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Topics in Art

Elements of Design

High school art students, their freshman year (if not before), are taught the five, basic elements of design--the use of line, colour, shape, texture, and space. Sometimes, a sixth element is added, that of time (which involves motion). These are the easy ones, made up of common dictionary words for which even non-artists have a basic grasp of their meanings. Each can be singled out and explored in an almost infinite amount of detail until art begins to merge into scientific theory. College students are often dismayed to learn that in their study of these "basic elements of design" they have totally missed the significance of the term "basic" the first time around. About their freshman year in college the realisation comes, "You mean there's more to it than that?"

If those are the basic elements of design, there exists a whole new group that I shall call, for lack of a better term, the complex elements of design. Some have referred to them as "compositional" elements, but I like my name better because each involves the manipulation of the basic elements of design. If you're counting, this time there are eight. The first of these is proportion--the relationship of the various parts of a work to one another and to the work as a whole. Going hand-in-hand with the first, is a second element, scale--which has to do with the relative size, and the juxtaposition of objects with other objects of their kind (apples with oranges, Godzilla with King Kong). The third complex element of design is that of unity--the binding together of the various parts into a whole (without resorting to Scotch tape). Closely related is the fourth element, balance--which has to do with the harmonious arrangement of actual or visual weights in a work of art.

The fifth element is perspective--the rendering of the illusion of depth through the use of the basic elements of design in various ways (see first paragraph). The sixth element is rhythm--the regular repetition of the basic elements of design. The seventh complex element of design (closely related to rhythm) is pattern--the arrangement of one or more basic elements into a decorative motif. And finally the eighth element is that of content--which is kind of like "all of the above" plus the subject matter, meanings, or themes the artist has chosen to explore. If all this sounds complicated, it is (hence the term complex elements of design). If you want to simplify it, there is a much more universal appellation--art.

contributed by Lane, Jim

30 August 1998
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