Module 24 — Focus on Design

In the last module, we explored making different design choices to affect the mood of a painting. But wait! Aren’t there rules you have to follow for good design? 

Are there?

Module 24 Thinking Prompt—Principles of Design

What Are “Elements” and “Principles” of Design?

Most people take the “elements of design” to be the building blocks for creating images: line, shape, value, color, space, form and texture. (For a 2-dimensional image, these last two are actually only implied by the way we use the others to suggest three dimensions, so some painters don’t include them.) 

The “principles of design” are considered to be rules or guidelines about how to use these various elements to create pleasing images. 

Should/Must You Use Them?

Search online (or look through a few books on design) for different lists of the elements and principles of design. 

Have you tried to use the principles of design to create better paintings? How/when have they been helpful? 

Are they rules we must follow or are they just general guidelines? Who gets to decide what the rules of good design should be? And, if these are rules we’re all supposed to follow, why do different people list different ones? Do you find them helpful or do you think they stifle your creativity?

What about all those rules of composition: rule of thirds, golden section, etc., golden triangles, spirals, etc?

Whether you treat them as hard-and-fast rules or general guidelines, do you want to keep a list in your studio notebook as a handy reminder? 

If you find them arbitrary and restrictive, do you want to create guidelines of your own for designing paintings? Or should each image be designed entirely intuitively?

Module 24 Activity Prompt—Working with Design

Option 1—Revised painting or sketch

Start with a painting or sketch that doesn’t (completely) please you. Try running through (someone’s version of) the principles of design to see if it helps you identify changes that might make the painting or sketch more pleasing.

Option 2—Abstract Expressionist Sketch

Here is a classic way of learning about the effects of the various principles of design and composition. This kind of sketch allows to you focus entirely on design, because there’s no “subject” forcing you to do something to make it recognizable. 

Here’s a simple way to create an abstract expressionist sketch:

Make a rectangle on a page in your sketchbook (or pull out a piece of paper). Put something in it. Add something else. Does it feel “done”? If not, add something else (or change something). 

If you get stuck and can’t figure out what to add or change, look over the elements and principles of design to see if they give you any ideas for getting unstuck. Rinse. And repeat. Keep going until you like the image, or until you decide you’d rather start fresh.

Note: Collage or opaques can really help with this activity. If you like it as a design for a watercolor, you can reserve the lights when you create your watercolor (since now you know where you want them). 

If you have a hard time getting started, try dividing up your rectangle using several lines, or by drawing a big squiggle all over the box. Then fill in a few areas with color and go from there. 

Module 24 Journaling Together Video

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