All those things you learned once upon a time
and may have forgotten...

Just about every artist  knows that art has rules.  Those who have been around for a while also know that
sometimes breaking those rules results in a spectacular painting or drawing.  Here are some of the basics, drawn
from many sources.


LINES:  Lines are alive;  they twist, turn and flow; they point, they connect,
they lead the eye in various directions within the picture area.  Misuse of
lines can cause confusion to the viewer.

SHAPES:  Shapes can be large or small, simple or complex.  
They are the fundamental visual building blocks.    

TONES:  Light and dark tones define shapes and attract the eye with
contrasts and create the mood of the piece.  Generally dark tones
convey moodiness, or sadness, while lighter tones convey levity or

COLORS:  Colors define shapes too, but have a vivid life of their own,
and generate emotional responses, from excitement to relaxation.  
Two opposite intense colors can produce anxiety -- use this tool as
an attention getting device.

TEXTURES:  Textures visually create a tactile sense of “feel” in
surfaces shown within a photograph or painting.  


RHYTHM:  Rhythm is the pattern of repetition of visual forms
or elements within the frame of the picture.  Be it lines or shapes,
the eye picks up the rhythm as the ear would pick up a musical beat.

VARIETY:  Variety of size, color and placement of visual elements
can make a composition more stimulating and interesting.  It removes
the possibility of boredom.

EMPHASIS:  Size, directional lines, position, and contrast of tone
or color can make certain elements stand out boldly.  Conversely,
the opposite is also true.

BALANCE / IMBALANCE:  Evenly weighted elements create a static
formal effect.  Imbalance, on the other hand, suggests a dynamic
informality.   Even in imbalance there can be symmetry.

UNITY / FRAGMENTATION:  Compositions may be serenely closed,
dramatically falling apart, or anything in between.  

PLACEMENT IN SPACE:  Arrangements of objects within the frame
create a feeling of flatness or the illusion of depth.  


ONE CENTER OF INTEREST:  Every picture requires one --
and only one -- center of interest.  OR - really mystify the mind of the
viewer with multiple meanings.

LINES OF DIRECTION:  Always lead the viewer’s eye into the picture,
never out of it.  On the other hand, you can challenge the viewer with
the imagination.  

RULE OF THIRDS:  Place horizon line in the top one third or bottom
one third of the picture area, not across the middle.  This rule is a pretty
good one, and should be followed.  Likewise, the “weight” of the
composition should be in the vertical one or two thirds (left or right)
of the piece.

PLACEMENT:          Always place the principal subject of interest away
from the exact center of the picture area.  
“S” CURVE:  The graceful “S” curve is one of the most beautiful of all
compositional devices available to the artist.  It can be adapted to a
multitude of uses.

"S" Curve:  The graceful "S" curve is one of the most beautiful of all
compositional devices available to the artist.  It can be adapted to a
multitude of uses.


PATTERN:  Establish a pattern, however vague.

BALANCE:  Balance doesn’t require a center oriented fulcrum.  Weight is determined not only by size, but by
color.  Lighter colors “weigh” less, darker colors “weigh” more.

CONTRAST:  Lighter colors bring not only contrast, but bring the object to the foreground of the composition.

EMPHASIS:  Size, color and placement all contribute to the amount of emphasis given to an object.

LINE:  Lines lead the eye.  Make sure they draw the viewer to something interesting.

SHAPE:  Shapes may vary, but should have a certain amount of uniformity in the composition.

COLOR:  Consider all colors in the composition for the best effect.

TEXTURE:  Add interest with texture.

VALUE:  Value requires intensity or lack thereof.

FORM:  Classic or modern, it should be consistent.

UNITY:  Tie objects together in some way.

RHYTHM:  Makes the eye “dance”.  You an sense the ebb and flow.

MOVEMENT:  Makes the art come alive; effective use of light and shadows is a must.

Our ordinary observations are based on noting the differences between things.  The right brain prefers seeing
likenesses metaphorically.  We draw on our memory bank of stored perceptions for seeing.  We perceive
individuals as a programmed average.  Composition is the vocabulary of vision.    Whatever rules there may be
are a challenge to be broken.


Ask yourself:  What emotion is the color in the image producing?  People subconsciously respond to colors in the
same way;  warm and cool, hard and soft, conflict and harmony, vivid and pastel.  As to hard and soft, it is a
human reaction to those colors that we need to know. Hard color tones will convey a harsh, edgy feeling.  Soft
colors will evoke a soft reaction.  Soft is friendlier.  Light changes the tonality of color.  Hard light, hard colors.  
Soft light, soft colors.

Conflicting colors are usually complimentary colors, colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel:  
yellow and blue, red and cyan, magenta and green.  Warm and cool colors can also provide conflict.  Harmonious
colors are next to each other on the color wheel:  red and yellow, blue and magenta, green and cyan.  Consider
the viewer’s response to colors during your composition process.   

Vivid colors and combinations are going to make a stronger impact on the audience.  Pastels will create a
subconscious reaction and will be softer.  They will not leap out and assault us like vivid colors.  Consider what
the location of the art may be when choosing your color palette.  Though a painting no longer has to “match the
sofa”, many people buy art based on the colors of the surroundings where the art will be placed.

Most of us have heard of “writers’ block”.  There is also a phenomenon called “artists’ block”, when you sit, brush
in hand, and nothing comes.  What may be in the mind does not seem to get down to the hands.  Sometimes our
preconceptions blind what we are trying to do.

Most of what we call seeing is done with the mind, not the eyes.  We see a collage of images and accommodate
many things not optically possible.  How we expect things to look is often more important than how things actually
look.  We tend to think we  “know” an object as soon as we name it.  In reality, when we name it, we usually feel
free to dismiss it.  It has been said that “Language separates people from reality”.  Our ordinary observations are
based on noting the differences between things.  We draw on our memory bank of stored perceptions for seeing.  

We perceive an programmed average, therefore we may “see” a pre-conceived image, not what is actually there.  
Thus enters into the world of Basics:  the “Intangibles”.  Some compositions defy explanation and break all the
rules, yet produce a very pleasing, highly desirable, and often exciting presentation of art.  What’s "right" may not
always be right, and what’s “wrong” may not be wrong after all.  The brave and the bold learn this, and probably
have more fun along the way too.

By Lois M. Tryon from numerous art reference sources; revised and updated from essay written in 1994.