In our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook we introduce the elements and principles of design. This blog is an off-shoot of the book – a place where we look at art, architecture, and design.
In the book we devote a chapter to each design element and principle, and on our Pinterest page we have a separate board for each of these things. This is a useful way to become familiar with design but in real usage the elements and principles do not work in isolation from each other. For this reason, today I want to look at a single work of art and evaluate its formal composition.
First, let me list the design elements and principles:
The elements are dot/point; line; shape; space; texture; value; color.
The principles are unity/variety; balance; grid; emphasis/focal point; scale and proportion; pattern; rhythm; motion and time.
Some compositions will have all of these at work, while others will employ some elements and principles but not others.
This wall installation is by Barry McGee, an artist associated with the Mission School in San Francisco, and like those artists he sees his work as a portrait of the urban street. He brings in discarded things found on the street – in a sense he intercepts them and does something to them before putting them back into the world. These reworked items – drawn, painted, photographed – are framed and presented in clusters. In addition to his gallery work McGee, a.k.a. “Twist,” works as a street/graffiti artist.
I’ll begin by identifying which elements and principles are used in the artwork shown above.
One of the first things that strikes me when I look at this piece is the irregular grid created by the black picture frames. Like an urban street scene the artwork is very active, with many things fighting for the viewer’s attention. The grid tames the installation, superimposing a system of order, and thus balance onto the work. This is an excellent example of the design principle of unity and variety. The repeating rectangles unify, while the individual images within the frames add variety.
The grid is part of an interplay between line and shape. The short vertical and horizontal lines of the black frames make a staccato rhythm that dances across the surface of the piece. At the same time, they outline the rectangular shapes of the individual images.
There are several overlays of shape in this artwork.
1 • There is the commanding, irregular, bulging three-dimensional shape of the total piece which interacts with the negative space of the surrounding wall and floor.
2 • Within the work we find an array of rectangular shapes, ranging from very small to oversized. These shapes contribute to the overall rhythm and pattern of the piece as our eyes jump between large and small; brightly colored and dull.
3 • Within the individual frames are unique shapes, each of which sets up its own negative/positive shape relationships.
I’ve already mentioned the design principle of rhythm twice – it is an important aspect of the work. McGee uses the element of color and the principle of emphasis/focal point to accentuate the rhythmic patterns of the composition. He has scattered framed monochromatic rectangles of bright red-orange throughout the piece. These serve as areas of emphasis – focal points for our attention – with our vision jumping from one to another.
There are numerous juxtapositions in this work of art that use the formal aspect of the work to reinforce the content. Look at how McGee plays with scale, balancing the very large outer shape of the art with lots of much smaller internal shapes. Together, they mimic the energy and overwhelming presence of life found on the street. Think of the large shape as the street itself, looming and overwhelming, and the small framed shapes as all the activities, sound, movement and visual clutter that make up that world.
McGee also juxtaposes real three-dimensional space with the flat two-dimensional space contained in the picture frames. He creates a visual tension between the two. There is the sensible framed art, contained and illusionary that threatens to pour out into the real space of the gallery, enveloping the viewer.
And here’s a very quick mention of other elements and principles found in the work:
1 • Individual framed images function as points on the surface of McGee’s artwork, marking a location and point in time
2 • The repeating pattern of the frames contributes to a varied surface texture
3 • The work contains a full value range
4 • The piece is a time portrait of a community that is captured in photographs and found materials.
Next week I’ll formally evaluate a painting by another artist.