Thursday 6/7: Elements and Principles of Design

I did another blind contour drawing for forty-five minutes this morning. I decided to set up my own complicated still life at home for this one. I used an array of objects from around the house, attempting to blend modern artifacts with older ones, simpler shapes with more complex forms, man-made and natural objects. This still life contains my mom’s 50 year-old Breyer horse named Chester, my grandmother’s demitasse and tea cups, a sandwich knife, various Lego models and minifigures, a skate tool, dried flowers and petals, an oven thermometer, and a watering can shaped like a hippo.

I figured that this would be complex enough to shut down my left hemisphere, and I think it was. I had some trouble staying in my right-brained state of mind, but I managed to avoid looking and continue until I finished. I think that working on blind contours in my home hurts my ability to screen out distractions and enter into that right-brained state of mind. However, I did manage to completely forget which way I’d wanted to orient the paper after staring at the contours for a while, so I’m counting that as a win.

Surprisingly, this is not the worst likeness I’ve attempted of Chester over the years. He looks his age, and for the first time I’m appreciating that there might be another layer of truth in the contour drawings that cannot be accessed when attempting realism.

A dramatic reenactment

Today’s class was a shortened session, mostly focused on a lecture about the elements of design. My elementary school’s art room had a series of posters about the elements and principles of design all along the top of the walls. It seemed like there were so many things to keep straight, but there really aren’t many.

Elements of Design in the Blind Contour of Chester et. al.

  • Line: described in terms of its emotive qualities, direction, structure, and organization. The line in my blind contour drawing from today is playful, looping, varying between straightness and curves, soft, and bold but somewhat varied in thickness.
  • Shape: the shapes that exist within a work and also the meta-shape(s) created by the work as a whole. Today’s blind contour drawing is not very geometric, but there are a surprisingly large number of ellipses. The overall drawing is somewhat triangular or trapezoidal.
  • Form: any three-dimensional object. The blind contour drawing is a flat object on paper.
  • Value: the relative degree of lightness or darkness within a work. Certain portions of this drawing are darker than others—mostly the parts with a high concentration of details.
  • Color: described in terms of hue (the name of the primary or secondary pigment), value (the relative lightness or darkness of the color), and intensity (the saturation/brightness/strength). This is a light, very saturated blue with some green tones that varies in value throughout the drawing.
  • Texture: the sense of tactility conveyed by an object. This drawing looks fuzzy and soft, if a little scratchy to me. It reminds me of flocking.

Any visual object can be broken down into its design elements and principles in order to understand it better. Some of these elements remind me of the Aristotlian causes of substance: the formal cause (what is the object’s form?), the material cause (what is it made out of?), the efficient cause (what forces made it this way?), and the final cause (what is the purpose for which this object has been created?). I imagine that some of this was derived from Aristotle; he systematized thinking about so many objects in ways that are still helpful for understanding an object or being, even if they’ve been debunked scientifically or have fallen out of fashion artistically.

Systematically thinking about the elements of a visual object is helpful in understanding what the intention and meaning behind a visual object is, especially if it has a bit more going into the design than my blind contour drawing did. I can apply them to anything—it makes a difference to my understanding of my grandmother’s teacups to think about how the lines, shapes, and forms are very traditional with a fairly standard rhythm, while the textures and colors were a bit radical for English bone china at the time. My grandmother was raised in a very traditional family, but her adulthood was outside the norm for the 1950’s. I can’t help but wonder if her love of slightly-rebellious china patterns was a sign that she’d eventually lead very different life than was planned for her. I can’t imagine that I would have thought of this if I hadn’t considered the design elements of the cups individually.


One response »

  1. Your reflections are so large! The connections you are making have my mind headed in all kinds of directions, from ancient Greece to your grandmother’s future as envisioned by you-as-imaginer through her tea set, and into your own future, as described through the elements of design. This is an engaging piece of writing, and such a great example of how to make relevant something as dry as explaining design–through a specific drawing example, made by you, employing a previous technique, blind contour, and combining a complex subject full of things of personal relevance (your own family artifacts) and made generally relevant–the human connections you describe. Yummy delicious thinking and writing. Your effort here is a gift, so thanks.

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