruby red-hansa yellow medium on the highlight areas.

base washes

                      A yellow-green mix (tendin towards yellow) of hansa yellow medium-cerulean blue tone:

 base washes


                    With the blue-grey mix, I started to just roughly block in the vein structure. In the beginning, when you are learning, it is actually good if you copy the structure as you see it,this exercise is helpful for learning to distinguish subtle changes in color and value. Success in building forms rests almost entirely on this. Later, ofcourse you can improvise on your own. 

establishing the vein structure..

establishing the vein structure..


                          Here, I`ve strengthened the yellow-green mix whereever necessary, the bluish areas are lighter in comparison:

 strengthening the colors..


                 The finer veins are worked in with a darker value on a damp wash:

strengthening the colors..


                  In the previous layers, I had wet the leaf area leaving the veins dry, here except for the central vein, I wet the entire area, so that the veins don`t look that prominent:

final details..

final details..


Form shadows, cast shadows, Highlights

                   Sometimes I had divided the leaf up in segments to paint smaller areas, but mostly I worked on the leaf as a whole. Its easier for me to see the shadows this way. The upper part of the leaf is in cast shadow (marked CS on the photo), thrown by the leaves above it. The lower part is brighter and more yellow. The right part has an important form shadow (FS) on it, this shows how the leaf is turning in on itself, just below that is a highlight. Also on the upper right of the leaf is a highlight , caused by the reflected light from the white flower above. 

Passion flower painting demo – Sketching it in


                    I`m very excited at the thought of painting something in watercolors again, I miss the flowing washes and its slightly unpredictable results.If you want to follow along with this demo, here are my references of the blue passion flower (Passiflora Caerulea) and the Brazilian Tanger. These two combined  makes for quite an attractive and interesting effect with the secondary triad of violet, orange and green. If you want a different mood, a violet or blue or green bird would give a more serene look. Unless you are aiming for a fantasy landscape, it would be nice if you choose flowers and birds/butterflies/bees etc that belong to the same habitat and those that would be naturally be attracted to each other.

Passiflora Caerulea

Brazilian Tanager


                      The first step in drawing is always blocking in the general shape and size of the form that you are drawing. Here since there is more than one element, the way in which one is placed in relation to another has also to be observed. The round flower is an ellipse shape seen in this perspective. Lightly place all the elements that you want in your composition with a HB pencil. You can slightly enlarge or change leaves or other elements so that they fit right in the size of the paper that you have chosen. Place has also to be made for the bird, which must be brought to scale with the flower. In real life, the blue passion flower is about 10 cm and the Brazilian Tanager about 18 cm (including tail) Don`t  make them way too larger than life-size, about life-size or smaller than that is alwys better.

step 1


                       Start to draw the petals and the shapes of the leaves roughly, leave the details out for now, just see that everything is sitting together perfectly, that you have got the directions in which they face properly. I made the stems that are too straight a bit curved.


                    This step takes the most time but is also the easiest and most rewarding because you can`t make any major mistakes now. Take an 8B pencil and start to put in all the details to your heart`s content. You have the HB pencil lines from the previous step as guidelines but you can distinguish the marks that you are making now since they are much darker. If you are having reproducing the exact curves, run the pencil along the curve in the photo and then draw it on the paper, the hand will follow the same movement. Don`t forget the tendrils, they are the prettiest of all things on a creeper. The flower has what at first glance appear as 10 petals, but they are actually 5 petals and 5 sepals, surmounted by a carona of blue or violet filaments, 5 greenish yellow stamens and 3 stigmas.  I`ve left out the background leaves and details for now, so that it doesn`t look too confusing. They can be put in directly on the watercolor paper after some colors have been layed in. So now , this is ready to be transferred. Rub the back of the paper with a charcoal stick, wipe off most of it with a facial tissue, place on watercolor paper and pencil in all the lines once again. Wet the watercolor paper which has the tranferred drawing now and stretch it on gator board.Wetting it seals the pencil lines on the paper so theydon`t get wiped off but make sure they are very light. If the details disappear after a few layers of color, draw them in again. (You can find more information on how to stretch watercolor paper in the Beginner`s Cove section)            

final step 

Faces -8



                To establish the base skin tone, I first put in layers of ivory, light flesh and a bit of cream.  


                         The next values are in cinnamon, light and medium flesh in areas all over the face leaving the first layers to show through for highlights. The shadows to the left are in bistre, the hair is a dark blond color, so I put the base tone for the eyebrows in brown ochre. Drew in invidual hairs with bistre, van dyck brown and graphite. The cheeks are in dark flesh. The eyes are grey-blue, so I put in warm grey 3 and the black pupil in graphite.    


Darker shadows in van-dyck brown. The lips have various hues- dark flesh, pink carmine, bit of fuchsia,deep scarlet red. Shadow areas of the lips have magenta, red violet, Indian red. The butterfly has the same colors as the lips. 


                    For the highlight areas in the hair, I put in cream and over that brown ochre lightly. For the mid tones brown ochre alone, for shadow areas brown ochre and van-dyck brown and for deep shadow areas, brown ochre, van-dyck brown and a bit of graphite. The jaw area has warm grey 3 and 5.  


                  Artists quality drawing paper takes erasing well, takes multiple layers of colors and is also archival since its acid-free. Many colored pencil artists use a cotton swab to rub alcohol into the drawn area after each layer, so that the finish is so smooth it looks more like a painting than a drawing.

Wilhelma Botanical Gardens



                    I had recently been to the Wilhelma Botanical gardens in Stuttgart. This is really paradise for a nature lover. They have green houses where humidity, temperature conditions etc are controlled so as to stimulate the ecosystems of the tropical and sub tropical regions, Amazon rainforests, Desert and others, so you can see birds and plants from all over the world.  What I really wanted to do was camp out there and see and read about them and sketch them to my hearts content but what I managed to do was take close to a 1000 snaps; which I think is a huge success considering the fact that I had a dissatisfied child tugging and pulling at me every inch of the way, because he was way more interested in the fahrzeuge in the construction site outside than in the exotic flowers inside the glass houses! (I didn`t think a day would come when I would know the kinds and names of different types of automobiles but I do now, he makes sure that I do!) Anyway, if  the gardens are so fascinating now in winter, I can`t imagine how they would be with the roses in the rose gardens and the waterlilies in the ponds blooming and with the butterfly house open in the summer.   

               Taking reference photographs is a bit different from good photography. You don`t necessarily need a good composition since you are going to use photos in different ways to make one layout in your painting. You need to get close up shots for the details, long shots so as to remind you of the general form of the plant or drape or the way it creeps. If you want to use them as is, then go around the plant to get an effective composition but don`t turn or twist the flowers towards you to get a good shot. The curves just wont look natural then. Take them at eye level, crouch for the ones near the ground or stand on a raised platform for a higher shot but don`t shoot from above or below. Early morning or evening light, called the sweet light is the best for taking photos; shadows are long and rich with reflected light. At mid-day, the contrast betwen light and dark is too stark with very few mid tones; shadows are short; no reflected light. But it is not always possible to get the right conditions, I just grab the oppurtunity to take them when ever I can. You can always change the lighting, color, anything you want in your painting, the photos just serve as quick pictorial notes. Sometimes the light can be so beautiful it is difficult to capture anyway with your camera, then its best to jot down a few color reminders.           

                 Below are some flower photos for you. I place them in the public domain as I have taken them and you are free to use them for whatever purpose that you choose. Click to download high-resolution versions:


Bromeliaceae are native mainly to tropical Americas with a few species in the American subtropics and one in tropical west Africa
Amazon Lily

Amazon lily belongs to the Family of Amaryllidaceae and the Genus and species is Eucharis Grandiflora. It is native to Central and South America and has quite a strong, sweet fragrance

Amazon Lily
Lady`s Slipper

Lady`s Slipper is from the family of Orchids. The pouch traps insects so they are forced to climb up past the staminode, behind which they collect or deposit pollinia, thus fertilising the flower

Lady`s Slipper Orchid

Coral berry, spice berry

Ardisia Crenata is a flowering plant ; native to East Asia

Ardisia Crenata

Passion Flower

Passion flowers have a unique flower structure, which require large bumble bees, carpenter bees, humming birds, wasps or bats to effectively pollinate them. The passiflora species are important sources of nectar for many insects

Passion Flower

Passion Flower