The Elements of Design

The Elements and Principles of Design are the foundation of the study of Art and Design. They are the building blocks of all Art and Design. The Elements and Principles of Design provide us with the vocabulary to begin to discuss, explore and create strong Visual Art.

Let’s begin with the Elements of Design.

In 2-Dimensional Design the elements of design are:

Line: A form that connects dots. A line becomes visible due to the contrast between the form and its surrounding area. In Visual Art a line is often the most basic element. Many pieces of art begin with one line. A line can be drawn, brushed, erased, carved… The possiblities of line are endless!

A line is a dot that went for a walk. – Paul Klee

Shape: A shape is an enclosed defined space. Quite often when we think of shape we think of geometric shapes such as circles, squares, rectangles and/or squares. Shapes are not limited to these definable forms though and have infinite possibilities.

The object of art is to give life a shape. – Shakespeare

Color: is the part of light that is reflected by the object that we see. We can not address Color in Art and Design without looking to Color Theory. Color Theory is a vast topic with a great deal of information. The basic pieces of Color Theory are the Color Wheel, Color Context and Color Harmony.

Texture: is the tactile surface quality of an object. Some examples would be soft, fluffy, rough, and wet. Texture can be actual or visual.

Value: refers to the range from lightness to darkness.

As we view Visual Art and Design we find these elements being used in a variety of ways. Below are three examples of the Elements of Design/ The Visual Elements at work.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing

In this example by Sol LeWitt the dominant element at work is line. We see organic line moving through the composition. The contrast between black and white create a strong figure/ground relationship. We can say that this example shows us line simplified. A thick black line curves around, filling the space.

Alice Neel, Marisol. Oil on Canvas, 1981

In the next painting by Alice Neel, Marisol, we see all the visual elements at work, pointing out how beautifully the Visual Elements work together. When we compare this piece by Alice Neel with the Wall Drawing by Sol LeWitt we can surmise that the portrait uses the elements in a more complicated way. Maybe we need to look a little closer to see these elements at work. We see the lines of the chair. The lines of the sweater tell us a great deal about the anatomy of the woman. We see the lines that define her facial structure, hair, hands and pants. We see the color that defines her skintones, hair, clothes and surroundings. When we look closely we see warm and cool colors as highlights and shadows. We see the juxtaposition of her blue pants against a brown-orange chair. Throughout this painting we see value at work in the highlights, shadows and midtones. Underlying this painting are the shapes. We see the shape of the negative spaces around Marisol. We see the shape of her pants, the shapes of the shadows on her pants, the shapes of her fingers, hands, sweater, hair, eyes, nose and more! In this piece we see the visual texture of her hair, skin, clothes and the chair that she sits upon.

Milton Glaser, Bob Dylan Poster. 1967

In the Bob Dylan Poster by Milton Glaser we see the elements of design at work again.

The use of color, line and shape work beautifully throughout this composition. Dylan’s hair is treated in a stylized manner, showing the hair as a simplified visual form with exaggerated color and shape. We see this portrait of Dylan with flat shape and color, the black silhouette, colorful shapes with contour line, the white empty space and use of type. The dominant elements at work in this piece would be shape and color. Yet we do see the use of line and in the type as well as the contour lines surrounding the shape of Dylan’s hair. Value is at work in the contrast between black and white as well as the contrast and inherent value that the colors present.

To understand and create Visual Art and Design we see and use the elements of design. Line, Shape, Color, Texture and Value are the building blocks of Visual Art. As we look around we see these elements at work in complicated and simple ways.

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