Week 2: Elements of Design in the Wild

Now that we know what the elements of design are, we can start to look for them in “the wild” and explore how different artists use them in their work.

For today’s exercise, I’m returning to my style treasure hunt pinboard to look at the elements of design in pieces I like. How are these artists using the elements of design? What impact does each element have on the piece? What sorts of strategies seem to be at work (hint: that’s what will take us into next week when we talk about principles!).


When thinking about a “point” as an element of design, I wanted to explore how artists draw the viewer’s attention to particular point in space, rather than how they draw a particular point itself. Basically, everything is or can be a point… so how do you go about emphasizing one over the others?

I’ll start with this pin of the cover of a book my daughter loves (Uni The Unicorn).

There are lots of points in this image. But your eye travels right to the point where the little girl and unicorn are touching foreheads. Why is that? The composition of the image creates a heart shape between the girl’s and the unicorn’s heads, with the center of the heart right on their faces, especially their closed eyes. Also at that point, the unicorn’s nose is nuzzling the girl’s arm– and the girl’s arm is hugging the unicorn. All of these pieces of the image draw your attention to that particular point between them, creating a warm fuzzy feeling and sense of cozy friendship when you view the image.

We’ll talk about composition next week (spoiler: it’s a principle), but it’s important that the point is the focus of attention in this piece. It’s a somewhat abstract concept, but it becomes super concrete when you think about the goals of this image. If the viewer’s attention weren’t centered on that point, the feeling of the image would totally change.

When trying to gauge focal point in a piece of art, think about where your eye lands first. Is there anything in the piece that feels particularly magnetic? In this one, for me, the center flower draws and holds my eye. There’s a lot of movement outward from that point as well, but it serves to emphasize that center focal point, like a set of reverse arrows. Color, bounding lines, and the movement of other elements (flowers pointed away from it) all serve to direct the eye to the flower in the center of the red diamond.


Probably my favorite element– the one that I’m both drawn to the most as well as the one I struggle the most with– is color. Let’s look at how some of my favorite artists use color in their work.

I love bright, saturated colors (probably no secret there). I also love flat, stylized color. The color in this landscape isn’t totally flat, since it is brushwork, but the variation is incidental and not intended to be shading or other indications of form (form is created with other elements, which I’ll get to below). This color palette is fairly complicated– I count at least 13 different colors (including shades and tints). There are some interesting color principles at work here as well, but I’ll wait until next week to get in to those 😉 The overall effect is cheerful and vibrant, suggesting a lot of life, warmth, and action in this place (even though we don’t see any people).

Confession: I combed through my pinboard trying to find an example of a limited color palette to contrast with this one… and I just don’t have any. Even for the artists that I pinned who are usually known for more limited color palettes, I pinned examples with 5+ colors in them! I love color.


This is just from a vector stock image site, but I like the wreath (and have a few similar ones that I’ve painted myself). Line in this piece creates both shape and movement. We all know wreaths are circles, but rather than drawing a circle and calling it a wreath, the unnamed artist drew curved lines that approximate a circular shape. The leaves (shapes) all stem off of the lines in the same direction, creating a sense of clockwise movement.

In Lisa Congdon’s landscape study above, line creates form– the slant of the lines on the roofs of the houses suggests that they are not flat rectangles, and the repeated curved lines in the blue and green half-circles suggests the movement of water in a pond.

Likewise, in the example below, lines are carved into the block to create the impression of shading around the edges of a form, giving the impression of depth and texture.


Space is a little tricky to talk about without getting deep into the principles, but you can see a nice use of space in the pin below.

There’s no bounding line to show the edges of land or water, or even color distinction between earth, sea, and sky. Instead, the balance of positive and negative space, and the relative placement of objects in those spaces, clearly shows the viewer that this is a boat on an ocean approaching a mountainous shoreline.


I think floral drawings are awesome for exploring shape– flowers seem so complicated when you look at them (and, okay, they are), but they’re actually made up of a bunch of simple shapes. Take the following examples:

These are circles! Literally just circles, repeated and overlapped and subtracted from each other.

This one is a little more complicated, but you can still see the circles repeated over and over (and overlapped, and also stretched into teardrops). Add in some lines and curves and voila. Flowers. They’re definitely not photorealistic flowers, but every viewer would still recognize them as flowers.


We touched on form a bit above, in the discussion of line. It’s hard to separate form from other elements, because you need the other elements to help create the impression of form. You can find examples of form in nearly every pin above.

Here is a new one that uses almost every other element to indicate form:

The curves of the lines on the mermaid’s tail, in her bikini, and on her necklace indicate the curve of her body. The high contrast in color between her hair and body, as well as the placement of her colorful hair behind her body (using space!) indicates depth and dimension. And finally, there’s texture as well as variation in color and line weight in her hair that helps to give it a sense of dimension.


Last but not least, texture. I am not big on texture, aside from illustrated surface patterns. I tend to favor flat, graphic design-y blocks of color, but there are some subtle uses of texture that I really appreciate.

I like how Kenard Pak used both the natural texture of watercolor (maybe digital watercolor? I read that he uses both) as well as line to create the crunchy texture of the fall grass. I also love the subtle texture of the background trees that gives the impression of thinning leaves, and the foggy texture layered on top of it that makes you almost feel the chill in the air (along with giving a nice depth to the illustration).

I think this illustration is more in line with how I’d use texture, personally. The frozen ponds look crackly thanks to both watercolor and line, and there is a subtle variation in texture on the houses and haystacks that gives them some dimension.

And that wraps it up for my exploration of the elements of design “in the wild”! On Friday, I’ll try my hand at analyzing one or two of my own pieces of artwork to examine how I used the elements of design (and to what effect) and where I might push myself to take a few more risks (and what they might accomplish).

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