Design elements are there whether you’re conscious of them or not. Learn to use them.
I and the Village, 1911, Marc Chagall, courtesy MOMA. In this painting, line is a dominant design element, articulating the relationship between man, beast and place.
In math, a line is straight, has no thickness and extends in both directions through space. Sometimes that’s what we mean by a line in art—for example, a horizon line.
More typically in art, a line is just a path through space. Wherever you have an edge, you also have a line. However, lines also refer to mark-making, so in that sense they can be fat, thin, punctuated, tapering, diffident, bold or whispering.
Diagonals and curves tend to keep us more engaged than unbroken verticals, as they’re more difficult for the eye to ‘solve.’
Interior of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam, 1664-66, Cornelis de Man, courtesy Mauritshuis. The illusion of three-dimensional form is created with drawing and value.
Shape and form
Shape and form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions–height and width–and are usually bounded by lines. Forms are three-dimensional. The artist’s dilemma is to give the illusion of three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional painting.
Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, Rosa Bonheur, courtesy Musée d'Orsay. The vast sky and field create as much narrative as do the team of oxen.
Space is, in the real world, three-dimensional. In art, the term refers to a sense of depth, or the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane. The illusion of three-dimensional space is created with perspective drawing, atmospherics, positioning, size, and defining volume through modeling.
Sometimes we refer to negative and positive space, which means the division between the primary object(s) and what we perceive as the background. Positive and negative space were a very big deal in much twentieth-century design, which often used the vast emptiness of the page as a counterweight to the primary object.
The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1601, Caravaggio, courtesy Cerasi Chapel. Chiaroscuro relies primarily on value to drive the eye.
Color has three essential characteristics:
- Hue—where it falls on the color wheel (red, blue, etc.),
- Chroma—how brilliant or dull it is,
- Value—how light or dark it is.
Color is also described as ‘warm’ or ‘cool,’ but these are useful artistic conventions and not measurable as fact.
Historically, value did much of the heavy lifting in painting. The Impressionists began using hue and chroma to define volume, and that is essentially how most alla prima painters work today.
Portrait of the Baronness James de Rothschild, 1848, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, private collection. We see satin, lace, tulle, feathers and jewels primarily due to Ingres' exquisite control of reflected light.
Texture refers to the surface quality of an object. Paintings have implied texture, conveyed by color, line and brushwork. They also have real texture in the form of smooth or impasto surfaces.
Your assignment is to take one of your own paintings and subject it to formal analysis. Consider each of these elements of design in turn. How are you using them? How could you use them better?