Follow the Basic Rules and Principles to Create Great Art

Follow the Basic Rules and Principles to Create Great Art

Young boy showing his drawing, smiling broadly
Young Boy Showing His Crayon Drawing. Getting Images

To the casual observer, the world of the arts can seem unapproachable.

When looking at a painting, watching a ballet, or hearing a classical concert, the general public and arts enthusiasts will have an emotional response, but they may not understand how these works were created.

Many people believe that talent, luck, and genius are responsible for bringing high art into being. While these definitely play a part, they aren't the whole story. Though it may go unnoticed by less-trained eyes, all the arts are underpinned by a common foundation: principles of design, which vary by discipline.

Dancers are taught to perform in time with their fellow performers, so that they move as one unit. Painters and other visual artists learn to manipulate elements of perspective, composition, and the use of light or shadow.

Classical musicians study rules of harmony and musical form; they learn how to achieve good intonation and move their bodies in ways which produce the desired sound.

A solid understanding of the underlying design principles of your craft is essential to develop into a sophisticated, mature artist. The music of Bach and Beethoven would not exist without their total mastery of the rules of harmony; Monet and Vermeer would not be celebrated were it not for their complete control of perspective and the use of light in their paintings.

In every artistic discipline, knowledge of and respect for the core tenets of one's subject are instilled from the earliest levels and are continually used as a foundation for building to more advanced levels of mastery.

Both students and professionals use these established core philosophies to inform their work on a daily basis, even at the highest stages of their careers.

Across art forms, most of these principles relate to technical aspects of how you should execute a particular movement or brushstroke, or where to place a particular subject or note, rather than to aesthetic concepts.

Thus, it's easy to view them in a rigid fashion, rather than as a supportive framework. Yet, as you advance in your craft, you see that each artist has his or her own interpretation of the principles; this is what allows each artwork and each artist to be different from another.

In mastering technical concerns and continually refining your technique, you'll learn to manipulate the rules in your own way, and this will give meaning, distinctiveness, and personal expression to your work. Bach, Beethoven, and all the great masters perfected and then bent the rules; this is how you'll become a unique, memorable artist, too.

Visual arts like drawing can be especially difficult, since you have to represent three-dimensional elements on a two-dimensional surface. But, following certain principles, even as a beginner, will help your art be convincing and expressive with less frustration and effort. Let's take a look at some of the fundamental design techniques that are essential for anyone who draws.

Composition is the layout of all the elements in your drawing. Shape, line, color, tone, and space are all part of this.

Before you begin drawing, it's best to make preliminary sketches and plan out what you want to draw. Once you've done this, the first thing you'll need to think about for your drawing is shape. From the start, you need to establish the overall large shape (contours) for your entire drawing.

You should only start working on the smaller shapes of individual objects after you're satisfied that you've conveyed the contour you want. Trying to draw the smaller shapes first will just lead to frustration; your work will lack definition and not be as convincing as it could be. In other words, ignore detail until you get the basics right!

Line is the way you guide a viewer through your painting. Horizontal lines, like those in landscape drawings, usually convey a peaceful feeling; diagonal lines can add tension. In general, curves give a much more natural, pleasing feel than straight lines; they also give your piece a good sense of movement, so it looks more realistic.

Color, of course, deals with what colors you use in your palette. It's also about intensity--you need to make a choice as to how saturated (vivid) or subtle you want the colors to be, and whether you want to use them to express the idea of light or dark.

Tone, also called shading or “value,” is directly related to color. You can use shading to create shadows in your work (like shadows created by the sun in a landscape, for example). This will allow your work to seem three-dimensional and give the viewer a sense of depth.

For your art to work, you need to consider your use of space, too.

Think about how much space you'd like between elements in your drawing (known as negative space) and how much space you'd like the objects in your drawing to fill (positive space). This will vary depending on what kind of drawing you're doing.

In Western art, the negative space is often filled in with color or even shading, but some Asian art leaves the blank, white space of the paper itself around the central object; this can be very effective, too.

One thing to remember, don't put the same amount of negative space between each element in your piece--to keep things interesting, it's important to vary the shape and size of the negative space.

Balance and Unity
Balance and unity are considered the hallmarks of "good" conventional art. There are some golden rules, all tried-and-tested by the great artists, that you can use to find balance in your own pieces.

But first, some general tips that will help make following the golden rules easier. It's important that there is a main area of interest and focus in your drawing, so that the viewer knows what to look at and isn't distracted by too many small elements.

Place your most prominent subject slightly off-center in your work to give a nice flow for the viewer, and make sure it's facing into the drawing, not out of your picture.

Make sure not to cut your painting directly in half, either vertically or horizontally, as this can look less realistic. If you're using a horizon line in your work, make sure it's not in the center of the picture--place it either high or low so that it shows more "sky" or more "ground," depending on what you're drawing.

And now, the golden rules. The first golden rule is the rule of thirds, and it's actually related to the golden mean itself. The golden mean, or golden ratio, has guided classical artists for centuries. It states that the elements of an artwork should be placed so that each element is in a proportion of 1 to 1.618 (around 3 to 5) in relation to any other element. The rule of thirds is a simplified version of the golden mean.

To follow it, divide your drawing into a grid of 3 columns and rows, all equal in size. Place your main subject and smaller areas of interest near one of the lines on your grid, and if you can, aim to place them at the intersection of the grid's rows and columns. This will easily create an ideal balance in your drawing, as it forces you to avoid putting important elements in areas that would visually cut the piece in half, stopping the viewer's eyes.

Like the rule of thirds, the rule of odds is also based on odd numbers. To achieve a realistic drawing, you should have an odd number of subjects in your piece, like 1 or 3, rather than an even number. If you have just one main focal point, put an even number of items around it; that way, you'll end up with an odd number of elements in your work, which is generally more pleasing to the eye. As with the previous rule, the rule of thirds helps you avoid cutting your work directly down the center.

To unify your work, repetition of some elements is key. For example, you could choose a symbol or motif and repeat it in certain areas of your drawing, perhaps in a different color or in a smaller size. This establishes a pattern in your piece and helps it make sense to the viewer. It's important not to overuse this, though, as you want to have variety in your work, too.

Developing perspective is a fundamental skill in art, and it's what gives your work a sense of depth and distance. In drawing, perspective holds that objects get smaller as they go toward the background of an image, while bigger objects are in the foreground (front) of the image.

Linear and aerial perspective are both important for artists. Linear perspective can be divided into 1-point, 2-point, or 3-point perspective. 1-point perspective is the simplest place to start. To use it, you just need a view and a fixed point.

If you're drawing a church, your view will be what you see in front of you with your head straight, and the fixed point can be whatever you choose, like a statue in front of you. You will direct the viewer's eyes to the statue through use of two things: a vanishing point, and a horizon line. The vanishing point can be any point in the distance that your eyes come to rest on naturally---in a church, it might be a point on a distant wall.

Your vanishing point is incorporated into your horizon line, which is a long, flat horizontal line of the sky (or ground, when indoors) that will extend to the left and right of your drawing and even out of your picture. Perspective is quite a complex tool and takes many different forms, but these are the basics of establishing one-point perspective, which gives dimension and a natural look to your work.

The essential drawing elements of composition, balance, unity, and perspective are found in all art forms. Though dancers and musicians will have different definitions of and approaches to these elements than visual artists do, they form a common core between all artistic disciplines.

Whatever your field, following these fundamental principles will ensure that your work is professional, not amateur, and that your pieces express your personality and clearly communicate your message to your audience.