Chap. 1 : Elements of Design

This page is part of our Composition learning module.
Photos on this page by Jamie Pye, for the Coastal Heritage Collection.


Elements of design are the parts that make up the whole. We don’t always think about the parts when we are creating a picture or a design, we usually rely on our intuition to tell us if the parts look right. Here are some of the elements that we are working with when our intuition is telling us what looks good in our work.


The shape of your work is the frame, the area you are working within. It could be a rectangle or circle, or any other shape. The outer shape affects how you arrange the visual elements within it, and it is a visual element itself.


Lines form a visual path. Lines can help create movement that the viewer can follow through the composition. Horizontal lines can give a feeling of calm, like calm water. Vertical lines can give a sense of height. Diagonal lines can give a feeling of tension. Lines can be created by the edges of shapes. Lines can be used to create texture.

Horizontal lines can be calming. Diagonal lines can be dramatic.


A shape is an area defined by edges. In some types of work, like quilting and applique, the work is all about shapes and how they work together.


Often when we are planning our work, we concentrate on the shapes we are making and forget about the space around them. The shapes we make, the objects in our design take up positive space; the space around those shapes or objects is negative space. Negative space makes a shape of its own and can affect the balance of your composition.

Negative space
The background behind an object, the negative space, has a shape of its own. The rock behind the maple leaf, the red door behind the door handle, and the sky behind the boat each have their own shape.

Negative space can be used to create movement in a composition. If the spaces between objects are all the same, the design is static; if the spaces are different, the viewer’s eye moves around and through the composition creating movement.


Textures can come from the materials and embellishment in your work, or the look of textures can be created in the drawing, painting or photos you use in your work. Using different textures can add contrast and emphasize specific elements in the overall design. Texture can also give more information about a shape.

Left: Texture can be used to create contrast. Right: Texture can be used to show depth – near and far. We can see a lot of texture in the rope and wood near us on the wharf, but the shoreline is the background is out of focus and doesn’t show texture.

Value: Light and Dark

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of colours. White is the lightest value and black is the darkest. The value halfway between is called middle grey. Using different values, different degrees of light and dark, you can create contrast, or create shading to show forms and indicate if an object is near or far. Objects that are further away are lighter in value and have less contrast. Objects that are closer show more contrast – the darks are darker and the lights are lighter.


Depth refers to how near or far objects seem in a picture – the foreground, background, and middle ground. Depth can also refer to how three dimensional something appears.

Depth has been created by having near and far objects, or by having a line receding away from us. The oars, the fence and the wharf each take the eye of the viewer from near to far.

Focal Point

The focal point is most interesting part of the composition, the place where you want the viewer to look the longest. The design elements you use can guide the viewer’s gaze through the work to the focal point.


Colours have different effects depending on how they are used in a composition. Some colours seem different next to certain other colours. Red, for example, seems brighter when placed beside its opposite, green. Colour can be used to create emotion, to give a certain feeling to what you are making. It can also be used to recreate the natural world or to give life to something from your imagination. Colour can even be used to create a sense of time and place. Vintage colours for an old fashioned quilt can create a sense of nostalgia or bring up old memories. Colour symbolism can be different in different cultures. Different viewers might have different interpretations of a colour depending on their traditions.

Each photo has its own colour palette. Colour can be used to create mood, to emphasize, or subdue design elements or to indicate a particular time and place.

A colour scheme, or a colour palette is a group of colours that you choose to work with in your design. Often we make choices about colour based on our instincts or on traditions and trends. Each work that you make has its own colour palette. You might find that you have a colour palette that is personal to you that you use often in your work. There are also types of colour schemes based on colour theory. Three common types of colour schemes are monochromatic, analogous, and complementary.

Using similar colours, using contrasting colours, creating patterns with colour – there are as many ways to use colour as there are colours in the world. Understanding colour is important, so we have created a separate page all about Working with Colour that will help you understand how colour can be used in creating a composition.