Principles of Design





The principle of dominance plays a major role in where emphasis occurs in a design. Repeated elements without some form of dominance can create monotony and confusion.

Dominance of an Element

The placement of a dominant element is critical to the balance of a painting or design. A dominant element in the center (horizontally or vertically) creates symmetry, producing a formal, static design.


A dominant element close to the edge creates an out of balance tension. There is no right or wrong position for a dominant element, but the different tensions created by it should be understood and used to advantage.

Without a dominating size, the arrangement of elements in this photograph is not as interesting as it could be. The eye has a confusing path to follow around the photograph.

In this image there is no real dominant element. Your eye tends to jump all over the place

By increasing the size of one of the boats, the attention goes immediately to the dominant boat. Had the size of the central boat been increased, the design would have been split symmetrically, maintaining the initial confusion.

Changing the dominant boat from the dominant cool color to the subordinate warm color further increases it visual impact.

To have a dominant element requires subordinate elements. Often the subordinate element attracts more attention by way of contrast. This is most noticeable with dominant and subordinate color arrangements.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) Whistlers Mother 



Although this painting has a dominating cool color balance, attention goes immediately to the area of warm subordinate color in the hands and face.

The photograph below is dominated by horizontal, vertical and oblique straight lines. It gains tension and interest from the contrasting subordinate curves of the bird.

Great Egret Resting

Dominance can be applied to any design element and should always be considered. Be aware that it is often the subordinate element that demands most attention.


Author: John Lovett


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John Lovett


John Lovett is an Australian artist working in oils, watercolor and mixed media. Since commencing his career John has held over thirty five solo exhibitions and taken part in many joint ones. John’s work is represented in private and corporate collections in Australia, United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and USA. John’s passion for his work and his open easy approach to teaching make his books, DVD’s and workshops thoroughly enjoyable, extremely informative and always very popular. His articles are regularly featured in “International Artist” magazine.      



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© 2017 John Lovett (all text and images unless otherwise stated)