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: How to Find Your Artistic Style

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My first set of assignments for DIY Art School Orientation all revolve around thinking about my artistic style. “Style” is one of those things that everyone talks about, but it can be hard to define. It’s a sort of “know it when you see it” concept.

If someone has a well-defined style, you can identify their work without even seeing a signature or a byline. We often think of style in connection to fashion– a person with a “sense of style” combines different pieces of clothing in unique ways. Style can be found in literally anything people produce– I can recognize certain photographers’ styles based on composition, subject matter, and the way they edit in post-processing. Or different academics’ styles of writing based on sentence structure, word choice (ugh, jargon), and conceptual model. Cooks develop styles of making food, whether it’s in-line with a well-established tradition (eg. French cuisine) or simply a set of go-to home cooked meals. Style naturally develops when you do any activity over and over and over again.

I watched several videos and completed a couple of reading assignments about finding my artistic style, including:

I think the main takeaways from this week’s explorations can be summed up in three central ideas.

1. Borrow, Steal, Get “Inspired”

Art isn’t created in a vacuum. I think when a lot of would-be artists are young, they have a romanticized notion of being a lone wolf, holed up in her/ his (okay, usually his) attic studio, agonizing over paintings or typewritten pages, all alone day-in, day-out.

There seems to be this idea that, to create truly original art, you have to separate yourself from societal influences.

Yeah, that’s silly.

One of the most useful foundational concepts held in my previous profession (anthropologist) is that people are always already a part of a social group. We need other people (besides our mother) just to be born! It’s actually physically very difficult and dangerous (but not impossible) for humans to give birth alone, unlike many other animals. People are social creatures, we especially don’t do well being alone for extended periods of time. We eventually become mentally unstable, which is why extreme isolation can be so dangerous.

(Side note: any other fans of the Nine-nine? Occasionally bringing attention to serious issues, and always with humor! That’s Jake Peralta in solitary confinement, FYI)

My point is, we’re surrounded by people with their own ideas, making their own stuff. And we can’t help but see it and think about it before going out and making our own stuff. We’re constantly borrowing, stealing, and being “inspired” by other people, whether consciously or not. We’re social creatures. It’s just part of what we’re hardwired to do.

Both Lila Rogers’s class, as well as Christine Nishiyama’s classes, suggest looking at what you really like– stuff around you that makes your heart beat a little faster– to figure out where the roots of your style lie. In other words, make your inspiration a conscious activity. In addition, make it mindful! You don’t want to literally steal someone else’s work and claim it as your own, even “accidentally” :-/

I started this exercise by adding work by my favorite illustrators to a Pinterest board. I’ll admit, I was kind of bad at this. I think I just like a LOT of stuff. I was only supposed to collect 5- 10 things that I REALLY like, and I ended up with several dozen. Oops. I limited myself to artwork, even though style grows out of so much more– music, movies, physical objects, even food or travel experiences. I think as I go on, I’ll continue to add non-art items to this board to flesh it out (and whittle the existing selections down a bit).

In one of Christine’s classes, she reviews several periods in art history and analyzes different characteristics of the work, such as color, subject matter, technique, etc. This is a great exercise to do not just with the “masters”, but with any contemporary artist or illustrator as well– and with your own work! My next blog post will explore a few of my pins in closer detail, analyzing what it is about them that draws me in so much, whether the line work, color, subject, composition, or something else.

So, identifying your inspiration– or sources, or references, or influences, or however you want to think about them– is just the first step in borrowing/ stealing/ being inspired. Jerry Saltz pointed out in his “33 Rules For Being An Artist” that everyone starts out as copycats. But it’s not enough to simply reproduce what you like (as if that were even so simple!).

You have to synthesize it, assimilate it into your own psyche and muscle memory, so that what you create is an amalgam of many different sources of inspiration and thus, uniquely yours!

You should definitely read this book. I found myself saying “yes!” and “of course!” and also giggling (because humor) at many points. It’s one I keep going back to, and I don’t do that with many books.

Austin Kleon talks about this in his book Steal Like An Artist— it’s his first “rule”, in fact! Your work must be greater than the sum of its parts. Or, if not greater (maybe that’s the ideal situation ;)) at least wholly different from the sum of its parts.

I love his example of genetics to illustrate this: you have genes from both your mom and your dad, but you are not just mom + dad. Your mashed-up genetics make you entirely unique. Maybe someone who doesn’t know you well would confuse you for one of your parents, but certainly none of your friends would. Likewise, maybe someone who doesn’t know your artistic work well might confuse it for one of your sources, but it should be mostly identifiable as yours and only yours.

2. Make What You Want to Make More of

aka: like attracts like

One of my goals with my DIY Art School is to put together a portfolio that I could start circulating to potential clients. The goal with a portfolio is to demonstrate what kinds of work I can do… but also what kinds of work I want to do.

In her Creativebug class, Lila Rogers says “What you show is what you get.” You won’t be hired to do editorial illustrations, for example, if all you show are repeat patterns. In your portfolio, like attracts like. If you show lots of one type of work, or have a very well-defined style, you will be hired for that work or that style, and so you’ll produce more of that kind of work/ style.

This isn’t a difficult concept, but it is a little tricky, especially if you’re already working and/ or have an established portfolio, but it doesn’t quite look like the sort of thing you want to be making. The key, then, is making time for personal projects that reflect where you want your style and work to head. 

In my case, starting out on my own from scratch (without even professors telling me what I should/ shouldn’t be doing!) is kind of a benefit. All of my projects are personal projects, and I can focus on wherever my interests lie. Of course, the drawback here is that I have many, many interests, and a rather short attention span, which can lead to a scattered and unfocused portfo— ooh look! Something shiny! 😉 

Another way to approach this idea is, as Kleon says, to “write the book you want to read.”  By making what you like, you’re guaranteed to have at least an audience of one (yourself). And if you like something, there’s a good chance that other people like it, too. Even if they don’t like it, you’ve made something that makes you happy, which is something even if it doesn’t pay the bills (he also suggests you keep a non-art day job, which is very sound advice, IMO).

3. Keep Making Stuff

Style isn’t fixed, just as you-the-person aren’t some static, never-changing thing. Your interests change, your goals change, your personality even changes as you mature (hopefully… goodness knows it would be awful to be a 70-year-old with the personality of a 3-year-old… ahem).

But, if you freeze up and refuse to challenge yourself– or even refuse to make things that you’ve always made– your style will stagnate as well. In order to mature as artists (and as people!) we’ve got to put in the work.

That’s right. Two Nine-nine references in one post! Nerd alert.

So keep making things! Make the same stuff you’ve always made, that’s fine. The thing is, human beings terrible at reproducing things exactly as we see them, whether it’s our own work or someone else’s. So even by drawing the same flower (or chair, or whatever) over and over again, you won’t be able to help but change it a little each time. And those incremental changes, over time lead to stylistic evolution. Imagine if you applied incremental changes to multiple drawings or paintings each day! Just think of how much you’d grow and develop as an artist!

Now, the challenge is to find the time… 🙂

Week 1: Orientation

Links on this page may be affiliate links. This means when you click on them, I may receive a small benefit at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!! 🙂

Happy New Year!

I’ve officially kicked off my DIY Art School adventure, starting with a two-week “orientation.” During this little warm-up to the main event, I’ll be easing in to work with a few fun “assignments.”

My focus this week is reflecting on my own artistic style and how I might want to develop it. I’m watching a couple of videos in Christine Nishiyama’s Art School Bootcamp on Skillshare, and starting Lila Roger’s class, “Treasure Hunt Your Artistic Style” on Creativebug. After watching these videos, I’ll create a mood board for my style as it is right now, and think about which areas/ techniques I’d like to expand or refine.

Next week I’ll recap some of the fundamentals (basic color theory, principles and elements of design, a bit of composition) and do a self-assessment of my portfolio, such as it exists right now! Then, I’ll get to start on the meat of the project, with a focus on illustrating plants and animals during January.

During these two weeks of orientation, I’m re-reading Austin Kleon’s awesome book Steal Like An Artist, and reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for the first time. I’m also checking out a blog post by Jerry Saltz (discovered via Austin Kleon’s excellent newsletter), 33 rules for being an artist.

I’m hoping all of this will help me get my head on straight as I dive in to the practice-oriented part of my adventure. I’ll be doing sketchbook exercises every day starting… NOW, and posting those to Instagram daily. Each month I’ll designate a set of exercises from Creativebug to fall back on if I am feeling stuck or uninspired.

My “real” projects don’t really start until after orientation, but I’m kind of chomping at the bit to open up a few new pans of watercolors I got for Christmas, so we’ll see where that takes me over the next few days 😀 

In terms of blog posts, throughout my DIY adventure I’ll review the video courses I watch and books I read, share any projects I make, and write reflections on my own process and ideas about creativity. At the end of each week I’ll do a “work in review” post, recapping my sketchbook work and what I completed during the week. I’m aiming to blog about DIY Art School 3 times each week.

Whew, think that’s enough?!?! I’d best get a move on, those videos won’t watch themselves!


This week’s resources:

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 🙂


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!