Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain, pt. 2: What is Design?

“The Hunters in the Snow” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Both the “optical” and the “constructive” drawing approaches are useful, but they don’t make successful pictures on their own. Drawing systems, like all techniques, are servants of a higher overarching purpose: design. Design transcends styles, techniques, and media. Techniques are useful tools to learn, and it’s never bad to expand our abilities; but it’s also easy to get stuck if you elevate a particular technique (like “realism“) into the goal of art itself. The technique is just a means to an end. The real point is to make a powerful image, and the power of an image ultimately derives from abstract qualities we call design and composition.

Design is abstract

A well-designed image looks good even when you can’t see what the literal subject matter is. There is a visual impression or gestalt that appears independent of whether the picture is of a a person or a boat or a bowl of fruit. The purely visual, sensory impact of the image can be interesting or foreboding or inviting or striking, no matter the subject matter or the technique employed. Some artists become so fascinated with this visual language that they transcend representational painting and become full-time abstract artists. But even artists who wish to work in a realistic style have to also be good designers, or else their work risks being technically flawless but unmemorable.

Design is relative

Designers talk a lot about “balance” and “harmony” in composition. Balance and harmony are both concepts that relate to working with more than one thing. You balance two or more weights on a scale or a mobile. Harmony requires more than one note. In visual art, there are many sources of contrast:

  • light/dark
  • cool/warm
  • big/small
  • empty space/detail
  • straight/curved
  • rounded/angular
  • hard/soft

All these pairs of opposites can be made balanced and harmonious. You can’t balance one single thing, you can only balance more than one thing. Everything is relative to its opposite. The process of balancing things is not subject to rigid formulas or rules. There are certain patterns that tend to emerge, like the patterns in nature. If you learn these patterns, you can use them to inform your process. But there is no recipe. We all ultimately rely on our own sense of taste to tell whether a picture looks good.

Design is meta-art

The biggest challenge for me as a student of art has been to stop drawing things and start making pictures. The nice thing about design and composition is that they don’t require any particular “technical” skills. No matter what means you have of making marks on a surface, you can design a powerful image. Even if you think you “can’t” draw, or if your draftsmanship is limited, or your subject matter is mundane—design is the “art of the art.” Develop this way of seeing, and become free to make great art wherever you are.

To be continued…

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