Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Elements & Principles of Design in Glass Art (Image Making Series - Part 5)

I taught glass fusing for several years, and was often asked how to turn little bits of glass (frit) into an image. Students were often at a lose how anyone could do images with just little bits of glass. I believe this to be true in any medium if (as mentioned in a prior post) the student is only allowed to work with one or two of the elements of design. For example, to create an image using only point, it is as though you told them to speak but only use verbs, no nouns, but yet the whole graphic style of stippling is just that. This image by Gregory Colbert is done using only dots/points.

I gave them frit, but also glass powders, stringer (spaghetti-like pieces), rods of glass, shards, and large pieces of glass of many colors. Nonetheless, even with these options how to construct a whole image from pieces posed to them the same problem as photography or design student often has when ask to mentally deconstruct a photograph into its constituent elements of design.

I created the poster below as a teaching aid. In each cell is an image of a glass art piece, and each cell represents the intersection of an element of design (on the left) and a principle of design (across the top).

This is a 40x30 inch poster so it will be hard to see detail here. If anyone wants a copy ($25 plus shipping) then let me know. 

Let's take a few examples of how it works. Follow the  tone/value row over three cells from the left. That is the intersection of tone with emphasis/contrast. In that cell the image of little cubes of glass are arranged so that there is a tonal emphasis. Simple but effective. A common Professional Photographer's Association rule is to have the highlight or brightest part of an image be on the subject, thereby drawing attention where you want it... on the subject.The last two cells of the tone/value row are the intersection of the proportion and balance principles. The bird is balanced in the composition by the island on the left, and also the bird's proportion is used effectively, giving visual clues that the bird is close while the island is far. All of that is done with black glass powder sprinkled very meticulously on a white sheet of glass.

We take proportion/scale for granted. Of course, you might think, the bird is close and the island far. However this is a learned perception. Learning to interpret distance by scale of objects occurs when you are very young. An example of this is the story of an Amazon explorer and a forest dwelling native. The native had very little experience seeing objects at a great distance, having lived in the dense forest all his life. The explorer took the native to an open plain and showed him cattle roaming on the plain at a far distance. The native's response to seeing the cattle was something to the effect of "look at those flies over there".  

The principles of design exists simply because they help us create images which take advantage of innate or learned modes of perception, enabling quick understanding and appreciation, and avoiding visual confusion.  

In the last two cells on the right of the color row is the intersection for repetition/rhythm cell. Here color and patterns/shapes give rise to the principle of repetition or rhythm. This glass dish was done by cutting  colored patterns out of glass sheets and then arranging them in an order creating rhythm. Repeating pattern is something that the human eye-brain looks for to create a sense of order and understanding which is higher order function of perception.

In a well known experiment by Blasdel et al. a cat was raised in an environment where it could only see vertical bar patterns. The results where that when released from this environment is had difficulty seeing other bar patterns.

Design elements then, are sensations and the design principles are components of our cognition. Thought of in this way an image's visual strength depends on one or more of the principles being present and complementary to the subject. If you want to strengthen the image, then the elements composing the dominant principle(s) should be used to further strengthen the composition. This is the blueprint for construction of any image.

For example, in the color row's third cell from left the subject is the wolf and moon. Contrasting colors where used to emphasize the subject as well as the elements of direction, line and shape which serve to draw us into the subject. It is the contrasting colors however that create emphasis on the subject and ultimately tells us what the subject is. If the dog and moon were aqua, then they would be reduced to yet another pattern/shape and would be equal to the other shapes in the visual hierarchy.

Creating a visual hierarchy is key to any composition.

The elements of design make one or more of the principles dominant, severing the ultimate purpose of bringing our focus on the intended subject of the image.

When a visual hierarchy is absent or weak, then the viewer's response to the image is simply to turn the page so-to-speak. It is the strength of the hierarchy that draws the viewer in, giving the image a sense of visual gravity. Even before the viewer is aware (cognition) the eye-brain preprocessing of sensations has already decided for you that the perception is not worth moving forward to full consciousness (your full attention). Without a visual hierarchy an image is boring, typical, messy, or disorganized and your response to this stimulus is to turn the page.

There are always exceptions to any rule, and sometimes breaking the rules can also create a sense of visual gravity as in a Jackson Pollock painting. Breaking the rules is sometimes the point if only to be contrary, pretentious, or leading edge. Human perception and cognition however have taken several eons to develop. We all see things a certain way which is more-or-less held in common. For the image maker, learning to capitalize on that programmed in way of seeing is what the principles of design are about.

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