Week 2: Elements of Design

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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?

They’re all the same hue! I altered the brightness in the first circle, and the saturation in the last circle. The middle circle is the “original”.


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:

Thick to thin, wavy and textured lines. They’re all lines, but they’re all different. How might we use them in a piece of art?


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:

Space defined by a line, by a color, and by what it is not (the color around it).


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?

Shape defined by color, by a series of lines (but not a bounding line!), by texture, and by… a blob?

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.

I didn’t say it was a very *good* mug…

(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.

Physical texture (crumpled paper), shapes and colors used to give the impression of scaly texture, and lines used to give the impression of a feathered texture.

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

Week 1: Style Treasure Hunting

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Hello! And welcome back to DIY Art School Orientation! If you’re new here, be sure to check out the overview on this page, and the syllabus right here. After you get caught up with my first post, come on back and see what’s going on today 🙂

Today I’m going on a hunt. Not a bear hunt. Not a lion hunt. A style hunt!

In **her class on Creativebug, Lila Rogers suggests “treasure hunting” a variety of things you love, and contemplating what you love about them. Likewise, **Christine Nishiyama’s Skillshare class walks students through a style influence exercise that includes mapping different sources of inspiration.

I decided to adapt these exercises to focus only on illustration (for now), and to think specifically about the defining elements and techniques these artists use that I would like to emulate in my own work (this is a bit of a preview of next week when I’m going to review the “foundations” of art + design).

Not surprisingly, I found myself drawn to some of the same illustrators over and over– they have well-defined styles, and so use many of the same elements and techniques repeatedly in their work. The main artists whose work I love, love, love and which I am going to look at here are Lisa Congdon, Brigette Barrager, Sarah Walsh, Andrea Lauren, and Dinara Mirtalipova.

I think the thing they all have in common is that they are “perfectly imperfect” in their representations of people and things. None of them are setting out to create photo-realistic paintings, and they’re often drawing people or flowers or animals that don’t necessarily exist in “real life” 🙂

(I’ll add that it’s super interesting to see how their work has been licensed in different ways, and how they work in different media for personal projects– if you click through to their websites you can see how their styles translate from a 2D page into something 3D, whether a hand-made personal project or a manufactured brand collaboration).

One of the things I like to paint the most are houses, so it’s no surprise that the largest number pins on my board were house-related. While I admire the skill necessary to create precise architectural renderings, the styles I’m most attracted to are more fairy tale-esque and illustrative. I’m all about the charm and character when it comes to houses– both in drawings and in real life!

The first one I’m drawn to is this street scene by Dinara Mirtalipova. I have a thing for street scenes in general, particularly rows of houses. What I love about this one is her use of black, especially to bring attention to the little details– the curved balconies, the embellishments around the windows, the textured doors, the cats on the roofs! All of the details make the scene SO charming. I think by using so much stark black it not only makes them stand out, but also gives it an extra layer of fantasy-illustration. True black is not very common in nature, even in architectural scenes, so when you use it to outline or add in detail linework, it emphasizes the fact that this is intentionally not a photo-realistic rendering.

Something I find interesting about this one is her use of color. Usually Dinara uses a more saturated, flat color palette– and a lot more red! This street scene is much more muted, textured, and earthy (it looks like she may have used a watercolor or ink wash under the linework). The illustration is still really clearly identifiable as hers, I think because of the black details.

This house by Brigette Barrager is so “perfectly imperfect”– the wonky lines and uneven windows give it so much personality. She uses very little true black (just in the wrought iron grates and a little in the roof), but it still has the fairy tale-like character to it. You kind of feel like you’re about to step in to a children’s book (which I like!).

Even though she doesn’t use much true black, there is still a lot of contrast in this painting. The background colors are super muted, making the house pop. The details– like the bushes and the lower windows– are very dark and stand out a lot against the white house. The pinks in the upstairs windows play nicely with the greens in the bushes around the house. I think that helps to make the painting feel polished and complete, especially when the lines and textures are deliberately wonky.

The colors!! I looove flat, saturated colors. One of the things I like most about Lisa’s paintings is how she uses color to define shape (but note the difference from her drawings– see below!), and then goes in later and adds linework– so the color and the line really stand on their own and do two totally different things (define shape vs define texture and details).

Of course, I also love the geometric, impressionistic elements of this painting– it is unapologetically *not* a photograph. But at the same time– there’s no question as to what each element represents! I also like the way she plays with perspective and makes the ground somewhat flat.

Did I mention I like flat, saturated colors? Yes? Okay. I think that’s part of what draws me (frequently!) to block prints and stamps. Andrea Lauren has such a great style– I love **her book and find the compositions in it so inspiring. I think it’s a nice example of “modern folk art.”

I get frustrated because my carving skills aren’t up to par, but I love the effect. I used to do a lot of cut-paper art, and like the sharp definition it gives to shapes. A lot of the work I’m drawn to accomplishes that in different ways– like block carving– by using high-contrast, highly-saturated colors to define shape.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m *afraid* of drawing people, but I don’t often feel like I *succeed* at drawing people… especially faces! That is why I am so, so impressed by people who do it well. Sarah Walsh is kind of known for her people, especially people with diverse appearances. I love the hard edges in this illustration, and the way she combines flat saturated color- shapes with textural overlays (digital brushes, line) and plays with transparency in a few key places like the food. I like the wonky perspective (kind of like Lisa Congdon’s)– you can see everyone’s eyes even though the viewer is from a slightly overhead angle.

Flowers! I love flowers. I really love leaves, though. While the traditional sort of soft, washy- watercolor flowers are lovely (and I’d like to learn to paint them), I love these folksy flowers and other foliage by Dinara Mirtalipova best. The color is what jumps out at me first– the saturated pinks, oranges, and reds, contrasting with the greens of the leaves. And then you notice the more subtle gold and yellow leaves filling out the composition. It’s such a nice balance of contrast and subtlety, and gives your eye lots of reasons to meander around the whole piece. There’s also a lot of contrast in size– BIG big flowers, and little little ones, all blooming together. Like in several of the other examples I’ve looked at, a lot of her shapes are defined by color, and the details are brought out with high-contrast (both white and black) line work.


More flowers! Lisa Congdon is kind of known for her linework, and here she uses it to create all kinds of fantastical flower shapes. I find it interesting to see how different her painting style is from her drawing style (at least, this looks to me like it was done with a micron pen, perhaps). Whereas above she used color to define her shapes and line to bring in the details, line is the dominant feature here. It both defines the shape of the flower as well as the textural details of each. Color is brought in as another way to highlight details and complete the overall composition. 

I love the saturated, flat colors (it almost looks like they were filled in with the live paint feature in Illustrator, but I *think* she works primarily with traditional media). I think using the secondary and tertiary colors here really works with a somewhat broad color palette. It keeps the level of contrast from becoming too “buzzy” (see next week’s discussion of color 😉 ).

This is the cover image on my daughter’s (current) favorite book, Uni the Unicorn, illustrated by Brigette Barrager. I love the overall composition here, and the illustrations throughout the book are just as charming. I like the use of secondary and tertiary colors, and the fanciful flower shapes– they’re not too fanciful, though. You might expect to see some of them in an actual field of flowers.

And finally, this whimsical print by Sarah Walsh. I love the composition and collection of somewhat random, fanciful things (potted plants, prehistoric animals). I love the color palette. And I love the way the paint strokes (and gradients) are visible within the object, but the shapes have sharp, clear lines. I think this piece is a nice reminder for me that *anything* can be a composition– it doesn’t have to be a scene in order for it to be a complete, polished piece.

Want to see more work by these talented ladies?? I either own and love these books, or have them high on my wishlist!

  • **Uni the Unicorn (illustrated by Brigette Barrager) — one of my 4-year-old daughter’s favorite books, responsible for sparking her current obsession with unicorns, and for introducing me to Brigette’s illustrations
  • **Imagine a Forest: Designs and Inspirations for Enchanting Folk Art (Dinara Mirtalipova)– a lovely how-to-ish book on Dinara’s folk art style, I credit this for dragging me out of my post-baby creative slump last summer!
  • **Art, Inc: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (Lisa Congdon) I love this book of practical advice (not so much featuring her artwork, though), and will be re-reading it during the 4th quarter of DIY Art School for sure.
  • **The Joy of Swimming: A Celebration of Our Love for Getting in the Water (Lisa Congdon)– I don’t own this one, but it’s high on my wishlist. I was excited to learn that Lisa started painting in her 30s (like me!) and even more excited to learn that she’s a pretty badass swimmer (I am not so badass, but I love to swim).
  • **Playful Painting: People (Sarah Walsh)– This one is on my to-purchase list for February. I’m love Sarah’s style of painting people, and can’t wait to pick up a few tips and tricks from this book!
  • **Hats of Faith (Sarah Walsh)– This is on my “to purchase next” list for my kids. I read somewhere that it began as a personal project for Sarah, which I think is super cool!
  • **Block Print (Andrea Lauren)– I love this book of printing projects. I haven’t completed any of the projects yet, but the designs inside are so inspiring! I pull it out whenever I need a quick dose of creative inspiration.

Come back next week when I review some of the foundations of art + design, and apply this same analysis to my own portfolio-to-date in order to think about where I can challenge myself and push my boundaries. In the meantime, I’d love to hear who some of your favorite/ most inspiring illustrators and artists are 🙂