Principles of Design





Gradation applies to the incremental change in the state of a design element.

Linear Perspective

A grading of size and direction produce linear perspective. The illusion of reduced scale as distance increases is a product of gradation in size and direction.

Linear Gradation

Gradation of size and direction produce linear perspective.

Aerial Perspective

Gradation of color and tone, from warm to cool and dark, to light produce aerial perspective. As tone becomes lighter and colors become cooler, apparent distance increases.

Gradation in tone and color produces aerial perspective

Aerial perspective

Movement through Gradation

Grading a shape from dark to light will cause the eye to move along the shape. The eye will travel towards the point of maximum contrast, following the graded shape.
Without tonal gradation, the eye will go directly to the point of maximum contrast rather than traveling along the graded shape. The image becomes static.

Movement through Graduation

Without grading the white shape appears static.

With grading the eye moves along the white shape to the area of maximum contrast.


Form Through Gradation

Grading tone is our most powerful tool for creating the illusion of solid form.
For centuries artists, wishing to interpret nature, have perfected techniques for grading tone, creating seamless transitions from dark to light in order to produce the illusion of solid form.

Tonal gradation can also suggest form.

William Turner (1775-1851) relied heavily on tonal gradation to create his swirling, atmospheric landscapes. His later paintings became more and more abstracted until the subject was solely graduations in light. In the small painting below Turner has used a scumbling technique to build up the layered, tonal gradations.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
J. M. W. Turner [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) “Off The Nore” (between 1840-1845)

Gradation through a series of images can be used to suggest the passage of time or incremental change. The illusion of movement over a period of time is created in this photograph by the use of mutiple exposures. Gradation in tone and direction produce a dynamic rather than a static image.

Movement through Gradation

Gradation in tone and direction suggest movement

Gradation in the direction of wheat stalks and foreground grass in Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with a Lark “evoke a strong sense of wind and movement. Graduation in size and direction give a strong feeling of depth. Aerial perspective is brought about by the gradual drop in color temperature from foreground to distant sky.

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with a Lark – 1887 – (54 × 64.5 cm) – Van Gogh Museum. Amsterdam.

The principle of graduation is commonly observed in nature where environmental and genetic effects cause graduated changes particularly in shape, color, tone, size and texture.


Subtle gradation can be seen here in the skin texture, scale size, shape, color and tonal variation.

Gradation in visual design is generally used as a means to an end. It is most commonly used to create perspective, to suggest form, or to generate visual movement.

Author: John Lovett