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The Basics Of Design

     The fundamentals of design are the very building blocks of the arts. Everything in art can be distilled down to a matter of design. So what is design? One dictionary definition is "the organization or structure of formal elements in a work of art." Not very informative, perhaps, but not incorrect, either. Design is simply how things are arranged in a work of art. There must be organization in a work of art, or else it degenerates into a confusing mess! The basics of design apply not only to the fine arts, but to the minor arts as well. The wallpaper in your living room has a design on it; even the paper towels in your kitchen have a design printed on them. Design is the placement of elements on a two-dimensional surface, while composition is the arrangement of elements in the illusion of three-dimensional space. Both must be taken into account when creating a painting, or even a sculpture, for that matter.

Design can be broken down into two areas: principles and elements.

Here are the principles of design (Note: in using the word "element", I am referring to the objects or figures in an artwork, the "things" in a design):

1. Unity - although there should be some difference in the elements in a design, all elements taken together should work together to create a single, coherent design.
2. Conflict - although to achieve unity in a design most elements need to be similar, or serve a similar function, there should be some contradiction to add variety and life to the work.
3. Dominance - to help in achieving unity, one element out of the many elements that make up a design should predominate; i.e. there should be more of one color than any other, or dark values should predominate over lighter values, etc.
4. Repetition - the repetition of elements, such as geometric shapes, helps to create a sense of rhythm and unite the various elements in the design.
5. Alternation - variety is necessary in order to prevent monotony; i.e. breaking up a large area of shadow with a patch of light.
6. Balance - self-explanatory. Avoiding too much or too little, too many or too few.
7. Harmony - all elements in a design work together visually in an orderly fashion.
8. Gradation - the subtle change of color, value or shape contrasted with sharp or dramatic change helps to enrich the design.
9. Direction - the "lines of motion" in a painting should largely point in the same way, although allowing for some variety.

It's easy to see that these principles apply to any art form, not just the visual arts. Writers, composers, even dancers and film directors must employ these rules if they are to achieve an effective result. It should also be apparent that combining all of these principles effectively is a difficult and very subjective undertaking, since some principles seem to contradict others. Nonetheless, the artist balances them in such a way as to create an effective work of art. With experience and study the artist develops his "aesthetic sense" to the point where he automatically sees whether a painting or drawing "looks right" or not.

The elements of design are:

1. Line
2. Value (light and dark)
3. Color (or "hue")
5. Intensity
6. Texture
7. Shape
8. Size

Obviously, these are the things that a visual artist would use to create his work. A writer would use metaphor, simile, allusion, etc, while a composer would use full notes, half notes, sharps, flats, and so forth. The elements of design will vary according to the medium employed; the principles of design remain the same for any art form.

I have learned to look at a painting or drawing both as a two-dimensional design, and as a three-dimensional composition. In reality, a painting really is just a collection of shapes and colors on a flat surface, and during its creation it should be viewed as such in order to ensure that its design is sound. But if you work in a realistic, representational style as I do, you are also trying to create the appearance of three dimensions in your work, and you have to look at the piece in this manner as well. This is why I think it is advisable to work in a totally abstract style from time to time, so as to develop a better understanding of pure design, even if you usually work in a representational style.

Even a fully realistic treatment of a subject is nothing more than an abstract motif taken to a more highly developed level. Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa", as realistic as it may be, can still be viewed as a collection of shapes organized in a harmonious pattern on a flat surface. When a sculptor creates a figure in the round, mean to be seen from a full 360, he still has to be conscious of the two-dimensional aspect of the work when seen from different viewpoints. To be effective, it has to present an aesthetically pleasing appearance from any angle, and that means it has to have a solid design no matter where the viewer is standing. To demonstrate this, do a series of sketches of a statue or statuette from different viewpoints. If the sculpture has been designed well, it should look good from any angle, and your flat, two-dimensional sketches should reflect this.

Take a look at some of my paintings and drawings on my website. Forget that they are supposed to represent three-dimensional objects and figures. Simply look at them as flat, two-dimensional patterns, and try to see how I've used the principles of design in these works. Try analyzing other artist's work in this manner, too. This is an excellent exercise for strengthening your own sense of design.

In the end, art and design are one and the same. Color theory, composition, value schemes, drawing techniques and all the rest simply flesh out the basic design. Understand design, and you'll understand what makes great art.

Article Source:

The paintings of the author, Charles Griffith, can be found at and he can be contacted at Charles Griffith's interest in art began in childhood, and was encouraged by his family. Later, while serving in the U.S. military in Europe, he was inspired by seeing firsthand some of the treasures of European art. Today his art focuses on traditional realism, often with elements of Expressionism and Surrealism.

Posted on 2006-12-14, By: *

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Note: The content of this article solely conveys the opinion of its author.

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