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Principles in Context

Principles in Context

Author: Sophia Tutorial

This lesson will be a recap on all the principles and how they will function in a design.

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What's Covered

Welcome to today’s lesson on the principles in context. So today’s lesson will take you through a virtual field trip to an art gallery to look at examples of principles in context. Specifically, you will look at the principles through the following paintings:

  1. The Mona Lisa
  2. The Night Watch
  3. Water Lilies
  4. Guernica
  5. Alone Beside the Train
  6. Nike Logo
  7. Asylum Madness Returns

1. The Mona Lisa

Your first stop on the tour is the image below, the Mona Lisa; it was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1500s.

The first principle to notice is the heavy contrast being used here. Actually, if you take the Mona Lisa and just sort of subdivide it into a triangular form, you'll notice that it's kind of split in the middle and it creates this almost yin yang between the darker elements.

The next principle to notice in this image is balance. The amount of detail between the light and dark valleys are pretty equally distributed and it creates this nice asymmetrical balance and unity. Now proximity here is going to be important in the placement of background elements to communicate to the viewer the distance between the foreground and the background which is really important. Although rhythm is really hard to spot here, there's actually quite a bit of it going on in particular with the hair.

Finally, there are some repeating elements in the fabric. It actually guides the viewer around the Mona Lisa. Most of viewers are inclined to start at the face and eyes and then trail down the hair, around the fabric, follow again the nice repeating elements, and through her arm where there are more repeating elements. All of this causes your eye to go around the Mona Lisa, which is again the emphasis of this piece.

2. The Night Watch

The next image in the gallery is The Night Watch by Rembrandt, painted in 1642.

Similar to the last piece, this painting is a great example of contrast, allowing the darkest and lightest values to surround the focal points in this piece which are the two gents in the foreground. The two men create a nice balance just within themselves, again going back to that nice yin yang affect; your eyes go straight to the black and white contrast. Also, the proximity between these two help make them the distinguishable characters amongst this crowd.

There is also a good visual weight and it is sort of subdivided horizontally across the canvas. You'll notice most of the action is going on down at the bottom, but there's still a nice even distribution of values, whereas most of the darkest values are up at the top. So some good asymmetrical balance is going on, along with a good distribution of weight.

Finally, rhythm here might also be hard to spot, but you can see a lot of repeating elements as you angle up the side. It might not be apparent, but it's guiding your eye this direction again to the overall focal point or emphasis which are our two gentlemen here front and center.

3. Water Lilies

Next up is Water Lilies by Claude Monet, painted in 1917.

This painting shows a completely different style; it's more expressive and almost looks kind of pastel-ish and a bit messier than some of the other pieces you’ve looked at. This piece does have a nice sense of balance and unity; nothing seems to be particularly out of place and the colors play really well together.

Now the values are divided between darker regions and then a nice light distribution in the center. The lilies are grouped in similar colors and values, so proximity is being used here. That's really important because it's going to allow the viewer to identify certain elements within this painting, which is really important in a painting in this type of style. It's actually used quite effectively despite how expressive or abstract a lot of the elements in this page look, because it'll let you identify lilies from just the green muck or the water.

Finally, in this piece the lilies have a nice rhythm with the repeating shapes, and this creates a sense of motion in this piece just like flowing water would. Although it might not be as obvious in this piece what the emphasis is, it seems to be in the upper right region just because of the contrasting colors. But again, the lilies sort of guide you around most of this piece.

4. Guernica

Moving on to Pablo Picasso's Guernica, painted in 1937.

There's a lot going on in this painting and that makes it difficult to know where to look.Your eyes could go straight to the odd eyeball looking light bulb in the upper left because of the repeating angles which provide some rhythm. There is also a lot of repetition in these angles. Even if they're not as obvious or direct, there is a nice flow and motion that's continuously going towards the left.

Even though there's a lot of chaos you’re still able to see a lot of the various things and objects here due to the nice contrast between shapes. There's a lot of black on white going on that really cuts up some of these shapes. Everything is in close proximity with each other, except for the guy over to the right, which might imply that he's in trouble or, for whatever reason, can't get away or join this stampede on the other side of the page.

Think About It

What do you think about unity in this piece? Is there any amidst the jumble of images? 

There isn't necessarily one right answer or use of one principle.  Art is subjective and subjective to your own interpretation so it is okay to disagree and have your own opinions about how principles are being used, especially in such radical pieces.

5. Alone Beside the Train

Now the next piece here Alone Beside the Train by AsiiMDesGraphiC, which was done in 2011.

The first thing you notice here is the beautiful rhythm in the train tracks that work well with the scale to create a sense of movement, depth, and really nice perspective. It also guides your eye to the focal point or emphasized region which is this girl in the white dress. You can also see how contrast plays a role. The ground and tracks are a lot darker than the lightened areas of the track above.

FInally, the proximity of the trees also creates this dark curtain that frames the focal point front and center stage. The balloon as well is a nice contrasting element up top. Everything is nicely unified and you can see that there's nothing out of place. You'll notice that if you subdivide this piece that asymmetrical balance is being used in this case.

6. Nike Logo

Next you have a familiar logo designed by the same artist as the last piece we looked at.

It's very obvious here use of proximity with the text and colors being grouped together and the scale of those elements to create a sense of variety between some of these bigger and smaller portions. There's very obvious use of contrast here, white in the background separating the colors in the foreground. But this feels a bit off balance. There's a lot of empty space that maybe could be used or maybe just cropped a little differently. Otherwise it's clear what you are supposed to look at.

7. Asylum Madness Returns

The final piece in this virtual field trip is called Asylum Madness Returns by Ark4n. This is a 3D render and this is quite a trippy piece.

There's a lot of contrasting elements like the dark tile, lights in the ceiling against the ceiling, dark windows and lighter walls, but everything seems unified and balanced. Even though the shapes differ around the piece as a whole, there's actually some nice symmetry going on with the shapes.

If you were to subdivide this in some fashion, you have these mirrored, basic shapes overall. Now here rhythm and scale are being used effectively to convey motion, depth, and provide direction for your eye. So rather than using contrast this time around as the main principle to create emphasis like some of the other pieces, scale is being used really nicely and rhythm to guide your eye towards the end of the spiraling hallway.


Well, that ends our virtual field trip showing the principles of visual design in context. This lesson gave you the opportunity to look at the Mona Lisa, the Night Watch, Water Lilies, Guernica, Alone Beside the Train, the Nike Logo, and Asylum Madness Returns as examples of these principles.

Keep up the learning and have a great day!