Back to Basics II: Principles of design with painting

Kaitlyn Ellison

As a designer, you utilize artistic elements and principles to help create beautiful and effective designs. This series will make you more aware of what those design principles are and how you can employ them to make your designs even better!

This is part II of a three-part series:

Painting and the principles of design

Painting is one of the most original forms of artistic expression. Going way back to the prehistoric times with the Lascaux Caves (some of the first recorded human paintings), painting is practiced in all cultures all over the world and has been for hundreds of years. To keep it simple, we’ll show off 19th and 20th century expressions to show how you can put the elements and principles of design to work.

The principles of design are:

  • Balance
  • Proportion and scale
  • Contrast
  • Repetition and pattern
  • Unity and harmony


Balance is one of the most intuative and complicated design principle. It’s the way the artist creates a sense of equilibrium in a design, by how the objects in the design are arranged. There are three major types of balance:

  • Symmetrical/Formal Balance is when elements are positioned in such a way that two halves of the design (whether vertical or horizontal) are mirrors of each other – both sides have the same weight. Its created around a central line that bisects the design into two different halves.
  • Asymmetrical/Informal Balance is when elements are positioned so that there is an uneven distribution of weight
  • Radial Balance is when elements are positioned evenly around a central point
  • (Top Left) Rousseau’s work demonstrates a symmetrical balance. The tree splits the painting into two distinct halves and then utilizes the flags both in the air and in the hands of the dancers to create horizontal symmetry.
  • (Bottom Left) Cézanne’s still life demonstrates asymmetrical balance. The use of a bright white towel in the bottom right corner completely dominates the work but is still balanced out by the parallel emptiness of the deep black background.
  • (right) Radial symmetry, or symmetry radiating out from a specific point, takes form in the positioning of the street and streetcars in Kirchner’s work. Almost all of the imagery seems drawn into one central focal point – the intersection of the street.

Proportion and Scale

The juxtaposition of elements of different sizes, or proportions, within a work of art helps create a sense of scale. Scale can be used for multiple effects – whether to demonstrate a sense of space and depth or to help create a dominant focal point.

“Mexico City – Palacio National” by Diego Rivera

This mural painted by Rivera clearly demonstrates a sense of space and depth by changing the scale of objects. The figures in the foreground are larger while the buildings and mountains in the background are smaller. This creates an illusion that the people are up high and close to the viewer, while the rest of the landscape is far off in the distance.


A huge part of creating depth in an image, and interest in a piece, is by using multiple contrasting elements – or different elements set side by side. This is often done with color, form, size or texture.

“Fruit Pickers Harvesting Under the Mango Tree,” by Fernando Amorsolo in 1939

Color is the primary tool that Amorsolo uses to create contrast and depth in his piece. He uses light as a subject – the way the figures are all shaded in darker tones with the exception of a bright central pair and a young fruit picker, highlighted by light tones.

Repetition and pattern

The use of the same or a similar element repeated again and again can give a work a sense of movement or structure. Where an element is similar enough and repeated often enough, it can create a pattern.

“Black and Violet” by Vasily Kandisnky in 1923

Kandinsky makes use of both repetition and pattern. His use of repeated geometric shapes like triangles, circles, squares and even simple lines forces the user’s eye to continuously move around the painting. He also creates periodic examples of pattern such as the lined boxes in the upper right corner – this helps to add depth to the painting.

Unity and harmony

The combination of similar elements creates an aesthetically pleasing overall effect. While lots of design elements are different, a dominant unity created by similarities in color, pattern, texture or other elements makes the painting or design feel harmonious.

“Three Girls” by Amrita Sher-Gil in 1935

Sher-Gil creates harmony “Three Girls” by using tone and texture. The dark tone used to depict the three women, as well as the rough texture of their clothing, unifies them with each other and to the roughness of the wall behind them. The overall effect is subtle – enhancing the sombre feeling of the women with downcast eyes.

Translating to graphic design

Designer Bearbrick implements all of these principles in his web design for Bright Austin Interiors.


Bearbrick uses proportion and scale to create asymmetrical balance. Elements of different size and shape are positioned on a page not to mirror each other but to balance one another out. He creates contrast in the juxtaposition of brightly colored elements against a white background.

Repetition is used in the positioning of the circles. This forces the viewer’s eye to move between elements in order to impart the information the client wants the viewer to see. At the same time, pattern is used as a subtle detail in this circle designs (in the flower pattern of the “about us” button as well as the repeated lines circling other round elements) in order to create interest – so that the design can be simple without being boring.

And while the different elements of the page find the user’s eye at different times, the feminine style of the elements and the use of color make the site appear altogether harmonious. The design has movement, depth, interest and brings the user’s eyes to the most important information on the page – it’s a great example of a successful design.

Which principles of design will you focus on next?

The author

Kaitlyn Ellison
Kaitlyn Ellison

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

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