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The Elements of Design

October 7, 2010



I have decided that this post is going to be more technical in nature.

For those readers that are not practicing artists you may wish to skip this one or not.

This post is going to be about the ingredients that make up a good painting.  Not unlike the correct tools used to build a solid structure or the ingredients used in your favourite recipe, the elements that make for a strong painting need to be identified and implemented.

The seven elements of design are line, value, colour, texture, shape, size, and direction.


Line is pretty much self- explanatory.  I may be straight, curved, thin, thick, solid or broken, soft or hard.

As you can see from these options line can have variety but in any given painting, there should only be one dominant type.

Line is also important when establishing the basic design of a painting.  A painting or drawing often has a directional theme, either horizontal, vertical, diagonal, cross, centred or a combination of these line directions.  A strong painting usually has a dominant directional theme.


Value is the lightness or darkness used in a painting.  A painting can have an overall lightness with dark elements or vice versa.  Form can be defined by value.  An entire painting can be painted in the gray scale to great effect.

The mood of a painting can be defined by the overall value chosen by the artist.  A painting that is mostly light is a high-key painting and one that is mostly dark is a low-key painting.  Low-key paintings can be mystical and moody and high-key ones can be full of energy and light.


Colour equals hue.  Hue is the colour of the colour wheel.  Those hues that are directly opposite on the colour wheel are called complimentary colours.  Complimentary colours tend to vibrate when placed next to one another.

The most intense colours are those that are pure colour.  Those less intense are grayed- down somewhat or a lot.  Or, in the case of watercolour, water is added to dilute the colour intensity.  The value of the colour is as above, the lightness or darkness of that colour.


Texture adds variety.  Texture can be rough, smooth, hard or soft.

A little texture can go a long way.  Although it is used to describe an object it can be overused and cause the viewer to be overwhelmed.  Often, texture at the edge of an object, can fool the eye into believing that the entire surface of that painted object is of that texture.

Texture supplies a ‘quality’ to the object that is being rendered.


Shape can be defined by line, value and colour.  Shapes can be curved, angular.  Shapes that are smooth lend themselves to soft, smooth subjects while angular ones lend themselves to more ridged, solid, objects.  One type of shape should dominate in any one painting.

Shapes can be either negative or positive.  Painting negative shapes can be very effective in backgrounds and when defining a positive shape.

Shapes that interlock with one another support flow and direction in a painting.  Those that do not interlock are static and seem ‘out of place’ to the viewer.  Sometimes an artist will use these static shapes to their advantage but it is not commonly practiced.


This is a tricky element.

Size can be used to substantiate the focal point.  The focal point can be large in relation to the supporting space around it or it can be small and the space around can fill the rest of the canvas or paper.  This contrast will depend upon what the artist wants to accomplish.

There should be variety in the size of objects that are similar.  Same sized objects that are similar in nature create boredom.

There should also be variety in the size and shapes of the negative spaces around the centre of interest.


There is a choice of one of three directional movements in any given painting.  The painting can be either horizontal, vertical or diagonal in nature.  Again, any painting should have only one dominant directional thrust.

The diagonal line or direction is used to suggest movement, activity or excitement.  The horizontal direction of lines or shapes is calming or tranquil.  The vertical placement of elements shows strength and forthrightness.

These are the elements of design used by most professionals to develop strong works of art.  They are only tools and do not involve the emotional elements that make a good painting, great.

Edgar Whitney once wrote “He (being the artist) must know that art and nature are two different things – art is the truth of an object while nature is the fact.  The fact can be a bore.  Art expresses essences and understanding that lie deeper than obvious appearances.  Using the tools for the expression of that understanding can be learned and these tools are the elements of design.

That pretty much says it all.

Celebrating the Harvest - In this painting the directional element that I used is horizontal. The one vertical element, the yellow squash, helps to break up the large dark background shape that could compete with the even larger light shape. There are repeating medium sized shapes, the squashes themselves, that make up the majority of the painting and these shapes are curved in nature. There are no real angular shapes but sharper lines and shapes are used to define the shadow areas. Value contrast is what makes this painting bold. I would say that value is the strongest element in this painting and was used to create the drama. I used rather subtle colours for the most part which might seem odd to some. The squash shapes and values are what make this compositon work.

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