An Overview of the Principles and Elements of Design

by Lily Kerns

A form of this article appeared on the QuiltArt list November 18, 2007. Reprinted by permission

Lessons in the "universal" principles of art? Well, these principles are not universal. Many are distinctly cultural. Nor are they absolutes.

I grew up with no art background beyond "making stuff." I could list on the fingers of one hand the things I learned about "art" in 8 years of rural school. I could play the old pump organ with two fingers which was two more than the teacher could. Drawing consisted of a printed page posted on the teacher's desk and we would go up and measure this point so far from the top and so far from the side--essentially creating on our paper dot-to-dot drawings. It never entered my head that I could take art in HS--that was for people who were "artists", not for ordinary people like me.

So when I went back to college 15 years later, knowing that I wanted to be teaching art, I had learned a lot--on my own, and in the process, gained enough confidence in what I knew that I knew I could teach it--but I still had a long way to go. My classes had taught me to parrot the definitions of elements and principles but I didn't really begin to understand them until I began designing quilts on my own another 20 years later.

I finally understood, also, that I didn't have to understand those "rules" I had been given. Those rules are not rules that have to be followed. The rules didn't come first--the art did. The rules are simply our very human attempt to explain what works, what pleases us, most of the time. And as we have seen in the discussion of this subject, we are all different and what pleases me may not please you.

That doesn't mean that there is no value in rules, elements and principles. Of course there is, but the value lies not in following the rules, but in the guidance they can give us in artistic problem solving. Take the rule of thirds. As a general rule, dividing space into thirds is more interesting than dividing space into half or into very small and very large. Where these lines of thirds cross is also a good place to position a focal point or accent. These proportions are usually pleasing, but not all shapes will fit at that exact "rule of thirds' point and there are other ways of explaining the same general idea--the golden mean. fibonacci numbers......

Let me close with some thoughts on elements and principles. The Elements of art are variously listed as line, shape, direction, scale, texture, color, value, and space. These are simply the things an artist has to work with. The simplest and most complex pieces of art, in whatever medium, have only these things to work with. You can never put a real tree into your painting or quilt! You can only combine these elements to give the illusion of something else or in such a way as to involve the viewer in discovering and giving meaning to their own experience of what you have done.

The Principles of art are simply the tools you use to work with the Elements: balance, gradation, repetition and rhythm, movement, contrast, dominance, harmony (unity), accent (focal point). This list gets a bit murky, and different art teachers will give you different lists. Personally, I'd add scale and direction to this list as well.

Balance can be symmetrical or non symmetrical and there are no absolutes here. For example, in general a small bright object can balance a larger duller shape--but it depends on the shapes, their position, and their relationships--and what surrounds them. Balance applies to the other elements too. There is no one absolute rule that will work for any image. You are the artist--if something bothers you about your quilt, balance may be something to consider.

Gradation is a nice tool and offers interesting variations--but would you deny a traditional blue and white quilt the right to be considered artistic because it uses only the same two fabrics, blue and white?

Repetition and rhythm: Rhythm is repetition with variation. A single touch of color may make a nice accent, but another bit of the same color somewhere in the quilt may be more interesting. In some cases three bits of that color might be better. You are the artist, you have to decide what works for you for this quilt, this time. If you make another, you might do it differently. There is always another way it COULD have been done.

Contrast, dominance, harmony or unity: These three are closely related and apply to all of the elements. They have to do with the relationships between the elements used --not just this piece and that piece, but it involves every single bit of the quilt. Not simple!

Accent or focal point is often listed in critiques. This can be very important for some quilts, but a Storm at Sea quilt can be exquisitely done and there is no single focal point. If your quilt needs a focal point, it needs it. If it doesn't, it doesn't. And you won't know which is which for sure, until you do some experimenting....

Knowing the rules is good. Your intuition is better (and is part of your heritage as a human being--long before anyone formulated rules). You have been looking at "art elements and principles" all your life and know more than you probably think you do whether you can list elements and principles or proclaim any rules at all. In my experience, learning to listen to and trust intuition comes first, then the rules will begin to make sense.

There are many exercises that are geared specifically for exploring the possibilities of any of these things, but unless you actually spend the time to play and discover, you will touch only the surface. In the fabric store yesterday, a stranger asked if I did a lot of sewing--she was trying to select fabric for Christmas quilts. I could have given her a lesson on the elements and principles of art, or how to use color, but I think she learned more by pulling different bolts and placing them side by side, by thinking in terms of ways of using those fabrics.

Not all art teachers approach these matters the way I do, but my approach works for many students. Other students will learn better with formal art instruction--and there is room for both!