On Creative Process: Design (3 of 4)

On Creative Process: Design (3 of 4)


Welcome to part 3 of my discussion of the elements of the creative process. In the previous two articles I explained how Inspiration, Idea and Expression are vital not only to the understanding and mastering of the creative process but to creating work that has value and contains a message. In this article I’m going to discuss the final piece of the puzzle: Design. These four elements are the parts that make up the whole, the mechanics of the creative process. They are the Why’s, What’s and How’s of what we do.

“If you buy a coat do you examine the stitching of the buttonholes and, if you find them acceptable, say, ‘I’ll take this one’? Or do you first appraise its shape in the mirror?” These are the words of Edgar Whitney, one of the greatest American watercolor artists. This is a nice analogy and certainly brings to mind the “cart before the horse” saying. Let’s see why.

“Do you know what you are doing? What you are really doing?” I’d been asked these questions repeatedly when I started on my art journey over a decade ago. Admittedly, I had not, not really. Nor did I truly understand the question. And that is fine. That is only natural. After all, the technical aspect, the handling of the brush, the manual labor, it is our first and most direct point of contact with art making and so our efforts tend to focus on the brush strokes, the lines, the shapes, the colors. We don’t have to be educated in order to pick up a brush and paint. We enjoy what we do. And so we make the stitching, we put the needle through the buttonholes, we make the coat happen. What we fail to do, however, is to determine, to plan what kind of coat we are trying to make.

As in any field to which we apply our efforts, so in art does our advancement come gradually. The important thing is to strive for understanding of the processes within and without. With enough determination, enthusiasm and effort, we can reach understanding that we knew not existed. Several times in this series I stressed the idea of looking at the big picture. Of context in which we exist and create. In which we think. And today I would like to do the same and explore the big idea behind Design, or composition, in a piece of art.

Design, or composition, describes the process of putting a picture together. It is the way for our Idea to take form: to render it in a specific, creative and pleasing way. It is the outlet in which the Idea is expressed. We express our Idea by using the Principles and Elements of Design. These are the basic tools that we use to make pictures, to paint. But these only represents the “stitching of the buttonholes”, so to speak. Elements of Design are the building blocks of any painting, an alphabet of a painter: Shape, Size, Line, Value, Color, Texture and Direction. The Principles of Design activate the Elements. These are Unity, Contrast, Dominance, Repetition, Harmony, Balance and Gradation. Frank Webb talks about them as nouns and verbs, and I think that is an excellent analogy. However, in this article I am not going to be focusing on neither Elements nor Principles of design. Considering these is very important but they only contribute in a very literal, technical way. If we focus on these only, we may miss the big picture. We may be able to make perfect buttonholes, but not a perfect coat. For that we must shift our perspective.

As with anything worthwhile, “reading” a design is a matter of education and knowledge. Viewing and critiquing art does require some understanding of the concepts of design but the process of creating art requires still more than that. On top of profound understanding it requires the skill to manipulate the pictorial space in a way that creates a new balance, a new ecosystem in which the Idea, Expression and Design are in perfect balance. All things in the universe work like this. When we look at Earth from space we see a much different image than when we stand on the pavement in front of our house. It is a shift in our perspective that makes us change our thinking and reconsider what we know, to realize that we are part of a larger scheme. We view things as part of something bigger, we get a glimpse of the context in which we function. In a similar way, we look at design. We see the Elements of Design applied through the Principles but there is more. There is the context, the big plan, the underlying scheme on which the elements lay. We call these schemes Design patterns. I also like to call them “Big gestures”. This is what Edgar Whitney refers to in the quote earlier. He also adds, “Pattern is even more important in your watercolor. Nothing is more important.

And that is perfectly correct. This is the idea I stress in the previous article on Expression. The balance of the four elements of creative process has to be preserved. You can’t neglect any of them. You need to recognize and incorporate all of them into your work – otherwise, even though you may achieve mastery in one aspect, your work may not have enough power to withstand the test of time because it lacks true value and content. This is why I consider Inspiration, Idea, Expression and Design to be the four pillars upon which any work of art needs to be built.

To briefly demonstrate what Design patterns are, here comes once again Rembrandt’s Christ preaching. I will show much more examples in the next article dedicated to design patterns, but for now this example should be sufficient to explain what design pattern is and how it can be observed in an actual work of art.

Rembrandt’s Christ Preaching; left: original, right: bit plane conversion

On the left side of the image above is the original in its full glory and detail. On the right side I have converted the work to bit planes, thus eliminating the subtle tonal changes and most of the detail and linework. It is still the same image, just rid of the descriptive elements. And here already, the big picture starts to emerge.

If you’re still not sure what are you looking at, here follows an image showing my transcription of the Christ Preaching to an actual design pattern.

A rough representation of the design pattern of Rembrandt’s Christ Preaching

Design pattern is, in its essence, a diagram showing the relationships of shapes and values within the painting rectangle. Detail doesn’t come into play here, nor does the subject matter. Hopefully now you can, clearly and plainly, recognize the design pattern and see what design really is. Here’s the underlying structure of Rembrandt’s work. Here is the artwork stripped of all the fancy linework, the detail, the descriptiveness, stripped off of the Idea. The Design pattern is the relationship of the large areas, the planes of light and dark, or in some cases the warm and cool. As you can see here, painting is nothing more than a set of shapes put down side by side. The point is to choose their sizes and placements to create a coherent and pleasing composition that makes sense beyond the subject matter.

In the above image we can recognize a clear S-shape running through the picture from top to bottom. This S-shape divides the lights and darks in the painting. This pattern is reminiscent of locked hands or even the symbol of yin and yang. It’s like two puzzle pieces that fit into each other.  This division provides great sense of balance in the composition while being varied enough to keep our interest. And that’s pretty much what a design pattern in this painting is.

Hopefully this article helped you understand and recognize the concept of Design patterns and their function as one of the building blocks of the creative process, and even helped you in your ability to, perhaps for the first time, appraise the coat’s shape in the mirror.

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
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  1. Pavel Ožďáni

    Daniel ďakujem za možnosť rozširovať obzor svojich znalostí .

    1. Som rad, ze v mojej praci nachadzate uzitok.

  2. Becky Brady

    I also, at your recommendation recently, purchased Whitney’s book (found an old copy on ebay). I’m slowly working through it. His discussion of pattern is very illuminating. Thanks for the idea, I had never heard of him.

    1. That’s great! It’s very rewarding to get this kind of feedback. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Sharon Wieland

    Wow! I recently purchased Edgar Whitney’s book and love the way you have explained his coat metaphor. Your articles and your demonstrations which I watch on YouTube have been great inspiration to me. You are a wonderful teacher!

    1. Thank you for the visit and kind words Sharon. I’m happy to hear you own Whitney’s book, I’m just finishing my article on it, more people need to read it. Glad you enjoy watching my videos and this article and appreciate your leaving a few words. Best of luck on your journey.

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