Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lesson 7: Elements of Design

Lesson 7: Elements of Design

For the past two lessons, we have focused on Principles of Design. Now it is time to shift gears and discuss something far less intimidating: the Elements of Design.

Where did all these silly words come from and why are they so confusing? I’ve asked myself this the past two lessons, as well as this lesson. Why do Elements of Design sound so similar to Principles of Design? What are elements as opposed to principles? Why is there so much confusion over these words?

So of course, I went looking for answers. One of the nice things about the Elements of Design is, they are all consistent. All books list the elements as being color, line, texture, form, shape, and space. Some books and web sites add value (as in color contrast) to this list. I will include Value when we explore Color in the next lesson.

You might recall I said that some books, web sites, etc., listed different Principles of Design. No two agreed on all the Principles. However, getting back to this question of why these words are so confusing, I found a web site that explained it pretty well and a retired professor, Marvin Bartel who explains it in simple language. Although there are a lot of contributing artists, authors, and links at this site, I thought you should read his take on the Elements and Principles without any paraphrasing from me.
“Space as a visual element is difficult to conceptualize and hard to explain. Is it worth it? Who needs to know it? I find it easier if we put some time into ways artists create an Illusion of Space (depth) (a visual effect). I have added a category.

1. Visual Elements (the basic things that can be seen)

2. Design and Composition Principles (arranging the basic things better)

3. Visual Effects (ways to fool the eye - make an impression)

An element is one of those most basic visible things. In science, the elements are on the periodic chart (hydrogen, iron, oxygen, gold, sulfur, etc.). All the complex chemicals are simply combinations of these (H2O). In art, it is an element if it is visible and there is nothing more simple or basic to define it. It cannot be a combination of more than one thing and still be an element. In practice, the elements are commonly seen in combination with each other. For example, color and value are very different elements, but they always exist in combination with each other. For that matter, color always exist in combination with "saturation", but nobody includes "saturation" in their list of elements, but value is one (I believe he meant ON) every list. Go figure. This stuff is not logically consistent. Saturation (intensity) sometimes shows up in the description of a principle, but generally saturation is neither an element or a principle.

Principles are are even more confusing than elements. There are at least two very different but correct ways of thinking about principles. On the one hand, a principle can be used to describe an operational cause and effect such as "bright things come forward and dull things recede". On the other hand, a principle can describe a high quality standard to strive for such as "unity is better than chaos" or "variation beats boredom" in a painting. So, the same word, "principle" can be used for very different purposes.

The first way to think about a principle is that a principle is something that can be repeatedly and dependably done with elements to produce some sort of visual effect in a composition. I am not confident that any list of these principles is comprehensive, but there are some that are more commonly used (theme with variation to give interesting unity, simultaneous repetition with change to create unity and interest, devices to create depth illusion, devices to create motion effects, etc).

Another way to think about a principle is that it is a way to express a value judgment about a composition. I am not confident that any list of these effects is comprehensive, but there are some that are more commonly used (unity, balance, etc).

When we say a painting has UNITY and DEPTH we are making a value judgments. Too much unity without variety is boring and too much variation without unity is chaotic. Unity and depth are examples of visual effects produced by the first definition of principle.”

This guy made a lot of sense to me. From that same web site, I learned about Ann Heineman’s belief that symbolic meaning, such as your culture, social norms, and history, are as important as the other elements.

I’m not sure this side trip has been helpful, but it adds yet one more perspective to the Elements of Design. And it is my belief that this lesson will bring it all together for you, even if it is still hard to decide between (for example) harmony and unity.


The first and easiest design element, “line,” is familiar to many of you who Zentangle. Since they are examples of lines, some of which may be abstract, I don’t think I have to elaborate extensively on “line.” Some things that might be significant are lines can be thick, thin, actual, implied, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, contour, zig-zag, fuzzy, sharp, broken, continuous, perpendicular, or a combination of these. Floor plans, graphs, and maps are all examples of lines.

Lines can also represent nature, like the lines on this zebra.


Form is closely associated with shape and space. I am not sure why these elements are listed separately in some books, while others link them together. It’s another of those confusing issues that I believe becomes known when you are an art student. According to David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak in their book "Design Basics," form and shape imply space and cannot exist without it. Form and shape can be categorized as two or three dimensional. In collage, we mainly work with two dimensional or 2-D art, although we can add 3-D elements if the collage supports them.

However, some books define shape as 2-D, and form as 3-D. For example, in their book “Design Basics,” Lauer and Pentak classify shape as a two dimensional line with no form or thickness. They claim that shapes are flat and can be grouped into two categories, geometric and organic.

Form, on the other hand, involves a three dimensional object having volume and thickness. It is the illusion of a 3-D effect that can be implied with the use of light and shading techniques. Form can be viewed from many angles. Forms that can be looked into are classified as open forms, while those that are self contained are called closed forms.

Geometric forms are spheres, cubes, pyramids, cones, and cylinders, while geometric shapes are circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles.

Shapes are used to establish layouts, create patterns, and build countless elements on the page.

Not to sound redundant, shape is the external two-dimensional outline of an object, like this city-scape I created.

An example of shape that can be classified as organic, is the zebra in the spread above, while an example of geometric shape would include a house, architectural plans, or the city-scape. Shape can also take on abstract geometric designs like these origami icosahedra I found in an art lesson.


Space is the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within shapes and forms. Shapes can be arranged in space in many ways, such as in rows, overlapping, or by size to show distance.

I tried to show this in the city-scape I created above.

Both positive and negative space are important factors in every good composition. Positive Space is created by any main element appearing to be in front of the background. Negative Space is the area that surrounds the shapes. They occur in both two-dimension and three-dimension art and complement one another. One impacts the other.

Positive space is the "occupied" areas in a work of art that is filled with something such as lines, colors, and/or shapes. It is the primary subject matter of a painting and a collage. It is the part of your spread that forms your area-of-interest. It dominates the eye and is the focal point in the composition.

Negative space is called whitespace in journal and AB layouts. It is the unoccupied areas that surround the subject matter. It is more passive and is defined by the edges of the positive space it surrounds. It is what gives definition to our composition and layouts.

Negative space is important in any AB spread because it gives balance to positive space by giving the eye a place to rest. This is a basic element that is often overlooked as a principle of a good design. Sometimes we are so focused to get everything on the page, we overlook the fact the eye needs that all important resting place.

Although both of the above are examples of positive and negative space in my rocking horse AB, you can see how different the space around the image is perceived and the impact it creates. It is SO much easier to "read" the second image, than it is the first.

We also need to discuss two- and three-dimensional spaces. Just like 2-D and 3-D shapes, there are 2-D and 3-D spaces. Two-dimensional space is found on a flat surface such as a canvas or our AB pages. It has no depth, only length and width. When we look at a flat surface and have the sensation of looking at objects that appear to have depth, then we are receiving and believing a group of visual signals working to create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes and spaces within the collage, painting, or book page.

3-D illusions or cues occur when a sensation of space which seems to have height, width, and depth are visually created through various techniques. These illusions of 3-D space include overlapping objects, changing the size and placement of related objects, linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, and color hues and values.

The easiest way to create the illusion of 3-D space is overlapping objects. Remember this rocking horse spread showing they were grouped together? The effect was achieved by allowing the contour of one rocking horse to be interrupted by the contour of another, so it looked like one rocking horse was physically sitting in front of the other. Those of you who are stampers, may have stamped more than one image (as I did above) by masking the first, then stamped the second time with the mask in place. You have created that same 3-D illusion!

Another simple tool for creating the illusion of 3D space is by changing size and placement of related objects, as I did with the two houses connected by a road. When two shapes are the same size and are placed on the same plane, the image tends to appear rather flat and not have much depth to it. However by simply varying the size and placement of the shapes depth is created.

As a rule of thumb, larger objects tend to appear closer to the viewer and smaller ones tend to recede into the background. Also objects placed lower on the page appear closer in distance than those which are placed higher up.

Linear perspective, or converging lines, is a graphical system used by artists to create the illusion of depth and volume on a flat surface. As objects move away from the viewer they appear to grow smaller and converge toward a vanishing point at the horizon line. The effective use of linear perspective creates this illusion of diminishing size by treating the edges as converging parallel lines. The vanishing point may be in any direction the viewer looks, including up, and may be visible on the page, or imaginary, located somewhere off the page.

According to J. E. Cutting in “Linear Perspective,” this painting by Jan Vermeer is a classic example of Linear Perspective.
“The part of the building that is of interest right now is the front of the building. The bricks and other features of the front of the building are parallel, mostly, and they do not get closer together as they go across the scene. As such, we see the building as if we were looking at it from straight on. It looks flat.”

Atmospheric perspective occurs when objects that are far away lack contrast, detail, and texture. As objects recede, atmospheric perspective shows color gradually fading to a bluish gray and details blurring, imitating the way distant objects appear to the human eye. Objects become less defined and lack detail. Think of a photograph that starts with a near object, then blurs over distance, much like my camera does, or this woodcut made by M. C. Escher in the mid-1920s, of which I am blessed to have this print.


Texture is about surface quality either tactile or visual. Texture can be real or implied by different uses of media. It is the degree of roughness or smoothness in objects. Texture helps your page or layout be distinctive or have identifying characteristics. There are so many texture aids on the market, I can’t even begin to mention them all. Most of us have created something with texture, so I feel there is little else I need to say about this design element.

I realize I could have created all kinds of pieces that had texture. I could have used molding paste, joint compound, plaster, caulk, or even crackle paint. Instead, I chose to glue a piece of map onto my book page, then I added a slightly wrinkled piece of dress pattern. Over that, I added more collage fodder, the house, and the sentiment, "The house on Lourdes Island," a fictional place I invented for this spread. I can truthfully say I feel this is a completed AB spread in my Houses techniques AB, the first since we started these design elements and principles. Can you identify any other elements besides texture in this spread?


The final Design Element is color. However, color is such a broad category, I have saved it for an entire lesson. It is one element I pride myself in knowing, so I look forward to the lesson on color. Several books claim color is the biggest element to pay attention to. I suspect that is why I saved it for last.


Line, form, shape, space, texture, and color are all elements of design. Your art, whether it is altered art, mixed media, art journals, or tags, will incorporate most, if not all, these elements in every spread you create.

Supplies you will need for Lesson 8

1. Acrylic paint, various colors
2. Magazine images to compliment your theme.
3. Paint chips free from the Home Improvement Stores (if you live in a country that provides them).
4. Glue, adhesives, your favorites.
5. Your book.
6. Scanner and printer (optional).


Totally optional (as always):
Using your book’s theme, create at least one spread each showing your interpretation of line, form, shape, space, and texture. If your book is a techniques book, you should identify and document what each Design Principle is. If you have lots of pages in your book, feel free to create several spreads showing your knowledge of these Design Elements. You have two weeks to create these five spreads. We will unveil our results on May 13.

Now it’s time to show us your interpretation of Lesson 6, where you played with Repetition, Rhythm or Pattern, Movement, Dominance, and Contrast. Please remember to show your homework lesson when I ask for it. You have two weeks to post Lesson 6, but I suspect many of you are ready. And please be sure the link is to the specific post or posts, not to your blog in general.

You may also post ANY previous lesson here. Just add the lesson number after your name, please.

22 thoughtful remarks:

Create With Joy said...

What a great post! I look forward to the day I'll actually have time to go thru the lessons and create my own book! :-)

Don't forget - Inspire Me Monday is open - come share your lessons and creativity with us!

Create With Joy

P.S. If you've been following what Mister Naughty Pants has been doing in my craft room as of late - you'll be giving Bleubeard rewards! :-)

gina said...

Wow, what a great lesson! Your examples are so well done! You have really pulled it all these ideas together in such a readable manner. I hope you plan to publish all of this.

SandeeNC said...

As usual I am deeply impressed with the length and depth you go to detail the lessons and then I sigh and resign myself to several reads until I finally get it all absorbed! lol You're so smart Elizabeth! ps...I didn't see the note about assigning the lesson number after my name but it is lesson 6 that I posted. waving goodnight from the hills of North Carolina :)

BJ said...

I didn't see the note Sandee refers to either (had a look back and still can't see it - LOL). I posted 2 links as I did 2 pages. The first "Saints page" you have seen already and sorry about the lack of dominance. The second was an attempt at collage and really not sure it follows any principles except pure indulgance and enjoyment - LOL. I did another page over the weekend which I haven't blogged yet. Maybe I could add that later as it shows what has been "dominating" us here in the UK for weeks!! BJ

carol l mckenna said...

Very informative post ~ great tutorial ~ love the examples ~ thanks, namaste, ^_^

Carolyn Dube said...

I had never heard of atmospheric perspective. So nice to see the examples to show what each type is! Thanks for sharing this!

elle said...

Excellent, Elizabeth. I especially liked the beginning clarification. I am so enjoying this. I feel pretty good about keeping up but I know I am going to be going back and looking at all of this when I have a bit more time as there is so much to learn and it is just so fascinating! Thank you so much.

Canace said...

Wow... this was a lot of work for you Elizabeth! Nicely done :o)

Currie Silver said...

You just keep knocking my socks off and nailing those 10's on your dives into this whole elements and principles "stuff." I really enJOYed today's/this week's lesson as it consolidated 2 years of a workshop I took when I first moved to Delray Beach. My teacher is an amazing artist and a phenomenal teacher, yet I'm thinking mayBE I "learn" things more deeply when I see the words and examples. I love how simple it all feels Now, after reading [and choosing to reread] this lesson. Thanks!!!

Julia Dunnit said...

Wowowowowowowowow! Fabulous descriptions. Again, it makes some sense to me now!!

Jacqueline said...

YAY!! I put my link in the right place this time!! lol

Had a good read through that description and got an idea's all begining to make a bit more sense now :)

Thanks for all the hard work,

Jackie x

elle said...

I'm late but I'm linked!

paulaexuk said...

You are really making me think more about my work and how I put it together, and now I know why some pieces work better than others. Thank you Elizabeth. Should have lesson 6 finished soon.

Dianne said...

Awesome lesson Elizabeth! whole books have been written about this stuff, as I'm sure you know, and trust me...a student in art school doesn't necessarily 'get it!' A life of learning is what it's all about, and many of us use these principles intuitively...throughout our progress as artists, our work evolves. Love your explanations and examples, as they do make it all clear! well done!

Terrie said...

My goodness woman - this is such a thorough explanation and compilation of information, I can't believe it!! You clearly spent SO much time putting it all together and it's such a help. I didn't work much in my AB last week so will do a post for those pesky principles soon and get it linked up. Again, thanks for this in-depth and informative're the BEST!

paulaexuk said...

Hello again Elizabeth, just to let you know that I did link through Mr Linky on your lesson 6 to my web pages for lesson 4 and 5. Here are my pages.
lesson 5:
lesson 4:

When I have finished lesson 6 I will post it here through Mr Linky

Sherry said...

I've just linked up my post for lessons 5 and 6. Thank you so much for all your hard work Elizabeth. I'm afraid I didn't too well on Lesson 5 - thinking too much about it all I think - better when I just go with the flow! Lesson 7 now .... I could be a while! LOL x

paulaexuk said...

Phew! Nearly caught up now, just posted lesson 6. I do wish I had a better camera for taking photos. I either get too much flash light or the photos are dull and give no indication of the brilliance of the page. No matter thanks Elizabeth, should get the next lesson done soon.

Sue West said...

I'm so glad I've found your wonderful tutorials, and although I realize I've got a lot of catching up to do, I've made a start and am waiting for my glued together pages to dry. What an incredible amount of work and information you are so generously sharing. Thank you so much Elizabeth.
Sue :)

Susan said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I have had so much fun using these design elements! I love your lessons.

Dawn said...

Hi Elizabeth, ha ha I'm playing catch-up again!! I have linked in lesson 6 now, not overly into my pages this time but hopefully I have covered everything. I will have to apologise as I will probably skip lesson 7 and come back in for lesson 8, I am still trying to catch up from the previous lessons and would like to concentrate on those if that's ok my lovely. How beautifully you explain everything I must say and I will probably return to lesson 7 sometime in the future as I'm hoping to have some spare pages for this??
Thank-you again
Dawn x

Susan said...

Here are my lessons 5,6,7 combined