Elements of Design – The Landscape Painter’s Principles

Just as athletes must learn the rules and then spend many hours in practice to develop their precision and style, so must the artist learn the rules and then practice. This article is about some of the rules of design that artists must know in order to have a successful painting.

The simplest element of design is the line. A line is a one-dimensional mark. It has only length. If we draw another line, not on top of the first, then we are creating form. Form has both length and width; form is two-dimensional. Lines and forms can be organized into shapes, the third element of design. Complex shapes are often built from simpler shapes, such as circles, ovals, squares and rectangles. The distance between shapes is called space, another element of design. Space also refers to the illusion of depth, or three-dimensions. Thus when properly placed, shapes can give the feeling of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional surface. There are several ways to create visual three-dimensional space. One way is by using one-, two- or three-point perspective. Another is by using overlapping shapes. The landscape painter uses all these elements of design when creating a landscape painting.

In addition to line and form, shape and space, there are other elements of design. The amount of lightness or darkness of an object is the value. A good exercise is to draw a series of ten squares, put black in the left-most one and white in the right-most one, then try to paint shades of grey in the middle blocks, going gradually from dark to light. This is called a grey-scale, but the same could be done with any color. Similarly, we could paint a sphere with the lightest light on one side and the darkest dark on the other, going through all the shades of grey between the two.

Next is the element we all love – color. Color has three characteristics – hue, value and chroma. Hue refers to the color, such as red or green, blue or yellow. Value refers to how light or dark the color is (how it compares to the grey-scale). Chroma refers to how bright or dull the color is – it’s saturation level or purity. The landscape painter must understand color in order to use it effectively.

Texture is the last fundamental element of visual design. A surface might be smooth or rough. We might represent a rough surface with thick brush strokes of paint, use of a palette knife or even by adding objects to our painting.

There are other principles of design that the landscape painter uses, according to Mitchell Albala in his book Landscape Painting. These principles refer to the painting as a whole. They are motion, balance, proportion, unity, variety, harmony, pattern, rhythm and emphasis – the focal point. In order to have a successful painting, the painter needs to be aware of all these elements of design and see that his/her painting observes them.

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