The art professor gestured to five paintings, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Paul Jackson Pollock, and Salvador Dali. “What do these paintings have in common?” he asked.
One by one, the students offered their various opinions. Perhaps it was that all of the paintings incorporated the color yellow or they all included a left of center focus. But the professor shook his head. “All of these paintings follow the four laws or principles of art: balance, order, rhythm, unity.”
In most art programs, this basic lesson challenges students the most. While they do easily see how classic artists such as da Vinci and Chardin incorporate these principles, they struggle to see how the others incorporate it. But these principles are the ones which the old masters of art discovered during the Renaissance as they examined the various components. Da Vinci is credited most distinctly as having learned much of this as he was discovering the principles of symmetry in the beauty we perceive.
Despite the age of these principles, they are still applicable, and they are incorporated into all effective designs and patterns in art. In many ways, these elements overlap, and when an artist achieves all of them, then multiple factors will lead to that completion rather than merely one.
Balance does not mean that the image is perfectly centered. A quick scan through even da Vinci’s work reveals that many of his paintings actually employ off center focuses to draw the viewer’s attention to various details. Instead, balance is achieved in art when the elements are arranged in such a way that one portion is not overpowering.
The three basic forms of balance are symmetric, radial, and asymmetric. All of these styles employ some form of negative space, which allows the eye to absorb the image and perceive the artist’s message. Even in some of Picasso’s more grandiose cubist pictures, which boast varying and sometimes contradictory shapes, Picasso employs balance so that your attention is drawn to the cubist form and the elements of his message.
Balance can be achieved through color choices as well as image placement. Contrast plays a heavy role in this aspect, creating emphasis through the choice of shading and lightening.
Order often includes emphasis and flows into balance. An ordered picture allows the viewer to focus. This principle also incorporates proportion. This principle does not require that the picture follow a rigid grid. On the contrary, it creates areas of major and minor focus, laying the foundation for rhythm and harmony.
The artist determines the order to demonstrate importance or the message. While images in the foreground are generally considered to be more important and a more likely focal point, artists can challenge this concept with a properly ordered painting.
Rhythm includes pattern, movement, and harmony in its definition. It also includes a certain element of repetition which allows the eye to more easily move across the picture. Sometimes, this is seen in a direct repetition such as in color choices or shapes, but at other times, it is merely implied. A moon in the upper right hand corner might be repeated in the egg shape in the lower left for instance.
Not every element will be repeated. Sometimes the artist chooses to isolate one image to make it stand out. Other times, various shapes and designs are repeated such as a tassel design being repeated on a smaller scale in the background. These components give the image a sense of coherency, leading to unity.
Rhythm also promotes movement. This movement can be actual or implied. Actual movement occurs when an artist uses a wind mobile or some such design which does move. Implied movement, however, occurs when the flow of the painting causes you to think you see movement when there is none. This is most famously observed in the portraits which always seem to be watching you, the eyes following no matter where you go in the room.
A unified image is one that uses colors or themes or various elements to link together the image. At times, the elements may seem like opposites, such as a skull with roses laid about it. But the unity is not just there. Sometimes the unity is incorporated throughout in repetition just as it is in rhythm. But its purpose is to bring the various components of the picture together, much as a conductor brings together the many instruments in an orchestra to play a single song.
A unified picture may have very disparate subject matter or sharply contrasting colors, but the picture as the whole will feel like a whole and not like a disjointed parts.
The purpose behind these four laws is not to restrict the artist. On the contrary, its purpose is to free the artist to more effectively convey a message. When the laws are violated, then the picture may be distracting or agitating while at the same time leading the viewer to miss the artist’s points.