Frederic, Lord Leighton, The Daphnephoria, 1875-76. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 5 inches x 17 feet. National Museums and Art Galleries on Merseyside. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

An Outline of Basic Principles

By Stephen Gjertson and Annette LeSueur

Dedicated to Richard F. Lack (1929-2009)
Artist, Teacher, Writer, Mentor, Friend

Titian, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-18. Oil on panel, 22 feet 7½ inches x 11 feet 10 inches. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.


Annette LeSueur and I developed this material over a period of several years. While teaching at Atelier Lack, we often discussed the principles of pictorial design. We perceived design as the primary weakness of work done by students in modern ateliers and academies. When students began their careers, we noticed that they often continued to merely produce student studies on a larger scale, sometimes haphazardly arranging randomly chosen objects. We recognized that when a student attains reasonable skill in the language of painting (rendering the drawing, values, and color seen in nature), it is then necessary to use this ability to create works of art. Art is created primarily through design and drawing (fine drawing being, to a great extent, informed by the principles of design). This requires that the subject chosen by the artist be composed and designed with purpose, care, and expertise. Without a sophisticated design, the most subtle nuances of rendering are of little or no effect, merely the work of a diligent student. It is sophisticated design that elevates this rendering into the realm of enduring and expressive art.

Giambattista Tiepolo, The Institution of the Rosary, 1738-39. Ceiling fresco, 45 feet 11 inches x 14 feet 9 inches. Santa Maria del Rosario, Church of the Gesuati, Venice.

With this in mind, Annette and I met once each week for several years, studying the elements of design and endlessly analyzing works of art. For one full school year we reserved a conference room at a library across the street from the school. There, we endeavored to systematize and organize our vast quantity of notes into a simple and orderly format. The first section of this study is the result. Many of the books we read were heavy on theory, but light on the practical principles actually used by the artist. It was our intention to reduce the material to a basic level, to principles that always apply. At first sight this may seem simplistic, but a little reflection will see the wisdom in this approach. It is our hope that these principles will guide art students safely through the difficult, yet exciting, process of learning to create expressive works of art. Although the emphasis here is on figurative design, the principles apply to all types of work.

The second part of this study consists of practical advice for those endeavoring to paint pictures that tell stories. Throughout the history of art, many of the greatest works tell stories: from legend, myth, history, or everyday life. The ones considered great told their stories well.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Under the Roof of Blue Ionian Weather, 1901. Oil on panel, 21¾ x 47½. Private collection. This is one of Alma-Tadema’s most poetic and tranquil works.


The primary goal of visual artists is to take the elements with which they work and combine them in such a way as to create harmony. Harmony is unified variety with dominance. Harmony is that area which lies between what is boring and what is confusing. The elements with which an artist works, line, tone, and color, must be subjected to exquisite order to achieve harmony. When combined in pleasing proportion (the relationship of one part to another), these elements complete, define, and give proper expression to each other.

Claude Lorrain, The Mill, 1648. Oil on canvas, 58¾ x 77½. Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome.

True unity is varied to some degree. When variety ceases to exist, true unity is lost, and a work becomes static or dead. True variety is unified. When unity ceases to exist, true variety is lost, and a work becomes chaotic or confusing. Unity gives clarity and order; variety gives interest and movement. Orderly movement is essential to good work. Since the eye can only see, and the mind only concentrate on, one thing at a time, a work must have only one dominant focal point. Dominance gives force and focus. Harmony is achieved when each of the elements is in its proper place providing an orderly movement from part to part while maintaining a dominant point of focus. Line, tone, and color must be subjected to the principle of unified variety with dominance.

William Bouguereau, The Holy Women at the Tomb, 1890. Oil on canvas, 103 x 63½. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. This eloquent Bouguereau is one of his finest religious paintings.

Unity DOMINANCE Variety

Principles for the Attainment of Harmony

Nature looks fine until it is surrounded by a frame. Once it is enclosed, the elements in nature must be harmoniously related to or arranged within the pictorial format. The linear and spacial relationships within the picture plane ought to relate in various agreeable ways to the outside shape. The format of a work must be in harmony with the subject and help express the idea. The artist must give careful consideration to these boundaries, so they do not cramp the subject and they provide a pleasing division of space.

The principal lines or objects in a work should be considered or chosen according to their relationship to the work’s outside shape (if pre-determined), or the outside shape should be determined according to the principal lines or objects in nature.


If the outside shape of the work is a vertical rectangle, the principal lines within it should be vertical. If the principal lines in nature are vertical, they should be enclosed by a vertical shape.


If the outside shape of the work is a horizontal rectangle, the principal lines within it should be horizontal. If the principal lines in nature are horizontal, they should be enclosed by a horizontal shape.

Raphael, Madonna della Sedia, c. 1514. Oil on panel, 28 inches in diameter. Pitti Palace, Florence.

Circular or Oval

If the outside shape of the work is a circle or an oval, the principal lines within them should be curved. If the principal lines in nature are noticeably curved, they may be effectively enclosed within a circle or an oval.

Variegated Shapes

Some works, particularly decorations that conform to architectural formats, may require designing within unusual shapes. Whatever the shape, the principles of relating the elements and proportions within it to outside shape always apply. Imagination, ingenuity, and careful planning can solve the most difficult design problem.

An harmonious relationship can be established between the main lines of a design and the pictorial format in several ways.

1. Repetition of the Outside Shape

a. Lines parallel to the top and sides of rectangles or squares.
b. Lines repeating the curves of circles or ovals.

2. Opposition to the Outside Shape

a. The use of diagonal lines.

3. Rebatement (creating a square within a rectangle).

4. Use of the Golden Section Proportion

The golden section has been called the divine proportion and is said to be the most aesthetically pleasing proportion. A straight line has been divided into the golden section proportion when the ratio of the whole line to the greater segment is the same as the greater segment to the lesser. It is attained most easily by running a diagonal through a rectangle made up of two squares. In the diagram, the line AB is divided at C into the golden mean proportion. AB is to CB what CB is to AC.

5. Reduction of the Parent Shape

Creating a smaller version of the outside shape within itself.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1513-14. Oil on canvas, 104¼ x 77⅛. Gemaldegalerie, Dresden.


There are two basic ways to subdivide the format of a work.

1. Formally or Symmetrically

This way of breaking up space applies best to subjects of a religious or dignified nature. It creates a feeling of stability and grandeur. Both sides need not match exactly, but there should be a feeling of complete equalization of the units or masses of one side with the other.

2. Informally or Asymmetrically

This way of breaking up space applies to most works of art, where a more unequal division is desirable. Nothing should be in the center or cut the work in half.

Within the parameters of unity and dominance, strive for the greatest variety of spaces and shapes as possible. Avoid putting objects in a row. If you must, space them unevenly or vary them in size and emphasis by overlapping them. You can thus create a more interesting division of space. When two masses are very close together, either join them or clearly separate them, otherwise the double mindedness that results will cause an uncomfortable tension.

Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1879. Oil on canvas, 28¼ x 50½. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of George Golding Kennedy. The large center of interest on the left is balanced by the smaller animals, vertical smoke, and light and dark spots on the right.

Franz Ittenbach, Mater Amabilis, 1855. Oil on canvas, 43¾ x 33¾. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund.

The Principle of DOMINANCE
Center of Interest

A work must have only one center of interest—a place to which the eye is first attracted and to which it continually returns. The artist must first decide on the center of interest and then utilize any or all of the following pictorial elements to direct the viewer’s eye to it.

Size. Make the center of interest obviously larger than the surrounding objects.

Placement. Place the center of interest in an obvious or easily seen position within the frame usually, but not necessarily, in the center.

Line. Lines point and create pathways along which the eye travels. Use them to lead the eye to the center of interest.

Tone. The eye is attracted to contrasts of value, the greater the contrast, the greater the attraction. A strong contrast may be used at the center of interest.

Color. The eye is drawn to colors which are intense or to colors which contrast with each other. These can be put on the center of interest.

Focus. Clear and distinct focus attracts the eye. The center of interest may be painted distinctly, while the objects around it get increasingly less defined as they near the work’s edge.

Painting Method. A noticeable difference in paint handling can attract the eye. The center of interest may be painted impasto while the rest is painted more thinly.

Jacques-Louis David, The Consecration of Emperor Napoleon I and the Coronation of the Empress Josephine at Notre Dame on Dec. 2, 1804, 1805-07. Oil on canvas, 20 feet x 30 feet 6½ inches. Louvre, Paris. Every figure within this work is concentrating on the coronation of Josephine by the Emperor Napoleon.

Concentration of Attention. If the work contains multiple figures, the focus of attention by individuals within the work itself can be upon the center of interest, thereby forcing the viewer’s eye to go there as well.

Most works have secondary or tertiary centers of interest. These may be used to enhance the primary center of interest, provide pictorial balance, add vitality and interest to the work, or more fully develop the story or theme. These areas must remain subordinate to the center of interest.

The Principle of Balance

Work for Balance with Dominance

Balance provides a work with stability. An unbalanced work is unsettling. The pictorial elements (objects, lines, tones, and colors) in the left half of a work should balance visually with those in the right half. If a work is exquisitely composed the top and bottom halves will balance as well. Balance is of primarily two types. These types provide balance with dominance and allow the eye to be attracted to a center of interest.

Balance without dominance creates two centers of interest. The eye is equally attracted to two things at the same time, causing irritation and confusion.

Frederic, Lord Leighton, Summer Moon, 1872. Oil on canvas, 39½ x 50½. Private collection, India. This painting, and the one below by Titian, hang on a curved line that flows from one side of the painting to the other.

Unified Variety with


Nature is filled with a great variety of lines. The artist must work to bring order out of this incredible variety. Creating order is a matter of both selection and invention—selecting lines that harmonize in nature or adjusting the lines in nature in conformity to a pre-established and harmonious plan. Depending upon the subject, the artist usually does a fair amount of careful selection and invention. What the artist selects and invents will determine their style, how much or how little they depart from the actual look of nature. Artistic, expressive drawing is that in which the shapes in nature have been selected or invented according to the principles of design. When done well, these stylizations look natural and are scarcely noticed by the viewer.

Find or invent a dominant line which flows throughout the work. This line is the one upon which the work hangs and the one to which the eye is first attracted. To hold the work together, a line in one part of the work may be picked up again by a line in another part, continuing and enlarging it. In addition to the dominant line, strive for a rhythmic flow throughout the other lines of the work. This helps achieve unity by tying together remote parts of the painting. Repeating similar curves or straight lines will also help establish linear unity. The variety found in nature will help to alleviate the boring repetition and mannerisms to which we are prone if we continually rely on our own unaided invention.

Titian, The Entombment of Christ, c. 1525. Oil on canvas, 58¾ x 86¾. Louvre, Paris.

Variety should be kept in mind at certain other junctures. Lines which intersect the edge of the painting should be placed to create pleasing and varied divisions of these border lines. Do not repeat the width of the frame near the edge of the painting.

Create an Eye Pathway

Herbert James Draper, The Lament for Icarus, 1898. Oil on canvas, 72 x 61¼. Tate Gallery, London.

Stephen Gjertson, Midmorning, 1985. Oil on canvas, 33 x 42. Collection of the artist. A design obviously based on a triangle.

In a harmonious work all the parts are seen in an orderly fashion. Plan a natural pathway along which the viewer’s eye will travel. To achieve balance, it is important that this pathway moves the eye back and forth across the center. The artist determines the course along which the eye travels and line plays an important part. The eye usually enters at the bottom and is quickly directed to the center of interest. From there it moves back and forth to any secondary or tertiary centers of interest and then exits at the top on the side opposite the center of interest. Lines which could lead the eye out of the work before all the parts have been seen should be stopped (with an object, line, tone, etc.) before they reach the edge of the work. Do not place an obstacle in the foreground which hinders the eye from going beyond it into the picture. Endeavor to lead the eye away from or around corners. Avoid eye traps such as unnecessary tangents and small negative spaces. Do not confuse the eye by giving it two paths to follow.

Line can produce both formal and informal design. Composition may also be based on letters and symbols or geometric forms. Some commonly used letters are O, S, T, V, and X. Commonly used geometric forms are the triangle (most stable of geometric forms), the oval, circle, square, and rectangle.

N. C. Wyeth, The Last Stand, 1906. Oil on canvas, 50⅛ x 34. Southern Arizona Bank & Trust Company, Tuscon. N. C. Wyeth was a fine designer. The power of this painting is emphasized by the striking contrast of light and dark.

Peter Paul Rubens , The Descent from the Cross, 1612. Oil on panel, 165½ inches x 135 inches. Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp. This magnificent painting, one of Ruben’s finest works, is designed using both a triangular and S shaped motive.

Tone (Value)

Nature is also filled with a great variety of tones. When looking at nature it is helpful to squint, simplifying the myriad tones into a few simple masses. Every painting ought to have a dominant key (set of tonal relationships). The subject will often determine the key of a painting. There are three basic value keys: high (light values) with middle and dark accents, middle (medium values) with light and dark accents, and low (dark values) with light and middle accents.

Give the Work Carrying Power

The design should have carrying power—a pleasing arrangement of value patterns which attract the viewer’s eye from a distance. The work must be dominated by a few large, well-shaped value masses. These value masses should have sufficient contrast and be limited in number (three to five). Even if the subject is complex, smaller shapes can be grouped into larger value patterns by giving them the same or similar local value, or by choosing a unifying light effect.


When the unity of the large value masses has been established, endeavor to give these masses interesting and varied patterns. Invent, set up, or look for beautiful and expressively appropriate silhouettes or contours.


Color is most intense as it comes from the tube. In a painting, color is beautiful because of its relationship to other colors. Every painting ought to have a dominant color harmony. Sometimes the subject determines the color harmony. Colors harmonize because they are related—contain in themselves something of the other. Therefore, in their pure state, the primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) do not harmonize. Bad color is usually “out of place,” disassociated from and unrelated to its surroundings. To restore harmony, mix out of place colors with the surrounding color.

Design in terms of color families, colors related to each other. The parent colors will affect all of the other colors. If the dominant color is violet, the parent colors are red and blue. Any color with red and blue in it will be related. Accents of its opposite (color with no red or blue in it i.e. yellow) may be used in small doses. Keep brighter colors on the center of interest. Nature teaches us that large areas should be muted in color (mixed with its complement or gray) with brighter colors used for smaller areas and accents. Avoid bright, primary colors for backgrounds. If the values contrast strongly, color need not be as strong.

Maurice Boutet de Monvel, Joan of Arc: The Turmoil of Conflict (the Battle of Patay), 1909-13. Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 29 x 67. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. William A. Clark Collection, 1926. The swirling confusion of battle is suggested through the very careful and deliberate design of line, tone, and color.

The Emotional Qualities of
Line, Tone, and Color

Line, tone, and color can express emotion independently of a work’s subject matter. An artist should select and/or arrange these elements in harmony with the emotional expression of the work. At the risk of oversimplification, these elements may be broadly classified into two categories: reposeful and animated.

Albert Herter, Signing of the Magna Carta, c. 1908-10. Oil on canvas, 9 feet x 18 feet 6 inches. Supreme Court Room. Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison. This magnificent work is one of the glories of American decorative art. The integration of the painting with its environment is so complete that it must be seen in place to be appreciated. The telling of the story is faultless. The empty center, usually a situation to be avoided, is an ingenious device that emphasizes the antagonism of the opposing parties.


Many of the greatest paintings in the world tell a story. If your painting tells a story, tell it well. Carefully think it through before you begin. Good conceptions require good analysis. The essentials of telling a story pictorially are interdependent; they are separated with difficulty. Nevertheless, it is helpful to consider these basic guidelines when approaching compositions that tell a story.

Sir Luke Fildes, The Doctor, 1891. Oil on canvas, 65⅝ x 95⅜. Tate Gallery, London. Every element in this fine work helps to express the compassion and anxiety of the figures in this eloquent drama.

Visualization or Conception

Artists must create a concrete visual image from an abstract, mental one. They need to establish the necessary facts, visualize a complete mental image of them, then embellish the facts to bring them to life.

The Dominant Mood

Determine the dominant mood or emotional quality. Keep it simple, such as happy, peaceful, somber, dignified, violent, and so forth. Subsequent decisions concerning the interpretation will greatly depend upon this general conception.

Jean-Georges Vibert, The Missionary’s Adventures, c. 1882. Oil on wood, 39 x 53. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1925. The sumptuous setting and choice of gesture and facial expression on the figures in this work is superb. Its fine design and brilliantly poignant satire make this one of Vibert’s greatest works.

The Dominant Elements

Determine what is most important, the environment or the characters in it.

The Lighting

Given the environment, determine the lighting. Is it inside, outside, day, night, bright, gloomy, sunny, foggy? Expressing much of the mood will depend upon this. Be sure to make the lighting consistent throughout.

The Characters in the Scene

Emil-Jean-Horace-Vernet, Joseph’s Coat, 1853. Oil on canvas, 55⅛ x 40⅞. The Wallace Collection, London. In this superb work, Vernet masterfully suggests the events preceding and following those taking place in the central portion of the work.

Main Character

Determine the main character and feature him or her. If it is a group, design the group as a unit, but give dominance to one figure.

Supporting Characters

Determine the supporting characters, if any, which are essential to the story.

Bit Players

Include any minor characters which may be used to embellish the story.

Dramatizing the Action

After you have gathered the facts and analyzed them you must determine the most dramatic and effective way of telling the story.

The Moment

Choose that part of the story which you consider the most expressive. Is it before, during or after a given action? Think about the action leading up to or following the moment chosen. Can it be effectively suggested in the work?

Jean-Léon Géróme, The Death of Caesar, 1867. Oil on canvas, 34 x 57¼. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. As he often did (see Death of Marshal Ney), Géróme chose to portray the aftermath of the event.

The Lighting

Determine the lighting of the scene. How many light sources are there? Are they within or without the work? Be consistent. Consider how the lighting affects every person and part of the picture. The lighting will establish the character of the pictorial effect.

Characterizing the Figures

Establish the Gestures

Gesture is the pose which expresses an action or emotion. Each figure should be as interesting as possible, and its gesture planned to best express its action or emotion.

Léon Bonnat, Job, 1880. Oil on canvas, 60⅜ x 50¾. Musée Bonnat, Bayonne.

Single Figures

Determine the primary action or emotion of the figure: fear, sorrow, pain, joy, etc. What pose would a figure take in view of this action or emotion? Act it out yourself in front of a mirror. If the figure is interacting with others, think through the logical interaction. Make sure that the figures are looking where they should. Gestures should be natural, truthful, and fit the design. Avoid excessive action which is melodrama. Under-action results in stiffness or rigidity.

Groups of Figures

Each figure should have an expressive gesture yet fit emotionally and pictorially into the group. They must be related by linear, tonal, and color arrangement yet, even in a group, one figure is usually dominant.

Determine the Appropriate Facial Expressions

Be natural. Suit the expression to the emotion. Avoid “mugging,” which is melodrama. Use a mirror. Unless the viewer is intended to be part of the action, avoid letting a character look directly at him. This makes the viewer self-conscious. Only use direct gazes when the appeal made is directly to the viewer.

Henri Regnault, Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Granada, 1870. Oil on canvas, 119 x 41½. Louvre, Paris. Regnault uses a low vantage point to confront the viewer with the horror of the incident.

Find Suitable Models

Never make up what you can find out. Look for models who fit your conception in age, character, and hair color. Sometimes you may need to use parts from several models to make a suitable composite. Help them “act out” the scene.

The Eye Level

Straight on. This is the normal eye level.

Above. Looking down at the action.

Below. Looking up at the action. The last two points of view may be used to increase the drama of an incident.

Jean-Léon Géróme, Moses at the Battle with the Amalekites, c. 1895-99. Oil on panel, 11½ x 15½. Private collection. Géróme focuses on the drama of the entire scene.

The Vista or Scope

Close up. Can the story be best told by gesture and facial expressions with only a minimal environment?

Medium view. This is the most common, though not necessarily the most dramatic, vista.

Far view. This may be the most appropriate vista if the environment plays a significant part of the story, or if the action demands large numbers of figures.

Each of these vistas may be used separately or in various combinations. Pictures often have a foreground, middle distance, and background of varying depths.

Sir John Everett Millais, Victory O Lord!, 1871. Oil on canvas, 76¾ x 55½. Manchester Art Gallery. Millais focuses on the three main figures in the drama.

The Setting or Atmosphere

Determine the location of the story. Every detail should be calculated to establish or intensify the painting’s main theme or mood.


Make the setting natural and appropriate to the action. If you are inventing it, make sure that it is believable. Research may be necessary to reconstruct historical or geographical settings. Do not fake what you can find out.


Clothing can suggest character, evoke a period or epoch, imply action, and express form. It can be used to effectively enhance the composition in line, tone, and color. If possible, find or make appropriate costumes. This will strengthen the work’s authenticity and expressive power.


Determine the necessary props. Obtain or manufacture the important accessories. Research may be needed here also. Good props and accouterments can add visual interest and increase the dramatic potential of the story.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Molière Having Breakfast with Louis XIV, 1862. Oil on panel, 16½ x 29½. Malden Public Library, Malden, Massachusetts. The exquisite design of Gérôme’s work is often overlooked because viewers are amazed by its compelling realism. The superb design of Gérôme’s greatest work raises the art of his historical and genre paintings into the epic realm.


We are greatly indebted to many fine textbooks written by artists and teachers. Here are several books that are helpful to the artist.

Cole, Rex Vicat, The Artistic Anatomy of Trees, Dover Publications, New York, 1965.
Dow, Arthur W., Pictorial Composition, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York, 1913.
Graves, Maitland, The Art of Color and Design, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, 1951.
Hatton, Richard G., Figure Composition, Chapman and Hall, LTD., London, 1923.
Loomis, Andrew, Creative Illustration, The Viking Press, New York, !969. A good book filled with practical advice for the artist.
Poore, Henry R., Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1903. Recent editions are inferior.
Ruckstull, F. W., Great Works of Art and What Makes Them Great, Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1925. A very useful work for the serious artist written by a fine sculptor.

Copyright 2010 by Stephen Gjertson and Annette LeSueur. A version of this article was originally published in the Classical Realism Journal, Volume VIII, Issue 1, 2003.