Design Exercise: Imaginary Places

The weather is beautiful here in California. Perfect blue skies and just the right amount of heat. It’s hard to sit inside and get work done. I’d rather be anywhere but at my desk. Perhaps you feel this way too. Where would you be if you had no responsibilities and anything was possible? Does such a place even exist?

The greatest vacation may occur in your imagination, where there are no limits, not even those imposed by gravity. My proposal is that you create your perfect vacation spot, one that you can revisit no matter where your body resides physically, and regardless of the time of year.

I suggest you begin by deciding what type of vacation you’d want – adventure, natural beauty, exposure to foreign cultures, extreme relaxation, sensory indulgence, adrenaline inducing exploits, educational pursuits, out-of-body experiences, a dystopian nightmare (a weird vacation indeed), etc.

I’m one of those people who loves lists and that’s what I’m going to suggest you make next – a list of what that ideal vacation would contain. If you want a vacation of adrenaline inducing exploits ask yourself where this would occur (remember, anything is possible, forget about the laws of physics), who would be there, what would you do, how would you get there, even what would be your emotional state of mind.

If you need help generating ideas try searching online for images. You can start with obvious search categories but see what you can find by following link upon link – in other words, let yourself get a little lost, thus discovering what you didn’t know existed. Move past the easy answers.

What visual form will best represent this fantasy vacation? A map? A collage? A diorama? A sculptural installation? A film? An ad campaign? A board game? A video game? A garment? A series of souvenirs?

The effectiveness of your response to this exercise is dependent on your successful use of the elements and principles of design, the inventiveness of your idea, and your handling and crafting of materials. Use our book, “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook” as a resource. In addition Youtube offers many how-to videos that can help you with the pragmatics of fabrication.

Please share your projects with us on our Facebook page.

Here are a few images I found online that I thought fit with this theme.

manipulated photograph of boats floating in the air

bpkelsey, manipulated photograph

antique map Bartholomaeus Anglicus

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, antique map

three illustrations by Whooli Chen of imaginary places

Whooli Chen, three illustrations

outdoor installation by London Fieldworks

London Fieldworks, outdoor installation

Boat art installation by Yudi Sulistyo


Bonsai treehouse sculptures by Takanori Aiba

Takanori Aiba, bonsai treehouses

Painting by Suad Al Attar

Suad Al Attar, “A Thousand And One Nights”

Painting by Rae Hicks

Rae Hicks, “Sometimes I Forget That You’re Gone”

Urban Dreaming installation by the Bouroullec Brothers

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, “Urban Daydreaming”

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July 4th 2017

We will be on vacation for the next two weeks, celebrating the American 4th of July holiday. During this difficult time living with the Trump Administration we are trying to remain positive by remembering the freedoms on which our country was founded. We will not go backwards and we encourage all of you to fight for equal rights, strong environmental protections, and a world in which you would want your children to live.

Our next post will be on Thursday, July 13. We’ve been writing this blog for several years and we suggest you use this brief break to browse through the hundreds of prior posts we’ve written and to check out our book “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.”

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Ramiro Gomez: I Choose To Recognize That The Custodian Was Here

When my blogging partner was writing our recent post about Eduardo Sarabia it reminded me of another contemporary Mexican-American artist. A young painter/sculptor working in Los Angeles named Ramiro Gomez.

I first became aware of Gomez when I read about the guerrilla art installations he created along Sunset Boulevard and other streets in Bel Air and Beverly Hills. These were life-sized painted cutouts made from salvaged cardboard packing boxes. They were images of the anonymous domestic workers and gardeners who care for the children of the wealthy or keep those upscale neighborhoods clean and manicured.

Once the figures were painted and cut out Gomez set them up on sidewalks in front of pristine houses and tidy yards. His intent was to acknowledge and celebrate the invisible workers who labor behind the scene to make paradise possible.

The cardboard figures were usually removed – more often than not by the hired help – as soon as the property owner discovered they were there.

cardboard cutout paintings by Ramiro Gomez

cardboard cutout paintings by Ramiro Gomez

Ramiro Gomez’s parents are immigrants from Mexico. His mother is a janitor and his father a trucker.

Gomez studied art for a brief time at Cal Arts in Valencia just north of Los Angeles. While there he supported himself by working as a male nanny in the affluent neighborhoods of the Hollywood Hills.

When the children he was watching had nap time he browsed through the fashion and architecture magazines his employers subscribed to. In the lush photographs Gomez noted that the models, rooms and yards were immaculate but the people who made them “camera ready” were never visible.

In response Gomez began a series of paintings created on top of magazine photos. In these paintings he shows the workers behind the scenes – the seamstresses, house cleaners and car washers.

paintings on top of magazine photographs by Ramiro Gomez

paintings on top of magazine photographs by Ramiro Gomez

Perhaps Gomez’s most talked about images are the ones he made after seeing a series of paintings by the artist David Hockney.

Hockney is a famous English artist who maintains a residence in Southern California. He is known for his minimalist representational paintings depicting modern architecture, perfect weather, beautiful people and wealthy art patrons.

Gomez was introduced to Hockney’s work by his high school art teacher who showed him a book about the artist.

His eventual response, years later, was to create a series of paintings based closely on Hockney’s originals but ones that featured the pool cleaners, gardeners and domestic help – workers who were left out of Hockney’s originals.

By the way, Hockney and Gomez have met and talked. Hockney is a big fan.

Here are two images. First Hockney’s Bigger Splash and then Gomez’s No Splash featuring the pool cleaner and a grounds person.

David Hockney painting, Bigger Splash

Ramiro Gomez painting, No Splash, based on Hockney's Bigger Splash

Early this year Gomez was included in an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. For this exhibition he shadowed and worked beside a custodial employee named Lupita Velazquez. The result is a bronze cast of an original cardboard cut out showing Lupita going about her janitorial duties.

Gomez says of the piece, “It might seem like a simple figure, but there is nothing simple about a immigrant person’s existence, especially in these times. This is for those little moments that won’t be recorded in history otherwise, the simple acts of labor that contribute whether we recognize them or not. She no longer works (at the museum) but I choose to recognize that Lupita was here, that the custodian is present.”

Bronze cast by Ramiro Gomez

Ramiro Gomez is a passionate and interesting artist. You can learn more about him and his work in these three articles, one in Hyperallergic, another in the LA Times, and the third from NPR.

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Raymond Loewy and the Creation of a Beautiful Life

Long before any of us had heard the name Steve Jobs, or that of Apple designer Jony Ives, there was Raymond Loewy. Considered by many to be the father of modern industrial design Loewy was referred to in the press as “The Man Who Shaped America.”

portrait of Raymond Loewy

corporate logos designer by Raymond Loewy

Born in France in 1893, Loewy spent most of his career in the United States. During his lifetime he built one of the largest industrial design firms in the world. He was the man behind the design of such recognizable icons as the coca-cola glass bottle, the Frigidaire refrigerator, the first streamlined Greyhound buses, classic Studebaker cars, welded locomotives, Nasa’s Saturn 1, Saturn V, and the Skylab spacecraft, Air Force One, logos and packaging for Lucky Strike cigarettes, BP, Shell, and Exxon…the list goes on.

From just this small and partial list of his accomplishments it’s easy to see how Loewy could indeed be seen as the person who shaped America. Speaking of the America he found when he first arrived in the country he said that “American products are marvels of production and functionality, but were unnecessarily and unbearably ugly, noisy, smelly and offensive.” Loewy changed this by introducing a new “streamline” aesthetic into American design, a style of simplicity and sleek speed that implied technological innovation, and that emphasized America’s new role as a world leader and style setter. Today we’d say he “rebranded America.”

Studebaker car designer by Raymond Loewy

Loewy was known not only for the specific designs he created but also for a larger design philosophy that took in to consideration marketing, economics, usability, and the relationship between form and function. In a recent post I mentioned his theory of “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable (maya),” a concept that utilizes the contradiction between a consumer’s love of the new and fear of the new. His answer to this contradiction was “to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.

Unlike many designers of his time Loewy understood the link between design and marketing, positing that “Between two products equal in price, function, and quality, the better looking will outsell the other.” Today we take this idea for granted but at the time it was a revolutionary idea. Here are a few more quotes of Loewy’s that I find revealing:

I can claim to have made the daily life of the 20th Century more beautiful.

Good design keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended.”

It’s a simple exercise; a little logic, a little taste, and the will to cooperate.”

The most beautiful curve is a rising sales graph.

Good design is not an applied veneer.

It would seem that more than function itself, simplicity is the deciding factor in the aesthetic equation. One might call the process beauty through function and simplification.

A designer must always think about the unfortunate production engineer who will have to manufacture what you have designed; try to understand his problems.

There is a frantic race to merchandise tinsel and trash under the guise of ‘modernism.’

Never leave well enough alone.”

Now, let’s look at a few of Loewy’s designs:

Raymond Loewy designs for Greyhound bus and locomotive

objects designed by Raymond Loewy

Airforce One designed by Raymond Loewy

Skylab Spacecraft designed by Raymond Loewy

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A Brief Look At IKEA Design

Editors Note: This may seem like an ad for IKEA but for those of you interested in the field of design this post will give you an idea of the design concerns of one company. Aesthetics are only part of the picture. Issues of resourcing, global economies, and environmental impact are of equal concern.

Whenever I drive on the freeway, north out of Oakland, I pass a giant IKEA store with its instantly recognizable blue and yellow exterior.

I’ve spent hours inside this Emeryville IKEA wandering along their convoluted pre-determined shopping path on my way to the big warehouse and checkout area. Over the years I’ve come to own a fair number of their items – large and small and they are in nearly every room of my house.

exterior view of an IKEA store

So that brings me to the point of this blogpost… Lets take a quick look at IKEA and its design vision.

They were founded in 1943 in Sweden by Ingvar Kamprad (the “I K” of IKEA).

There are approximately 200,000 employees and over 390 stores located in 48 countries. In 2016 IKEA generated nearly $39 billion USD (34.2 billion Euro) in sales.

The company’s products are so ubiquitous in Europe it has been estimated that 1 out of every 10 people living there was conceived on a bed sold by IKEA.

IKEA is also the third largest consumer of lumber and wood byproducts in the world (behind Home Depot and Lowes but ahead of Walmart).

The overall esthetic of IKEA’s products is minimalist, inspired by Scandinavian Modern Design. Their items celebrate functionality and downplay embellishment. They have uncluttered lines, basic patterns and simple color/value combinations. The metal, wood, plastic or fabric used to make a typical IKEA product is never disguised, but rather featured as a main component of the design.

IKEA desk and chair

This sparse, straightforward look helps give the company’s products a universal appeal. With few exceptions, what they sell in China and Australia is the same as what they sell in France and the United States.

The clean functional look of IKEA furniture also helps individual pieces fit into a wide range of home decor styles. My house, for example, is furnished with an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles, original artworks and purely functional objects my wife and I have acquired over the years. The clear acrylic chairs and the bold black and white rug we purchased from IKEA are perfect counterpoints to a large traditional dining room table we inherited.

Although the overall design of most IKEA products is consistently spare and functional the company works with in-house and freelance designers to keep their inventory fresh. They regularly produce a PS Collection of more adventurous items and this year they are collaborating with costume designer and fashion activist Bea Åkerlund (think Madonna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga) to produce accent and display objects.

In order to keep their design and marketing efforts on track IKEA sends teams of researchers into the field to conduct home visits with customers. During their visits the team asks about a wide range of topics that might include how the customer interacts with their own home, what new products would make their daily life more productive or rewarding, and the customer’s impression of their last visit to an IKEA store.

In 2015 IKEA produced a report titled Life At Home. This document is based on a survey of over 8,000 people in eight cities around the world. It found – among many interesting insights – that morning is the most stressful part of the day for urbanites and that New Yorkers prefer to select their next day work clothes the night before. It also found that 52% of the people surveyed enjoyed cooking in the company of other people. The results of the survey have already influenced the development and design of new products.

This concern for how a product fits into the real world also influences the way IKEA approaches the sourcing of raw materials and their general emphasis on sustainability. For example, IKEA uses recycled PET plastics from disposable bottles to make quilts and pillows. They use bamboo when possible to create a hardwood alternative for furniture. They also design and sell water-saving kitchen faucets and energy-saving appliances. All of the lighting IKEA sells is LED that uses 85% less energy and lasts up to 20 years.

IKEA kitchen design

One part of IKEA design that gets a lot of attention is their flat packaging. It originated in the 1950s when an employee removed the legs from an end table in order to fit it into their car. Compacting the form of a piece of furniture for shipping and handling soon became a major goal.

Today when you buy a piece of IKEA furniture from their store it comes in a plain rectangular cardboard box. Inside the box is the unassembled piece of furniture and necessary hardware arranged in the most efficient way imaginable. The packaging is so efficient there is never a need for extra padding. It is a brick.

In addition to the furniture and hardware in the box there is an assembly instruction sheet that uses hieroglyphic style diagrams. Using the diagrams as a cryptic guide customers work their way through the assembly process and become active partners in creating their new piece of furniture.

The picture-only instruction sheet is one more concession to IKEA’s international marketing efforts and efficient use of resources. It is also the inspiration for many stand-up comedians and online commenters both positive and negative.

The emphasis on affordable, minimalist design influenced by customer input – what IKEA calls “democratic design” – combined with sustainability and efficient packaging/handling is a complex endeavor. I think IKEA does a spectacular job of orchestrating and managing all these design challenges.

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Strangely Familiar: The Ceramics of Eduardo Sarabia

If you’re anything like me you have multiple email accounts, I have almost a dozen. The one account that overfills with hundreds of messages each day is the equivalent of the junk drawer in my kitchen, a place for a random assortment of items of questionable value. When I discover something that does interest me I usually forward it to one of my other accounts, thus establishing its worth.

By an act of serendipity two emails arrived, one after the other, in this miscellaneous account, forming an interesting connection. One linked to an article in The Atlantic that discussed the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, while the other contained auction results for the work of the Mexican-American artist Eduardo Sarabia.

Loewy began work in the early 1900s, eventually becoming one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. He made advances not only in design but also in marketing. As factories became more efficient at producing durable goods a market based on desire needed to be created. Why replace something if it still works? The answer was found by making objects that changed style regularly and by equating those changes with increased value.

To quote Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, “Loewy had an uncanny sense of how to make things fashionable. He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—maya. He said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.

Eduardo Sarabia ceramic vases with hand painted narco culture images

Eduardo Sarabia is an artist, not a designer, and his main goal isn’t to sell things. Nonetheless, I was struck by Loewy’s ideas when I viewed Sarabia’s decorated ceramic plates and vases. Sarabia plays with common forms but juxtaposes them with “out of context” painted images, creating a tension between the known and the unexplored.

Sarabia is known for his art installations, photo-realistic paintings and ceramic works. Today I want to look at his work with ceramics.

Eduardo Sarabia art installation with ceramic vase with hand painted narco culture image

Born and raised in Los Angeles to immigrant parents Sarabia relocated to Mexico almost fifteen years ago. His work has long been concerned with the uneasy border between his identity as a first generation American and his Mexican heritage. Using humor and absurdity he plays with cultural stereotypes. This is no more evident than in the large ceramic vases and plates that combine traditional folk motifs with emblems of “narco” culture.

Living in Guadalajara, a center for drug trafficking, Sarabia is surrounded by the reality and mythology of the narco world. He has employed the iconography of the drug trade – guns, pills, wild women, marijuana leaves – and mixed them with more traditional folk designs. Parrots (cocaine), goats (heroin), roosters (marijuana) and vines intertwine in playful patterns. Many of his vases and plates mimic the blue and white Talavera vases that are sold to tourists. At first glance Sarabia’s ceramics appear homey and comforting but the narrative painted on the surface disrupts this sense of tranquility.

Eduardo Sarabia art installation with ceramic vases and custom shipping boxes

Along with the vases Sarabia fabricates cardboard shipping boxes that are equally part of the artwork. The sides of the boxes are printed with company logos, a reference to the hiding of contraband goods within the shipment of legitimate products.

Eduardo Sarabia art installation with hand painted ceramic plates

All of these ceramic pieces seem to be about the familiar and the surprise of the unknown, and it is from this that they draw their strength.

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How To Analyze A Painting – Revisited

In two recent posts, How To Become An Art Critic (In A Few Simple Steps) Part 1 and 2, we guided you step by step through the process of evaluating a work of art. The discussion was general in nature. Today I thought we’d revisit a post from September 2015 that looked at a single work, with an emphasis on the elements and principles of design.

How To Analyze A Painting

In a recent post I analyzed a work of art by Barry McGee, identifying the elements and principles of design. Today I want to look at a painting by Kerry James Marshall.

As a reminder I’ve included a list of the elements and principles of design. For more detailed information refer to our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

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.

Kerry James Marshall painting of a couple in a nightclub

In his 30 year career as an artist Kerry James Marshall has explored black identity. Noting the lack of black faces throughout historical accounts he creates art that is an affirmation of black history and black daily life, making a “declaration that the subject is worthy…” of our attention.

This painting, Untitled (Club Couple), is part of a series called Look See. Of this series Marshall says, “What I’m trying to do with these is to allow the figure, the subject in the picture, to have a kind of self-possessed quality. They’re sort of indifferent to the spectator, sometimes totally indifferent, but at the same time I try to create this aura of desire around the figure.” In an ArtNews article about the series Andrew Russeth writes that “The works ask questions, with a quiet but unveiled directness, about who is allowed to view another person, and about who is allowed—or simply is good enough—to be viewed, praised, and adored, and how race and class shape those discussions… he (Marshall) conjures a wide and nuanced range of emotions from what at first appear to be relatively straightforward domestic scenes. Once you start looking, his warm, sincere devotion to detail makes you feel at home there, like you are visiting places where you would like to spend some time.”

The question becomes how does Marshall use the elements and principles of design to achieve his aims?

First, what do we see? A happy couple smiling for an unknown spectator, while the man sneaks his hand around the woman’s back to reveal a box holding an engagement ring. This is a joyous moment. Marshall wants no confusion here and uses a unified composition with strong and clear shape relationships contained in a square canvas. This square shape compacts and simplifies the scene while focusing our attention directly on the couple. The stability of the composition reinforces the stability of the couple’s relationship.

Scale is an important aspect of this work.The painting is 5ft x 5ft. The size is not accidental. In an interview with Martin Coomer in TimeOut Marshall said “I’m making a declaration that the subject is worthy of that kind of monumental treatment. Too often if you look back through the history of representation and you take the work of African-American artists, the work is on such a modest scale that it becomes sort of inconsequential.

Working with unity and variety Marshall creates an extremely balanced artwork. He uses a full range of lines, shapes and colors but unifies the painting by repeating them throughout the piece.

In structuring the painting Marshall employs bold vertical and horizontal lines. There is the salmon colored horizontal band of wallpaper in the upper part of the canvas, the white line of the edge of the table top, the edge of the woman’s seat cushion, all of which are balanced by the vertical steel pole supporting the table and the vertical uprights of the chair. These create a loose grid that adds even more balance to the painting.

The background of the piece uses geometric shapes – squares, rectangles, and circles which balance the organic forms of the couple. These geometric shapes also establish the rhythm of the painting, the small shapes part of a melodic passage contained in the movement of the larger bands of color.

Pattern is a major component of this painting. There is the overall grid pattern that is in dialogue with the patterned wallpaper, the loose patterning found on the woman’s dress and what looks to be ovals of reflected light in the background. All of these patterns add to the sense of joy in the painting, creating movement and a light sensibility.

The patterning in the painting makes a shallow pictorial space that pushes the couple forward toward the viewer, fairly screaming Here We Are, Look at Us, and yes, we are good enough to be viewed, praised and adored.

Marshall has talked about his symbolic use of color, which is found in this painting. “The blackness of my figures is supposed to be unequivocal, absolute and unmediated. They are a response to the tendency in the culture to privilege lightness. The lighter the skin, the more acceptable you are. The darker the skin, the more marginalized you become. I want to demonstrate that you can produce beauty in the context of a figure that has that kind of velvety blackness. It can be done.

In addition to this symbolic use of color Marshall uses color and value to emphasize the rhythm and balance of the composition. The lighter pastel shapes catch our attention, our eyes jumping from one to another. This enlivens the composition.

All of the elements and principles at use in this piece, Club Couple, are used in service to Marshall’s larger intent. Nothing is arbitrary.

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How To Become An Art Critic (In A Few Simple Steps) Part 2

In the previous post I discussed steps one and two in the process of learning how to make valid critical observations and judgements about works of art. Those steps ask you to slow down and spend some time just looking at the work. Then do a really thorough mental inventory of what you see. You can read that post here.

Keeping steps one and two in mind let’s complete the process…

3. Everything has context including works of art.

When seriously considering a work of art you should look at more than just that one solitary object because nothing exists in isolation.

See if you can find out what the artist is attempting to accomplish and how this particular piece fits into that effort.

Is the artwork part of a larger series or movement? Does it represent an important stage of an artist’s career? Does this piece of art reveal or illustrate an idea that exists beyond the artwork?

If the artist is well known you can learn something about their ideas and work online or in books and magazines. You might even hear them talk about their work. If none of those opportunities are possible you can sometimes get a limited sense of context simply by seeing more examples of the artist’s work.

Some artists create art with roots deep in a larger framework. For example, race, gender, politics, and culture are a few of the large-scale contexts that influence many contemporary artists. To really understand their work you need to explore the relationship between their artwork and that context.

Other artists just want to paint a beautiful picture (for example) or create an elegant cup that feels good in your hand (another example). Even these kinds of artworks have context. How do they compare to other decorative paintings or functional ceramics? Are they influenced by fashion and current trends?

As you look at more art you will eventually bring your own contextual references to the process. You’ll start asking and answering questions such as… Are the formal elements in this work used in a new way or have I seen the same thing many times before? Is the craftsmanship truly exceptional or merely above average?

4. You are now in a position to evaluate and judge.

You have slowed down your hyper-speed, multitasking brain and focused on the artwork in front of you. You have conducted a mental inventory of all the objective information in that same artwork. And you’ve managed to find out what the artist is trying to do and how their work fits into a larger context.

Now it’s time to come to some conclusions.

Keep in mind that your personal conclusions about an artwork are only as valid as all the preliminary efforts you’ve made in steps one, two and three. If you have been thorough and diligent up to this point then your conclusions will have validity. They will certainly be more valid than the average person’s casual opinion.

Let me suggest that you start being an art critic by shying away from making final judgements like good or bad. You will eventually be able to make those determinations (at least in some cases) but let them wait until you’re a little more comfortable with the process.

Focus at first on evaluating the art. What are the strengths or weaknesses of the artwork as it now stands? Can you defend your observations by referring to specific and verifiable information?

You might also use the critical skills you’ve developed to speculate about any significant relationships and references you discover embedded in the artwork’s form or imagery. Important artworks throughout history and across cultures are famous for being layered with subtle clues and references that support the work’s greater meaning. Much of contemporary art is noted for having conceptual underpinnings that are not always obvious on first viewing.

Moving forward

Your informed critical skills will not only give you a more accurate reading of the work you’re examining, they will provide new insights and, hopefully, a whole new way of looking and thinking about art in general.

Enjoy the experience.

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How To Become An Art Critic (In A Few Simple Steps)

I recently had breakfast at a diner with a couple of close friends who are not artists. In addition to serving delicious omelets the diner also exhibits artwork on its walls. During our breakfast conversation one of my friends asked me what I thought of the paintings on display…were they good or bad.

His question caused me to think back over the seemingly countless critiques I’ve had with students and a similar number of illustrated lectures I’ve given over the years. How do you look at art and talk about it in a way that is insightful and leads to some kind of appropriate judgement?

Good questions. Here are my suggestions. A few straightforward steps to becoming an enlightened critic.

You can use this information and process for judging paintings hanging on restaurant walls or for famous artworks on exhibit in museum galleries.

1. Start by slowing down and spending some time just looking at the work.

We live in a world that moves at break neck speed. A world where we are bombarded with visuals and other information. We have short attention spans and we multitask nearly everything we do all day long.

If, however, you want to make an honest evaluation of a work of art you need to slow things down and pay sole attention to that one object for a few moments…or more.

This seems simple but for most people it’s a challenge.

2. Do a mental inventory of what you see in the artwork.

Not what you think it’s supposed to represent or what it reminds you of. Just… What. You. See.

Notice the colors, the textures, the shapes, the objects (actual or represented). Is it abnormally large or small? Horizontal or vertical? What is it made of? Notice the level of craftsmanship. What other formal and material elements stand out?

Composition is next. Is it stable and balanced or dynamic and out of balance?

Now, what about the work’s narrative and emotional content? Keep in mind that you are still just doing an objective inventory at this point. Is there a scene represented here? Is there an overall feeling, and how is that expressed? How do the design elements and principles, as well as the materials, support the scene or emotional content?

What if the work is exclusively about formal qualities? If so, which formal qualities are the most important and how are they emphasized and supported?

Conducting this rather extensive inventory of what you see in an artwork takes time but the more you do it the easier and faster it will become. Right from the beginning, however, you’ll realize that thoroughly and carefully describing what you see in an artwork is a major key to insightful criticism.

And by the way, if you would like to brush up on your knowledge of these design elements/principles you can find brief descriptions and everyday examples of all of them in our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

In the next post I’ll share the rest of the process and give you a few words of advice. In the meantime practice steps one and two a few times…

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Revisiting The Vertical Gardens of Patrick Blanc

This week’s blog post is a repeat of one of our early favorites from February, 2015. Vertical gardens are trending items in today’s corporate and public spaces. Readers who live in larger cities will have undoubtedly seen one in person.

Let’s look at the man largely responsible for popularizing this unique art form…

The Vertical Gardens of Patrick Blanc

Patrick Blanc is a French botanist who has long been interested in growing plants using alternative, non-soil environments. In the late1980s he created a “green wall” made of living plants at the Museum of Science and Industry in Paris. Since then Blanc has developed and popularized these vertical gardens around the world. He now works with noted architects and designers to build gardens on existing walls and to integrate vertical gardens into the design of new buildings.

Vertical Garden

At first glance Blanc’s green walls look somewhat like the random face of an overgrown cliff in a tropical jungle. On closer examination, however, it becomes obvious that the plantings are orchestrated with flowing ribbons of foliage creating complex, dynamic compositions.

Scale, texture and color are the prevailing design elements in Blanc’s work. But a pleasing visual experience is merely one of their attributes. Blanc’s living walls – and the countless other vertical gardens inspired by his work – are helping to soften the impact of endless concrete that dominates our contemporary urban world. His walls also join with rooftop gardens to give cities a greener and more ecologically balanced profile.

Vertical Garden

The infrastructure beneath one of Blanc’s green walls requires a massive support matrix and a complex mechanism for delivering water and nutrients to the plants. Here is an article describing Patrick Blanc’s working process…

His website is located here

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