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So far in my DIY Art School “orientation“, I’ve spent some time thinking about how one develops an artistic style, and what influences me specifically. I went on a treasure hunt of other illustrators’ work that I admire and that have elements that I would like to emulate.
So, um.. what are these “elements” we speak of? Is it that je ne sais quois that makes you go “ooooh!” when you see a piece of art you like? Is it like saying something has “good character” or “sits well” with the viewer? Not so much.
Elements are concrete components of a work of art or design, and the principles are “strategies” the artist uses to apply the elements in a way that makes it visually appealing and coherent.
Okay, that’s nice, you may be thinking. Why should I care about these academic-y concepts? All I want to do is make art.
The better you understand the elements and principles of design, the better you can apply them to your own work to make it more visually appealing and coherent– or totally unappealing and incoherent, if that’s what you’re going for! The point is, the elements and principles of design are tools in the artist’s toolkit as much as brushes or pencils or paint are. You can keep them in mind while creating to think strategically about how to achieve your goals for a given piece of artwork.
Since these things are so foundational to art and design, this week I’m exploring each of the elements of design in depth. First, I’ll look up how they’re defined, then I’ll hunt out real-life examples of them in action, and finally I’ll create a few sketchbook entries that illustrate each one for myself.
Next week I’ll take a stab at the principles of design in the same manner.
Read on to get started defining the elements of design!
Let’s start at the beginning. Points are perhaps the most abstract of the elements of design, but also extremely concrete. A point is a conceptual “dot” in space– it can be a literal dot, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s simply (and oh-so-complexly) a location that draws a viewer’s attention. It can be used to define other elements, or it can be defined by other elements. Let’s bring this idea into the realm of the real with a couple of illustrations:
a single point, 4 points defining a line, and 9 points defining a shape
a conceptual point, defined by other elements (lines and shapes)
Color is one of the first things we learn when doing art as children. We learn to identify colors, and then to categorize them into “primary” and “secondary”, and then how to mix them. Red and yellow make orange, and yellow and blue make green, etc. We all know color, right?
But there’s more to color than meets the eye. Oh wait, no, that’s not right. Color is what meets the eye, but there’s more to what meets the eye than we’re taught in elementary school.
The basics of color we all learn are actually just the “hues,” the general names of each color of the rainbow (spectrum of visible light). But when considering color we also have to think about the value (proportion of white or black in a hue), temperature (warm/ cool), and saturation (concentration of the color), all of which create the infinite permutations of the rainbow.
Add to that the fact that our perception of color is subconsciously driven by different cultural and psychological factors, and you have yourself one complicated element. Color choice and pairings can evoke different moods and feelings for different viewers, some near-universally and some more idiosyncratically.
I’ll be diving into color a bit more by playing around with different palettes on Wednesday, but here is one small example. These circles are all the same hue (red), but you wouldn’t say they’re the same color. So what is different about them?
Much like color, line seems pretty self-explanatory. A line is a line, right? We all know what that looks like.
But, also like color, lines are deceptively simple. A line is never *just* a line. Lines can convey boundaries and solidity, but also movement and dynamism. Lines can be thick or thin. Heavy or wispy. Straight or curved. How many different types of line can you think of? Let’s look at a few examples:
Here’s another somewhat abstract concept– space. Space is defined both by what it is (eg. contained by a line, or a blob of color) but also by what it is not (eg. everything outside of that line, everything outside of the blob of color).
Space can be tricky (and fun!) when you manipulate it to convey the relationship between items. I’ll get to this more next week when we talk about principles.
This might be easier to understand with an example:
Shapes are pretty much what you learned in school (thank goodness, right?!). Circle, square, triabngle, rectangle, etc. But shapes can also be less rigid– think blobs and amoebas. A shape is just any (flat, 2-dimensional) space that is set apart from the space around it.
One of the cool things about shapes is that they are usually combinations of other elements. Shapes can be defined solely by color, by line, by texture, or by points. Take the examples below– all of them are circles. But like the example for color above, they’re not necessarily the same shape. What sort of visual impact does defining shapes differently create?
One of the key skills artists and designers must learn is the ability to see shapes in everyday objects. When you’re drawing a mug, for example, you don’t sit down to draw a mug per se. You draw a circle. And then a couple of lines (or maybe a curved rectangle) off the edge of the circle, and then another circle below that. Then you draw a half circle (or a couple of curved lines) on the side of the rectangle. And what do you have? A rudimentary mug. Add color and shading and detail and voila, art.
(Side note: This reminds me of a funny meme I saw recently:
Forms are similar to shapes in that they are enclosed space, set apart from the space around them in some way (eg. lines, color, texture, points, etc). But forms are special because they’re 3 dimensional (oooOOOOooo). But don’t worry, no special glasses needed to see them. Forms are primarily defined by line, shades of color (eg. darker or lighter colors to indicate that parts of an object are closer or farther away), and texture. Take these sketches from my sketchbook as an example:
Texture describes the qualities of a surface, including shapes, forms, and even lines. And texture is so much fun, you guys!
Texture can be physical– as in, you touch it and it feels rough or smooth (yep, that’s an element of design), or visual– as in you look at it and you think “oh, I’ll bet that feels rough”.
But roughness and smoothness are not the only textures! Surface patterns can also be textures.
Lines, color, shape, and points can all be used in different combinations to convey a sense of visual texture. Physical texture can be created a million different ways depending on the medium you’re using. For example, as a painter I could just lay my paint on extra-thick (or thin!) to create a particular texture, or I could add a medium to it to help build it up on the surface I’m using. I could add torn paper or other fibers to create a textured collage.
Embroidery is a fascinating medium to explore the elements of design– all of the different stitches create shape, color, line, point, and texture at the same time! (but I suppose the same could be said of paint 😉 ).
That covers all of the essential definitions. On Wednesday I’ll begin looking in the “wild” for examples of how other artists use the elements of design in their own work. Check out the links below for some further reading and references.
Further Reading + Viewing
- John Lovett’s series of pages on the elements and principles of design
- Good ol’ Wikipedia (not super accurate, but you get the gist)
- 99Designs: the 6 elements of design (slightly different definitions than I have seen elsewhere)
- Skillshare: Dylan M’s class on the elements and principles (includes 2 free months of premium!)
- Book: Graphic Design The New Basics