In designing a painting, an artist assembles shapes, lines, colors and textures into a picture that, if well executed, will communicate something to other people. The artist's presumed motivation: a vision or feeling that he or she wants to share, or at least make visible.
A painting that conveys the thoughts and feelings that inspired it has to be considered a success. Whether or not it's great art is another matter.
Great art
Great art has three components: technique, a universal message, and good design.
Technique ~ the ability to express one's self through art. Factors that figure into an artist's technical ability include talent, knowledge of art media, and commitment to improve.
Universal message ~ a thought or feeling conveyed through an artwork that resonates in most human beings.
Picture dimensions (e.g., 6 x 8) have been rounded off to the nearest inch. The first number is the height, the second number is the width. The pictures in this column are enlargeable.
Two subjects with universal appeal are beautiful women and small children. Left: Richard Schmid's Meg (oil, 18 x 14, 1987). Right: Antonio Mancini's portrait of a child (oil, 22 x 19, c. 1874). In addition to the artists' technical virtuosity, these paintings are masterpieces because they convey ideas and feelings about human nature that we all recognize. (Schmid was influenced by Mancini's work as a young man, as these paintings show. To see more of his art, visit his the artist's website.)
The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's timeless image of feminine beauty, mystery and grace. (Oil on wood panel, 30 x 21, 1503-07, Louvre, Paris.)
The third of May, 1808, by Francisco de Goya (oil, 105 x 136, 1814, the Prado, Madrid). This painting commemorates a failed attempt by ordinary Spaniards to rebel against a foreign conqueror (Napoleon). The design forces us to look at the man who is about to be shot, and to feel the shock and horror that compelled Goya to paint it.
Outbreak, a 1903 etching by Kathe Kollwitz depicting a peasant uprising that took place in feudal Germany. The advance of secularism and totalitarianism in the 20th century has led to a great deal of politically motivated art. As far as I can tell, Kathe Kollwitz is unique among the political artists of the modern era ~ her work is beautifully designed, masterfully executed, and exudes compassion and conviction.
Two heavenly visions, one romantic and pagan, the other cerebral and Christian. Left: Interlude by Maxfield Parrish (oil, 83 x 59, 1922). Right: Salvador Dali's Lapis lazuli corpuscular assumption, or, more roughly translated, the "blue bodily assumption" (ascension into heaven) of the virgin Mary (oil, 1952). In Parrish's painting the nymphs sprawl at the base of the canvas as if pulled down by gravity, while Dali's Mary floats effortlessly upward, her head nearly exiting the top of the canvas. The call of earthly delights versus the yearning to transcend a world of suffering. We respond to both paintings because both convey a truth about the human condition. You can magnify these images by moving the cursor over them.
A detail from Dali's painting (his wife Gala posed for Mary).
A word of caution to aspiring artists: To be truly great, art has to convey something of genuine value to others. We love the masters, not because they're held up to us as exalted geniuses, but because they show us infinitely precious things — the beauty and wonders of our world, the human condition, the human spirit. If your goal is to impress others, your work will show it and, to the extent that it shows, viewers will be turned off.
Good design ~ an arrangement of shapes, lines, colors and textures that captures and holds a viewer's attention. Good design is an essential component of great art because it keeps people looking.
Still life with quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber by Juan Sanchez Cotan (oil, 27 x 33, 1602, San Diego Museum of Art). As this wonderful painting illustrates, the still life is an exercise in design.
Basket of plums by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (oil, 13 x 17, c. 1765, Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia). Whereas Sanchez Cotan arranged his edibles into a sweeping arc arrested by the right angle of a sill, Chardin arranged his into a triangle with a wide and stable base. Sanchez Cotan's painting is an exercise in movement, Chardin's in balance.
There are many ways to teach design. In the method presented here (the one in vogue today), concepts that in reality intersect and interact are separated and classified as either design elements or design principles.
Much of today's curriculum would be familiar to artists of centuries past. What's new is the idea of treating this body of knowledge as two categories of distinct, coequal, stand-alone topics. The method's advantage is that design is easier to learn (and teach) in modules. The downside is that students are left to integrate what they've learned into a knowledge structure they can use in real-world situations. (Where possible, I'll try to show how concepts connect, overlap and can be applied.)
The science of art
Consider this: Before anyone wrote a book or taught a class on design, artists were creating beautiful paintings, figurines, decorated pots, etc.
A painting of a horse in a cave at Lascaux in southern France. The artist is thought to have lived 16,000 years ago. For links to art of every time period and culture, visit Art History Resources.
A man herding horses by Han Gan, a court artist in China's Tang dynasty (8th century).
Design isn't an invention, it's a discovery. Artists in every era and population group discovered that some arrangements of shapes, lines, colors and textures worked (i.e., people appreciated them) and others didn't.
In recent decades scientists have begun to study how people respond to image characteristics. They have now confirmed a number of things that artists have long known — for example, that all sighted people attend to contrasts, notice similarities, follow trajectories, recognize simple shapes even when parts of them are missing, and suppress visual information they can't classify.
Design concepts are based on the factual realities that govern the acquisition and processing of visual information in human beings. Aspiring artists who want their work to be admired and valued would do well to master these concepts and to treat them with respect.
The elements and principles of design
As already noted, the body of knowledge known as design has been subdivided into two categories of topics — design elements and design principles. What exactly each topic includes, what it's called, and how it's categorized depends to some degree on who has done the subdividing, naming and categorizing. I've organized and presented the information that I consider important in the way that makes the most sense to me.
Design elements ~ the visible components of an artwork. They are the shapes, lines, colors and textures that the artist arranges into a composition.
Color has three aspects — value, hue and chroma:
  • Value refers to a color's degree of lightness or darkness and is assessed in terms of a grayscale.
  • Hue is pure color (pure red, pure orange, pure red-orange, pure red-red-orange, etc.).
  • Chroma deals with a color's degree of purity — is it a hue, a neutral gray, or something in between?
The remaining design elements will be referred to as shape, line, texture, space and scale.
  • Space involves the illusion of depth on a flat surface.
Design principles ~ concepts that guide an artist in choosing and arranging the elements of a composition.
The design principles will be presented under the headings of balance, contrast, emphasis, repetition, movement and unity.
  • In a painting or drawing, movement refers to the path the eye takes when viewing it (i.e., to compositional movement).
The Simplon, by John Singer Sargent (watercolor, 1919). The arrangement of shapes, lines, colors and textures that you see is the result of the choices, practical and aesthetic, that the artist made. (This is one of the many watercolors that one of the world's greatest artists painted for his own enjoyment. Several websites display his work, among them John Singer Sargent: The Complete Works and the JSS Virtual Gallery.)
Bibemus Quarry by Paul Cezanne (oil, 26 x 32, c. 1895, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany). Cezanne sparked off the deconstructionist movements of the 20th century by reducing his subjects to arrangements of colors and shapes. As this painting illustrates, his objective was an interesting and pleasing composition, not a realistic representation of reality.
The picture plane, while not considered a design element or principle, is nevertheless an important concept in two-dimensional art. It refers to the surface on which the artist works — specifically, to the shape of the canvas, paper, computer screen, etc. The picture plane defines the area on which the elements of a composition are arranged, and it affects, even directs, choices the artist makes.
The following navigation tools have been provided:
  • The upper left column has links to each topic. The list is the same on every page.
  • The upper right column has links to the current page's subheadings and definitions. These links are provided to help you find information quickly. If the current page is part of a chapter (that is, if it's one of the pages that deal with a particular design element or principle), links to the chapter's other pages appear here as well.
  • Your current location is indicated by the small colored arrows in the left- and right-column link lists.
  • The arrows at the bottom of each page link to the previous page (the left arrow) and the next page (the right arrow). They allow you to move through the site as if reading a book from cover to cover.
  • The site map is essentially a table of contents and includes a description of each page as well as a link to it. A link to the site map is included in the left-column link list.
  • Artwork is an alphabetized list of the artists whose work appears in this book, with links to the pages on which their work can be seen. A link to the list is included in the left-column link list as well.
  • The e-index is a searchable database of the concepts and topics in this book. You'll find a link to it in the left-column link list.
A note
I have artistic prejudices. In particular, I don't like much of what passed for art in the 20th century — because it shows contempt for both technique and average people. (The prevailing attitude at the time: If you don't appreciate the chicken scratches, the drips and blobs, the indecipherable and vertiginous images, it proves that you're an ignorant, bourgeois bore.)
Thanks to the hard work and commitment of many artists and art lovers, technical information that was lost during that dark episode is being rediscovered and shared, as are great artists who were dismissed as illustrators and reactionaries.
I love art from all traditions. Most of the art shown in this book is Western because that's the tradition in which I work.
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