Elements of Design

After my years of study, I kept many of my text books. Although I had read them in University under duress during that time, I recognized that at some time in the distant future, they might make interesting reading. I’ve had a lifetime of work in between, not necessarily at art making which I love, but at mundane activities. Now that I have quit working, I have time to indulge in reading activity and recently came to this book called “Elements of Design” by Donald M Anderson.

Even if I had read it then, I would not have understood his concepts well. It has taken a lifetime of drawing and painting to fully ingest some of these principles and I’m still gathering them in and growing greater understanding of them, like a plant that has been growing and developing very well, thank you very much, putting out a few beautiful flowers, and then being watered by fertilizer rich liquid and blossoming heartily.

I have been meditating on some of his thoughts in the first few pages and stopped at this one, which describes the two dimensional mode of designing as compared to the three dimensional

Those who design in two dimension, … must master the various devices used to create the illusion of space. The consistent application and control of these devices is of the greatest importance in designing on flat surfaces. Here we have no real dimension of depth. Depth is an illusion. It is faked.

In my early twenties, I wanted desperately to be able to draw “realistically”. I worked and worked at trying to master representations of hands and feet, of figures and objects. I wanted to capture what I found interesting onto paper or canvas for others to marvel at. I suppose, had I ever been able to accomplish this feat,  I might have become one of those Realists of the Seventies that painted giant canvases of cabbages and fruit, or I might have become an illustrator. My abilities never reached those heights and I was forced along the way to come to terms with my inabilities, and to find another way of representing and making believable or readable, what I found worthy of drawing and painting.

With years and years of study and practice, I’ve come to embrace all kinds of art and to recognize the underlying principles of design are what hold me to appreciate a work whether abstract, representational or non-representational. I can love a Mark Rothko painting for his sheer love of colour and its rapport with another colour, as I can love a skillful illustrative and draftsman-like drawing of Andrew Wyeth. I can appreciate the wild angry expressiveness of Basquiat and the wild sensuousness of Wilhelm de Koonig. I can enjoy the chocolate box sweetness of the Pompiers in France and the Impressionists. I can work in a Post Modernist style or a Conceptual style for my own pleasure and then wonder how anyone else might find this kind of work valuable when it’s so personal and non representational.

During my second year in Rheims , France where I had the privilege of studying art in my late twenties I had an art epiphany. After a year of working at that which I had already learned in Canada in my art teaching courses, I finally realized that I had all the information and many techniques. I just had to integrate them and internalize them.

Of course I was learning new things as I went on, but the time I had to sort things out in my slow working brain was the critical turning point in learning assurance in my craft.

Internalizing, finally, that two dimensions can only ever represent an object and never can be an object, liberated me. Since I never was going to be able to reproduce what I saw, I might as well play with it.

I looked at a representational drawing in a new light. I asked myself the question each time I started a new painting or got stuck in working on one.

“Why was painting this picture important to me?”
“What is it about this image that makes it interesting – the texture, the shape, the composition, or the contrast of light and dark; the rhythm of the shapes or lines and forms, or the visual joke; the interrelationship of colours? Which of these elements needed to be emphasized in order to recreate the soul of the image?

If I couldn’t answer these questions, perhaps it wasn’t worth doing the painting. Sometimes I could be interested in more than one aspect of the image. For instance I could be highly interested in the composition and the tonal balance that helped created it, and at the same time interested in the colour relationships.

Once the important elements had been isolated and identified, it was much easier to organize how to state it in two dimensional form.

Take, for instance, a landscape where green trees and green grass are the primary subjects. I realized now that I don’t have to match the colours with nature in order to express the luminosity of the subject. As long as I have a limited range of greens to represent light, medium and dark tones, and use warm and cool colours to mix with the basic greens, I have the building blocks of the colour ranges and all the tonal values that I need.

I found that the more I simplified and found the elements, the better the piece succeeded. I found, too, that my paintings became more about the abstract qualities in them than about the image itself.

It was kind of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” scenario. I still haven’t decided if I look for subjects that fit into my understanding of composition and design or whether I take an image and fit it to that understanding.


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