Have you even wondered what goes on behind the scenes of creating good design? Have you ever pondered why some designs are so satisfying to look at? Do you like filling in adult colouring books, or paint by number oil paintings, or completing embroidery kits? There is a method behind those compelling designs. Whether you want to know how to create your own designs or simply want to know how design works, I hope what follows will help you gain a deeper appreciation for artists and artisans and what they go through to bring you the best of their ideas.
I have spent several entertaining hours watching the TV show “How it's Made”. I am mesmerized by processes. I love learning how things come together. Currently, I am trying to limit my screen time but occasionally I can go down the YouTube and IGTV rabbit holes of viral videos that reveal satisfying processes. When I know some of the process, the sped-up version confirms my understanding but sometimes I need a slower pace to comprehend all that is involved. For designers and artists this pace is their optimal process, time is at a stand still when they are in their creative zone.
Artists and Artisans have studied design and have practiced and refined their compositions following and sometimes breaking the rules. They knows this elements and principles of design inside out. Think of the elements and principles of design as though they are the ingredients for a delicious recipe, or skills ones needs to have to play their best Hockey game or ultimately the shapes, lines, and colours that are arranged to create a composition. There are several options to choose from, but for me, the most important principles in a good design are Balance and Harmony utilizing the elements Shape and Space.
What follows are quick Coles notes of Design.
Shape refers to an enclosed area of space. It can be two-dimensional like the squares and lines in Piet Mondrian's Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue, 1929, where is defined but height and width or three-dimensional like Claes Oldenburg's Pop Art Floor Burger, 1962 in the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario which is defined by height, width and depth.
Piet Mondrian's Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue, 1929
Claes Oldenburg's Pop Art Floor Burger, 1962
Shape can be geometric like the squares and semi-sphere in Victor Vasarely Vega-Nor 1969 in collection at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, or cylindrical like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato), 1962.
Victor Vasarely Vega-Nor 1969
Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato), 1962
Shape can be organic like the human in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Lourve in Paris, or a plant like Van Gogh’s cypress tree in Starry Night at the MOMA in New York, or animals like the rabbits and birds in William Morris’s Brother Rabbit wallpaper design in collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, 1503
Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889
William Morris, Brother Rabbit, 1882
And finally, shape can be free-form, where the shape changes frequently, like clouds, puddles or doodles. A great example of this is Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation No.28, 1912, at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Some shapes may seem recognizable to us, but that was not the intent. This painting is an abstract expression of music. Kandisky is attributed with creating the first truly abstract painting and is a leader in the Non-Objective Art movement.
Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation No.28, 1912
Space refers to the distance or area between, around, above or below or within objects. It can be described as 2D/Two-Dimensional or 3D/Three-Dimensional. Two-dimensional space refers the flat plane within a frame or an object in real space. It can be classified as positive (the object) and negative space (the area around the object). Three-dimensional space refers to depth or distance.
In surface design, we are most concerned with positive and negative space whether in a two-dimensional design or three-dimensional form. On a two-dimensional surface, the contrast between spaces, is often defined by shape, so in the images below, we perceive different shapes depending on which space we are looking at and whether the space in closed or open.
image from www.mymodernmet.com
A wonderful three-dimensional example of this concept was created in ceramics Apparently by Greg Payce, 1999, The Gardiner Museum, Toronto, Ontario. In this work, the proximity of the positive space of each vase was designed to create images of children in profile within the negative spaces.
Greg Payce, Apparently, 1999
The balancing of positive and negative space is used in Joan Miro's The Harlequin's Carnival, 1925 also at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. Notice how the space around objects allows you to see the numerous images without feeling completely overwhelmed.
Joan Miro The Harlequin's Carnival, 1925
Cropping is another term that refers to the use of positive and negative space. It is the strategic cutting and placements of objects over the picture plane or frame of the composition. When used correctly, it leads the viewer into the composition and gives just enough information so we can still understand what it is. Since the invention of the camera, we have all gotten better at utilizing this technique.
Edgar Degas was an early adopter of this technique. In The Dance Class, 1873–1876, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can notice the watering can, ballet dancer's feet and dog all in the bottom left. Those cropped images help to balance the overall composition.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1873–1876
As I stated earlier, cameras are great for practicing this technique, except when excited. Case in point, in 1986, while on a trip to New York City with fellow art students, my friend spotted Andy Warhol walking towards us. We had been advised to keep an eye out for him, and that he welcomed art students, if they approached him. So she did! And he stopped to talk to us! And he allowed us to take photos with him! And we did! And of course, at that time we were using film and a flip flash. Here is my photo with him quickly snapped by an excited friend!
Andy Warhol cropped but still recognizable in the composition
Can you tell we all used curling and crimping irons that morning!
Here’s a recap:
Shape refers to 2D, 3D, Geometric or Organic and sometimes free form
Space refers to 2D (positive, negative & cropping) and 3D
Two Principles of Design
BALANCE is concerned with arranging the elements so that no single part of an artwork overpowers or seems heavier than any other part. There are three types: Radial, Symmetrical & Asymmetrical.
Radial balance occurs when elements seem to come out from a central axis point, like the top view of a flower or a hubcap on a car like a Maserati. The seeds and petals expand from the centre and radiate outward. The 5 paired spokes of the hubcap fit tightly around the central hub and expand outward to the outer ring.
Symmetrical balance is where the two halves of a composition are identical, mirror images of each other, like the frontal view of human body or a pineapple. In da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, one could draw a line down the centre and divide the image into two identical halves.
Leonardo Da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man, 1490
Asymmetrical balance uses unlike objects manipulated by size, contour, colour, value, texture and position. Compositions using this type of balance often are more natural and dynamic expressive quality. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo shows different weightings of figures and other imagery on both sides, there is no imaginary central vertical axis, but a diagonal one and it's not in the centre. The colours are different on both sides too!
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1512
Harmony is created when similar or related elements are combined in a composition. It helps to create unity within artwork by using circular forms like circles, spheres, ovals within one design or a set of analogous colours. A great example of shape, space and colour harmony is shown in Wassily Kandinsky's Colour study: Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913, at The Städtische Gallery in Munich, Germany. The squares are the same throughout, the circles and colours all change in different ways but with a dominant use of the colour red.
Wassily Kandinsky's Colour study: Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913
Here’s a recap:
Balance (Radial, Symmetrical and Asymmetrical)
Composition is the combination of elements and principles.
When artists develop new designs they go through the creative process:
- contemplate the visual problem to solve
- brainstorm ideas
- research content and context
- gather their own visual references
- draw thumbnail sketches
- refined studies
- edit and refine
- final version
As a beginner the best way to do this, is to practice making compositions as thumbnail sketched and refined studies and test out your materials and colour combinations. If you would like to practice along with a growing group of subscribers, you too can have access to PDF workbooks that connect to themes within my blog.