Back in medieval times I was conducting a workshop and pontificating about design. A man put his hand up and said, “When you use the word ‘design,’ I have no idea what you’re talking about. What are you talking about?” I realized right then that for many artists, the kind of design I was talking about wasn’t covered in their bibles.
Yesterday, while easeling along and looking for design opportunities, I tried to figure out how I might have brought that fellow into the fold. I always have this uncomfortable feeling I might have given false witness to artists I knew in the past. “Look at any object,” I could have told him, “a car, a chair, a vacuum cleaner, the pope’s nose.” With a little study and quiet thought, he would be able to distinguish good design from bad. In my books, great artists are often those who can transfer their finer sense of design to their art. While design ideas may be highly personal and unique, here are a few specifics that are worth looking out for:
Continuum. Continuity from one element to another.
Harmony. Shapes echo and complement one another.
Functionality. How does it work? Form follows function.
Elegance. Curves attract, amuse, enthrall, seduce.
Implication. Elements are suggestive or metaphoric.
Concentricity. Elements circulate, extend and focus.
Control. The viewer’s eye does what you want it to do.
Strength. Forms are solid, committed, authoritative.
Personality. Your design motifs can be yours alone.
It’s not just the stuff you’re looking at, or the magical dreams of your head, it’s what you do with your material. “Nature,” said James Abbot McNeill Whistler, “is usually wrong.” What he meant was that in order to be art, things need to be redesigned. In many cases, stuff needs to be moved, separated, lined up, brought into agreement or in some way justified as a thing of its own — a troublesome leap of faith for many. Fact is, there’s gotta be meaning and purpose.
In an even more pagan century, I too was sitting at the back of the room wondering what design was all about. My instructor, the late, great Strother McMinn, came by, looked at what I was doing, and said, “Not more bloody woolly stuff! Stop drawing potatoes, Genn.” It was about that time that I began to see the light.
PS: “The science of design is the source and essence of painting, sculpture, architecture. Sometimes it seems to me that all the works of the human brain and hand are either design itself or a branch of that art.” (Michelangelo)
Esoterica: There are two main approaches to design. One is the calculated planning that builds preconceived design into work from the very beginning. The other is to leave your options open to be able to modify and improve design as you go along. This requires a constant and critical eye. It’s part of my most valuable question, “What could be?” Look at half finished work as a puzzle with many possible outcomes. The great printmaker Walter J. Phillips, said, “Design must be very carefully considered, and plenty of time and thought given to its construction.” The downside, if you don’t, is the “bloody woolly stuff,” mentioned above. “True artists,” said William Shipley, “are people who find bad design physically nauseating.”
Two departments in art school
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
Design is the purpose of elements like composition, proportion and balance. The reason the eye slides over some paintings and moves on is those paintings have no design. They’re just snapshots of something the artist saw. ‘Tis a pity that design has so long been drummed out of “fine art.” In my undergraduate school, back in that same medieval century you spoke of, the Fine Art School was divided into two sections, literally separated into two wings by a small auditorium. Drawing and Painting was the wing where serious artists struggled with “real” art. Piles of grubby objects lay about for use in still life studies. The Design wing was bright, with massive weaving looms strung with color down the center of the hall. Freshmen spent time in both wings but seniors lived in one or the other.
Design and Emily Carr
by Melanie Peter, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’ve been reading Hundreds and Thousands, The Journals of Emily Carr and rethinking my own art. She said, “A picture does not want to be a design, no matter how lovely. A picture is an expressed thought for the soul. A design is a pleasing arrangement for the eye.” Emily also said, “…one should be in it body and soul, giving all your time and absorption, living above paint, above colour, above design, even above form, searching the spirit, centering the eyes just above the horizon, going out into pure being to be along with it,” and, “Seek ever to lift the painting above paint.”
(RG note) Thanks, Melanie. Emily Carr’s writings are a tonic. One has to keep in mind however that she was coming from a Victorian sensibility. Design, for example, was more likely to mean those roses that Victorian ladies sewed on cushions, or the decoration on a Spode teacup. It is Emily’s work that clears up this suspicion — her work is loaded with design in the modern sense — designed trees, designed skies, etc. Emily was right on what she said about the body and soul.
Design and style
by Nigel Cheffers-Heard, Topsham, Exeter, UK
In the modern world, where marketing is king, styling is often mistaken for design. Quite often we get objects which are barely adequately designed, but flash styling is used to make them appealing. Whether it be cars or hi-fi, there is a marketing imperative to shift product. This usually means persuading folk to ditch perfectly good kit for this year’s model. A particularly awful British car consisted of indifferent old technology with a new body designed by a famous Italian stylist. It sold in large numbers to the uninformed. Classic design satisfies the basic design criteria and doesn’t need styling per se.
by Stefan Galvanek, Toronto, ON, Canada
I am teaching painting classes eight times weekly. After my lecture and demo, students begin to paint and are highly motivated and focused. During my rounds I discuss the progress, go over with them about the principals and elements of painting. I critique their work and explain what the process of painting is and also that it is the most important aspect of painting. Most of the students are very satisfied with their creations, they could not believe that they did it so well. Then I come to a student who says, “I don’t like my painting.” After inquiring why, he or she just says, “I don’t like my painting. It was better before I screwed it up.” I have a hard time to understand what it is they don’t like about the painting. The painting might not be finished so they have to spend more time on it to see the results. Or do I have to give them some other explanation? When we paint we are using visual language which we associate tightly or loosely with our everyday existence? I have never said about my painting that I don’t like it. Comment?
(RG note) Thanks, Stefan. The often-heard “I don’t like it” is a self-protecting ruse to beat the instructor to what the student anticipates is going to be devastating crit. The downside is that when the instructor sees value in this or that — and states it to the student — then the instructor is thought to be a charlatan — undeserving of being called instructor. A lot of this “I don’t like it” on the part of the student can lead to an impossibly deep well of “I don’t like it” that students can’t get themselves out of. Their work continues to decline until everybody definitely agrees that the work is not likeable. At one workshop there was such an epidemic of “I don’t like it,” and such an air of gloom hanging over the place that I nearly called the police. I got the outbreak stopped by telling them that if I ever heard the term “I don’t like it” again, I’d have them all locked up.
Falling in love in all the wrong places
by June Szueber, Perris, CA, USA
To me good design is necessary in a work of art, but it is so often destroyed without recognizing it. I find that when I struggle with a painting, put it away, and bring it out again, it is often a design problem. Being one who falls in love with lines, shapes, and colors, I often refuse to correct the design problem because I am in love with a line, shape, or color that is totally wrong for the overall composition. I have to then place the painting in a spot that I will be looking at often to force myself to see that a line, shape, or color is painfully wrong for the overall design. Sometimes I have to let that work go and come back later before I am psychologically ready to tackle changing the spot I love but know is wrong. Once that flaw is corrected I am again happy with the painting. I have let go of a thing I loved but did not need — sometimes the painting is never finished.
Seeing good design
by Jean Wilson, Des Moines, IA, USA
“True artists,” said William Shipley, “are people who find bad design physically nauseating.” Great… this line caught my attention. It is something you cannot teach… it either is or it is not part of your being. Doug Byers and I used to ride around with Steve and Max and we would constantly be saying, “God, that is ugly,” and the boys would get so mad at us for being so critical and judgmental, and in a way they were right, so we started saying, “God, that is visually challenged,” and that made us a bit less ugly in their eyes. They said it is all in the eye of the beholder, which is true. But I really do believe that there is an eye that gets good design and an eye that does not… not based on taste, but based on something much deeper than that… just a knowing that it is either good design or bad design whether you like it or not.
Good design takes time
by Ortrud K. Tyler, Oak Island, NC, USA
I felt for along time that “good design” is one of the more hard to come by elements in painting. As many times as I have listened to good explanations, seen the diagramming etc. and thought I understood, when it came to doing the real thing, well, it wasn’t that easy. To this day, that is one of the first things I ask myself when evaluating a new painting. How is it, design-wise? After many trials, studying and all that I have decided, for myself, it is just doing, observing, applying the principles and hoping you get it. Then step back and see if it works. To develop a good sense of design, it just takes time, studying and applying what you know and then really looking to see if it works and then finding good solutions. After all, if it was easy everyone could do it, right?
Design friendly shapes
by John Burk, Timonium, MD,USA
In this letter, when referring to design, and specifically about altering nature itself to improve design, you mention an early instructor’s reprimand: “Not more bloody woolly stuff! Stop drawing potatoes, Genn.” What did he mean by that? I’d like to be sure I’ve seen the light, too.
(RG note) Thanks, John. Woolly, wuzzy, lumpy, bumpy things, while they exist in nature, like potatoes, somehow don’t always cut it quite as well when it comes to design. Better to go for pears, apples or bananas, and try to make them even better designed than they are.
Making believable paintings
by Cindy Ricksgers, Beaver Island, MI, USA
I spent a day last summer driving around taking photographs with a friend. A watercolor artist, she will use the photos as reference. Coming around a bend in the road, we had an especially nice view of sky and trees. The clouds marched along on their nice horizontals through the sky, until they reached a stand of trees. There, they became puffy and rounded, and perfectly echoed the shape of the trees, like an aura. Great photograph, we agreed. It would not work as a painting, we also agreed. It would look unbelievable in that context. My friend said she’d worry that viewers would think she lacked the skill to get the clouds in line behind the trees, and the aura was the result. Some things look “staged” as paintings. “There are enough issues in making a painting believable,” she said, “no need to borrow trouble.”
(RG note) Thanks, Cindy. Your clouds that mimic the trees and form an aura are an example of what’s called “anomalies.” Painters in other centuries saw fit to record these phenomena — many thought them to be evidence of the miraculous. Today, in the name of design, such anomalies need to be handled with care. This sort of thing can smack of “faces in clouds,” the sort of thing, unfortunately, often read as a naive, low form of metaphor. The cry, “I swear, that’s the way it was,” is not always acceptable as a justification for rendering it that way. As recommended in my letter, artists need to take control and use their own self-anointed taste and design sense. Regarding Whistler’s remark that Nature is usually wrong — something that a lot of artists commented on — in my experience there are a few, very few, of what might be called “ready-mades.” This is where you turn a corner on a road or a path, and there, before you, is a scene with practically nothing wrong with it.
Whistler and design
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I used to be an etcher in college and loved Whistler’s drypoints. I love the White Girl, both versions, and others of his early paintings. I now feel that when he became a “designer” and not a painter of nature his work became weak, wimpy and self conscious. Whistler fell in love with his own rhetoric. His dependence on theory puts him out front as one of the early modernists. Like many of them, the theory and rhetoric outstrip the performance. Ironically, his improvements on nature were done with shaky impermanent methods and these paintings are deteriorating like a London sunset. We are told that these washy, formless paintings are the ones of Whistlers we are to admire. Not me. When nature was Whistlers muse, his paintings were strong, romantic and passionate. While he might not have been in his own mind a great draftsman, he worked hard to overcome it. His drawing was more of an impressionist than a traditional salon-trained painter. In his drypoint etchings you see that he was gifted in drawing and design. When Whistler abandoned “nature” because he thought he could do better, his muse was his own ego — a cautionary tale for artists.
Interesting division of space
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
Regarding design, or composition, I try to keep the explanation simple. The idea is to get an interesting division of space. This can mean various things to various people and it is all valid. The biggest stumbling block I see with students is getting them to see things in a flat, two-dimensional way. If we can truly see things as flat puzzle-like pieces on a flat piece of canvas we can begin to understand design. One trick is to lay a piece of tracing paper over a photograph. First draw the rectangular border and then just trace the outline of the objects, no shading, no rendering. Draw it as if each piece were to be cut out. Then move the paper onto a white surface and look at the flat shapes. Decide if they are interesting. Trace reproductions of famous paintings and look at the same shapes to begin to understand what interesting is. Another level of seeing that must be developed.
Unschooled Inuit artists
by Alcina Nolley, St Lucia, West Indies
The Inuit artists are a community of people who know, without doubt, that they are artists. This is true of most traditional cultures. Only the modern, westernized world tells people they are ‘not artists.’ When in fact everyone is, to a degree, an artist, especially if they are not schooled and instructed to make art that is meaningless — since western society wants to remove ‘art’ from their environment, culture or direct experiences.
Painful commission problems
by Brian Reifer, UK
Normally, I avoid commissions. I tighten up just at the thought of them. Occasionally, they crop up and I really do not have a system to deal with them. I am completing one at present and it’s a good example of my complete woolliness on the subject. In my last exhibition I had one painting that would have sold three times over. It was a new direction I was moving towards. A couple asked if I would paint another. It came up in general conversation and I was not ‘switched on to Commission mode.’ Interesting as a subject, it would require a different format (rectangular instead of square) but, “Yes, sounds okay,” I said. It was only a week later, after I had sketched out some ideas and presented them, that I asked a fee, which was accepted. It is nearly finished and I am asking them over the end of the week to have a look at it as far as it goes (nearly finished). I would be grateful for a few guidelines on how to proceed in future if I pluck up the courage to accept other commissions. In other words, I need a check list. What do I request and what do I inform them? Do I insist on a deposit up front? Is it returnable? What do I do if they change their mind?
(RG note) Thanks, Brian. When I wrote about this subject some time ago, Commissioned artwork, I was surprised to learn that there are artists who do only commissions. They wouldn’t think of picking up a brush to do anything unless they were guaranteed greens. Apart from the fact that commissions can be a valuable source of new material, new vistas, and new things you thought you couldn’t do, commissions can be a vexing detriment to the natural creative flow. It’s my opinion that self-anointed and muse-motivated practitioners need to do a minimum of commissions. I have three rules that I’ve modified over the years. For what they’re worth, and at the risk of being ruled out of order by my fellow commission doers, here they are:
1. Say ‘yes’ to commissions, but never say ‘when.’
2. Never ask for any money up front.
3. If they don’t like it, take it back, even if it’s his Aunt Gertrude who looks like Quasimodo, no charge — them’s the breaks.
oil painting by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Susan Montague of Baton Rouge, LA, USA who wrote, “The scales have fallen from my eyes. I see, now. I can more successfully critique my own work and the work of others with greater understanding of design.”
And also Tim Crandall of Rochester, NY, USA who wrote, “I once had a great design teacher by the name of Harry Leg. Day in and day out he would push CRAP. Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. This mantra has gotten me through a lot of projects.”
And also Marilyn Blundin of Bracciano, Italy who wrote, “Design is design. Your letter ‘Design opportunities’ coincided with a book that I am currently reading entitled Math and the Mona Lisa by Bulent Atalay.”
And also Tanis Laird of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “I used to be cynical that my College Career didn’t take me as far as I expected it to the first couple years after graduation, but in the end, I really value all the techniques, basics, and applications that my Design teachers taught me.”
And also Nina Allen Freeman of Tallahassee, FL, USA who wrote, “Use the edge to help your design, not just like a dam to keep things from falling off.”
And also Peter Brown of Oakland, CA, USA who wrote, “The elements of art — line, shape, form, value, color, texture, and space — can be put together in an infinity of ways. The composition, or design, is the manner in which the elements are put together.”
And also Jason Phillips who wrote, “My wife is the head of a graphic design department. On her door is a logo for a very clever company which features a white jawless skull on black with a pencil and Xacto knife as crossed bones. The caption reads ‘Bad Design Kills.’ “