Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Composition - The Elements of Design

It's amazing how many of us who don't have the benefit of a fine art degree seem to have managed to learn something about the different aspects of what's involved with composition and design without actually ever coming across the idea of the 'elements' and 'principles' of art/composition/design! Or at least that's my experience. I'd certainly never heard about these particular groups before starting this project. Maybe this is what they teach you if you do an Fine Art degree? ;)

What is composition and design?
Composition: The plan, placement or arrangement of the elements of art in a work. It is often useful to discuss these in reference to the principles of design, as well as to the relative weight of the composition's parts.
Art Lex
OK - so what are the elements and what are the principles?

A useful analogy is to think of the 'elements' as being the ingredients part of a recipe for success and the 'principles' as being the method part. Miss out either and you can't bake a cake or make a picture which fulfils coventional western ideals of what a picture should look like. Some of the ingredients affect the 'flavour' of the piece while others are intrinsic to the structure and body of the work.
elements of art or elements of design - The basic components used by the artist when producing works of art. Those elements are color, value, line, shape, form, texture, and space. The elements of art are among the literal qualities found in any artwork.

principles of design or principles of art - Certain qualities inherent in the choice and arrangement of elements of art in the production of a work of art. Artists "design" their works to varying degrees by controlling and ordering the elements of art. Considering the principles is especially useful in analyzing ways in which a work is pleasing in formal ways. How any work exhibits applications of these principles can further or modify other characteristics of a work as well. (See definition for further details of the principles)

I'm going to split this introduction into two parts - one for elements and one for principles. Some of the elements and principles will then be the subject of future posts during this project while others - such as colour - will be the subject of future projects.

Interestingly, I've come across different lists in different places on the Internet and in books. Some include 'composition' as an element while other don't. Some seem to mix items up between elements and principles. Personally, I take the view that composition is what you do when you work with both elements and principles.
No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.
Claude Monet
I'll be quoting from ArtLex extensively because (a) it's a very good resource and (b) it tends to be comprehenive while other sites can sometimes be rather partial.

I also recommend that you take a look at the links I'm collecting in Composition and Design - Resources for Artists - which now contains a section devoted to elements and principles. I'll be developing other modules for the different components.

Bsides the books listed at the end, other good resources include: The Elements of Design and Composition

The elements of design are the building blocks - they provide the structure for a design or an artwork.

Value - An element of art that refers to luminance or luminosity — the lightness or darkness of a color. Value is an especially important element in works of art when color is absent. This is particularly likely with drawings, woodcuts, lithographs, and photographs. It is also true with most sculpture and architecture.
ArtLex: Value
Values in two dimensional artwork create gradations in light and contrast - and without these everything would be flat. Values can be created in different ways - by line and by colour.

To my mind, value is the most important element in the design of a painting. Without values there is no design. It's more important than colour because there are great works of art which have no colour and value can be a component of colour but colour isn't a component of value per se.
"The first things to study are form and values. For me, these are the things that are the basics of what is serious in art. Color and finish put charm in one's work."
Jean Baptiste Corot (1796-1875), French painter. Keith Roberts, Corot, 1965.
There will be more about value in subsequent posts. Aids to composition include greyscales or value scales.

An element of art with three properties: (1) hue or tint, the color name, e.g., red, yellow, blue, etc.: (2) intensity, the purity and strength of a color, e.g., bright red or dull red; and (3) value, the lightness or darkness of a color.
ArtLex: Colour
Colour will be the subject of another of my projects later this year. You can see links to information on the Internet which has already been collected in Colour - Resources for Artists

Shape - An element of art, it is an enclosed space defined and determined by other art elements such as line, color, value, and texture. In painting and drawing, shapes may take on the appearance of solid three-dimensional object even though they are limited to two dimensions — length and width. This two-dimensional character of shape distinguishes it from form, which has depth as well as length and width.
ArtLex: Shape
Both form and shape require space (see below) to exist - shape needs at least two dimensions while form requires three. Two dimensional shapes can be defined by lines alone or values alone.

Notan defines three dimensional forms in terms of two dimensional shapes and values.

Form - In its widest sense, total structure; a synthesis of all the visible aspects of that structure and of the manner in which they are united to create its distinctive character. The form of a work is what enables us to perceive it.Form also refers to an element of art that is three-dimensional (height, width, and depth) and encloses volume. For example, a triangle, which is two-dimensional, is a shape, but a pyramid, which is three-dimensional, is a form. Cubes, spheres, ovoids, pyramids, cone, and cylinders are examples of various forms.
ArtLex: Form
Forms can be organic and natural or constructed. Either can be geometric in form. Artists often talk about finding the 'big shapes' when starting a composition - but the shapes might be three dimensional forms. You can 'abstract' from a natural object to find its geometric equivalent - eg an apple is a sphere.

An element of art that refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within things. It can be described as two-dimensional or three-dimensional; as flat, shallow, or deep; as open or closed; as positive or negative; and as actual, ambiguous, or illusory.
Artlex: Space
Positive space is the space taken up by objects. Negative space is the space inbetween objects. Focusing on the latter often enables us to see the true relationship between different objects. Empty space can be highly regarded in some art forms and cultures and is exemplified above in this sculpture by Henry Moore currently on display as part of an exhibition of his work at Kew Gardens.

line - A mark with length and direction(-s). An element of art which refers to the continuous mark made on some surface by a moving point. Types of line include: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, straight or ruled, curved, bent, angular, thin, thick or wide, interrupted (dotted, dashed, broken, etc.), blurred or fuzzy, controlled, freehand, parallel, hatching, meandering, and spiraling. Often it defines a space, and may create an outline or contour, define a silhouette; create patterns, or movement, and the illusion of mass or volume. It may be two-dimensional (as with pencil on paper) three-dimensional (as with wire) or implied (the edge of a shape or form).
ArtLex: Line
Lines in visual art do not have to be on canvas or paper. They can be marks made within the environment.

texture- An element of art, texture is the surface quality or "feel" of an object, its smoothness, roughness, softness, etc. Textures may be actual or simulated. Actual textures can be felt with the fingers, while simulated textures are suggested by an artist in the painting of different areas of a picture
ArtLex - Texture
Texture can be represented in visual artworks in either two or three dimensional ways. It's often a pictorial illusion - which is dependent on line and value.

Books with a good explanation of the elements of design

Links to sites which provide further information[Note: I'm going to publish this but am searching around for some images which add value to add in to this post. Check back again later if you want to see what I found!]


  1. Great Post, Katherine! There's enough material here to read, marinate and experiment for the rest of the month! Thanks so much for all of your research!

  2. What a gem of a post...and an overall terrific site! I'm spreading the word to my art friends. Thank you!

  3. I have certainly never went to fine arts school. The little technical knowledge I've gleaned over the years has come from art classes as a child and my own reading that I've done independently. Mostly, I rely on a gut instinct and making a lot of sketches before I undertake something really complex or longterm.

  4. Katherine,
    Brava for doing this post. I have been a student of design for most of my career. It is apalling to me that so many artists have no understanding of the importance of design in painting. I designed two workshops on Design and Composition because I found that none of my painting students knew anything about design.

    One of the best books out now on the Elements of Design is: A Painter's Guide to Design and Composition by Margo Schulzke. It is very easy to understand, well organized and beautifully illustrated with paintings of top drawer painters like Daniel Greene.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Belinda - there's more to come so save them up for when you have the time to read!

    Linda - good for you. It's so rare to see workshops focusing specifically on design issues. And I agree with you - it's an area where a lot of aspiring artists can do with some more help.

    I've already got the Margot Schulze book and have highlighted it in Composition and Design - Resources for Artists along with the other books which will be highlighted as part of this project.

  6. Good to see someone discussing the Principles and Elements of Design, an often overlooked subject when discussing art. The Ps & Es are the language of compositon. I'd like to add a book written by my basic design teacher, Calvin Harlan. VISION AND INVENTION: A COURSE IN ART FUNDAMENTALS. The book is very affordable, especially as a used book. It contains numerous exercises working with the individual Ps & Es.

  7. Whoa, total flashback to my first year of university and Art 220: Two-dimensional Form class. You've definitely covered all the bases and then some, really excellent post!!
    Another (fun) introduction to the world of composition and design can be found on the National Museum of Wildlife Art website: http://www.wildlifeart.org/Rungius/

  8. Thanks for the suggestion about the book

    Thanks also Tania for that link. I've seen the site before but had forgotten all about it - and it's excellent. One for the information website I think!

  9. Thank you for sharing this! Very good!

  10. Hi Katherine,

    It's been quite a while since we were trading comments on Wet Canvas. I hope this finds you well. Best wishes for a Happy New Year.

    I came across your blog via a link from the Artist's Magazine blog.

    I'm impressed by the amount of time and effort you're putting into this. It promises to be a very informative and useful reference work on composition. I've subscribed to your blog and will look forward to upcoming articles.

    Sanford (asher)

  11. Hi Sanford - long time, no chat! Thanks for the comments - and glad to have you along for the ride!

    Hi Claudia - nice to see somebody who speaks another language on the blog. I'm intrigued by your Mr Hundertwasser.

  12. Just a reminder - as there are a lot of people visiting this post - this is the next post in the series - the principles of design

  13. Dear katherine,
    I just would like to tell you that I'm studing this section as it is very interesting to me.
    The first thing difficult was to understand what does "value" mean.
    As I'm italian it's important to have the right meaning of an Inglish word and your way of making information is perfect. Every evening I study a new section and going on, I do appreciate your blog.
    I agree with the logical importance of the design. thanks again

  14. Thanks Renata - glad to be of help. :)

  15. I appreciated ur clear explanation. My daughter is taking a course at college and their textbook is anything but clear- so I sent her the link.

  16. Great article and very helpful list of books.


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