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!

Elements

Point

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

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”.

Line

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?

Space

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).

Shape

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:

)

Form

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

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 πŸ˜‰ ).

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

DIY Art School – Welcome

Hello! And welcome to my DIY Art School.

What is DIY Art School? I’ve decided that for the calendar year 2020, I’m going to pursue a consistent and systematic exploration of art + design. Independent of any institutions. Using resources available for free or otherwise low cost. And you’re welcome to follow along!

My goals with this project are:

  1. Develop a consistent daily art practice
  2. Explore art and creative theory in a way that helps me to incorporate new ideas into my practice
  3. Expand my illustration and design skills
  4. Develop an illustration- and design-related portfolio that I can begin circulating to potential employers
  5. Get a better idea of where I want to focus future personal projects

I’ll primarily be using resources that I’ve already purchased or that are freely available, including online classes, books, podcasts, and blogs. I would encourage anyone following along to check your local public library for resources first (inter-library loan rocks), and then any public university libraries you might have nearby. Fun fact: you can purchase memberships to most in-state public university libraries, and you can hang out in the stacks + read books for free without even being affiliated!

I’ll officially start on January 1. I’ve divided the year into four quarters, each with a different theme. Each month has a focus that ties back into the overall theme of the quarter, and allows for deeper exploration into a particular topic. I have reading and written reflection assignments, as well as video classes to watch– but art is something you learn by doing, so my emphasis will be on completing daily, weekly, and monthly projects, all aimed at developing my skills and ultimately building my portfolio.

So maybe you’re asking, “um, why? Why do it this way? Why not go back to art school if you want to go to art school?”

Excellent question! I’m so glad you asked! As it happens, I spent a lot of time in post-secondary education, but did not actually go to art school. Lately I’ve been regretting that particular life decision.

I’d love to go back to school but… actually, I wouldn’t. 13 years as a post-secondary student was plenty, thankyouverymuch. And then the 4 years I stayed on as a college instructor was even more than plenty. But if I learned anything in that time, it’s how to learn things. So I thought I’d put those skills to use learning something new, on my own, on a shoestring budget.

If that’s something that sounds interesting to you, I invite you to follow along with me! Watch the videos, read the books, try the assignments, and join in the conversation in the comments. I’d love to have your contributions. If not, I’ll still be posting regularly here on all topics related to creativity and craft, so stay tuned πŸ™‚

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More information is available at the links below:

FAQs are here.

The complete syllabus is available here.

Reading materials and supplies are listed here.

And all of the posts in the series will be listed here.

I look forward to seeing you in orientation!