Sunday, January 6, 2013

Artist Tip #9 - Introduction to Design - Elements

Normally, when we begin our artistic journey, we are entirely focused on learning to draw and handle our art materials in order to be able to faithfully represent the scene before us.  Typically, our next step is to learn design so we can rearrange and modify what we see in order to make the resulting painting more pleasing to the viewer at the expense of departing a bit from reality.  Finally we reach toward developing a purpose, message, or emotion in our artwork.  These steps don't follow a strict progression; we continue to develop our skills and methods as we begin to apply design principles to our paintings, and continue both while reaching for meaning and emotion in our artwork.

My first eight artist tips focused on the first stage: convincingly representing reality, and we're not yet done with that.  But I'd like to now begin our journey into painting design.  Before considering design principles and guidelines, we must first understand what the elements are that we artists have to work with.  There's no magic here; we're already familiar with these seven elements of design:

  • Shapes
  • Lines
  • Size
  • Direction
  • Texture
  • Value
  • Color

A few words about each will ensure that we are all talking the same language when we get to the actual information on design:

Shapes can be outlined or not, and with straight sides, curved sides, or both.  Shapes can be of any size, and can be in any orientation or direction.

Lines can be straight or curved, thick or thin, and of various lengths and directions.

As we can see, size and direction are specific characteristics of shapes and lines.  The last 3 elements are also characteristics of shapes and lines, but are worthy of a bit more discussion.

Texture is a characteristic of both the insides and edges of shapes.  Three basic textures can be achieved in most painting mediums:

  • Hard or smooth
  • Rough
  • Soft

These are illustrated in the following diagram using watercolor on paper:

Value is the lightness or darkness of a shape or line.  The easiest way to think of value is as a gray scale:

One use of the gray scale was already covered in Artist Tip #4 - Understanding Cast Shadows (Part 1), where we discussed the value difference between a surface in sunlight and in shadow.  However, that was in pursuit of the first stage goal of learning to convincingly represent reality.  As a design element, value can be manipulated to improve the impact of our painting at the expense of accurately representing reality.

Color is the last element we have to work with, and it is complex enough to deserve a separate discussion in our next artist tip.

The very best reference I've found on the basics of painting design are several chapters in Tony Couch's classic book, Watercolor You Can Do It.  Although it is written from a watercolor perspective, most of its design information is applicable to all mediums.  Much of what I have learned about painting design was gleaned from Tony's book and workshops.

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