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UNITY & HARMONY: The Principles of Design

A Guide for Teachers

UNITY AND HARMONY are considered two of the most important principles of design, since they’re two of the most ever present principles that will make or break your entire piece. This concept can actually be somewhat difficult to get the hang of, so let’s start by defining what unity and harmony are!

Are your students not fans of reading? Don’t worry. We have a short and sweet video all about unity and harmony that gives them a fun and quick rundown of the principle, suitable for grades 5 - 12!

What is Unity?

Unity and harmony are fairly similar in terms of how they’re used within art, so it’s much simpler to group them together. Unity is the principle that controls the overall cohesiveness of your artwork. It helps take all of the elements of art and make them feel whole. However, while making everything exactly the same creates unity, it can make your art feel very boring.

What is Harmony?

This is when harmony comes into play -- harmony is all about using the elements of art to point out the similarities within different subjects. Harmony could be as technical as creating a cohesive art style, or as simple as using the colour red within every object you add. But before I get too ahead of myself, let’s talk about how to use unity and harmony!

Unity and Harmony with Colour

Boy With a Pipe by Pablo Picasso
Boy With a Pipe by Pablo Picasso

It’s incredibly easy to create unity with your colour -- all you need to do is work with the same colour across the board. However, only using that single colour can get fairly boring, so harmony steps in with colour schemes and palettes. In very concise terms, a colour scheme is a group of 2 or more colours that look good together according to the colour wheel. The addition of more colours adds variety, another principle of design, which makes your art look much more interesting.

A Boy With A Pipe by Pablo Picasso is a great example of unity and harmony being used within a historical piece of art. This was painted during Picasso’s rose period, which is when he mostly used warmer colours. You can actually see that he used an orange underpainting, which is a layer of paint you add to your canvas before you actually start painting your subject matter. So even though this entire palette is complementary (two colours across from each other on the colour wheel), it still feels very warm overall.

Unity and Harmony with Texture

Similar or the same textures that are used within a piece will create a sense of unity. For instance, if the majority of the piece has rougher textures or smoother textures, that creates unity. Sometimes, it can be as simple as the texture of a canvas or paper! It doesn’t even have to be literal texture -- some digital artists add a faux paper texture to their artwork to create that sense of unity through implied texture. However, just like colour, we still want a variety of textures in there in order to create visual interest.

Carved Detail from the Oseberg Waggon
Carved Detail from the Oseberg Waggon (c. 800)

Within more ancient artwork, pieces such as Carved Detail from the Oseberg Waggon from the viking ages show a striking use of textural unity by the whole piece being carved out of wood. Material such as wood or marble can create unity within sculpture, since it creates an overarching texture within the entire piece. While being very literal and unified, the natural differences within the wood create that sense of harmony -- while it’s all wood, it’s not all exactly the same.

Unity and Harmony with Shape and Form

The Aztec Sun Stone
The Aztec Sun Stone (c. 1502 - 1520)

Just like the previous two, using similar or the same shapes and forms within an art piece creates unity. But that doesn’t mean that you should only use spheres or cubes to create an entire piece -- instead, make sure that all the different shapes are drawn similarly to create harmony. For instance, maybe all of your forms have rounded edges, or have super sharp and defined edges.

The Aztec Sun Stone (Calendar Stone), a piece of historical, ancient Aztec art, is a great example of unity through these shapes and forms. Aztec artwork as a whole has a very distinct style -- the majority, if not all of their shapes are very geometric, and they use very precise, sharp edges. However, these forms aren’t all the same, they just use very similar techniques in order to be drawn. Because of their similar but not exactly the same look, they create harmony!

Unity and Harmony with Line

Line tends to be the simplest to work with in terms of all of the elements, and it’s no different here with unity and harmony. Actual line or implied line can be used to create unity, whether you’re working in a specific line art style for your drawing, or if everything is going in the same direction, creating leading lines. When working with actual line, harmony is created through line weighting or line colouration, though line weighting is far more common.

Actual lines are the more common way of creating unity and harmony throughout your artwork, and the manga Bibliomania illustrated by Macchiro is an excellent example of this. They work with very strong, intricate linework -- if you zoom in, you can see that it’s actually broken up in some areas, but that remains consistent throughout the entire manga. That creates unity! However, while the lines are crisp and consistent, they also have some line weighting and variety to them, adding that extra sense of harmony to the entire manga.

Bibliomania (illust. Macchiro)

Unity and harmony are things you probably already use all the time, but now, you’re aware of it! Sometimes it can be tough to understand how to add those principles into your artwork, but remember that unity and harmony should move throughout your entire piece in order to create something truly cohesive!

If you’d like to learn more about the principles of design or the elements of art, be sure to tune into our YouTube playlist that has concise videos all about the elements of art and the principles of design! More classroom resources like this one can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we’ve covered all of the elements of art.

Art Resources for Teachers:

If you’re a teacher, here are some related resources for your classroom!

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