2 Classic design strategies

Want some time tested strategies to improve your artwork immediately? Then check out these 2 classic design strategies to quickly improve your art that have been used by artists for centuries.

Creating artwork involves so much more than simply depicting your subject. Artworks that captivate the viewer share common elements. Balance and tension create a dynamic image, keeping viewers interested and wanting to explore the work. 

Classic Design Strategy: The Steelyard

This design strategy makes sure you correctly place elements within your composition to assure balance and visual harmony in your work without being boring or static. This is an example of asymmetrical balance. Based on a bar and fulcrum, the heaviest weight is placed near the middle of the bar and the smaller weight is placed toward the end of the bar achieving equilibrium. How does that work in a painting?

Place the dominant element of your work near the middle of the canvas. This could be a large element, a dark or light value , or color. Then, place a smaller element near the edge of the canvas. Notice the word near, you don’t want to place the element exactly in the middle or on the edge. One creates a static situation and the other creates tension leaving no space for the viewer’s eye to move within the composition.

Look at these examples:

A steelyard design
Robert Henri Girl Seated by the Ocean

The main element, the girl, is near the middle of the canvas and the sailboat, secondary element, is placed toward the edge. Supporting elements are minimized here with the grasses providing directional lines. Compare this with the image below.

a steelyard design
Claude Lorrain Battle at the Bridge

The main element, the large tree is balanced by the buildings to the right of the scene. The artist has placed an entire battle scene between these two elements, but the scale of the battle is reduced due to the dominance of the tree and supporting fortress in the background.

Classic Design Strategy: The Circle

This design strategy is centered around an opening that allows the eye to move around the composition. The shape doesn’t have to be a circle, it could be an oval or a rectangle. The shape can  be formed using line, mass, or negative shape. 

Circle armature examples:

a circle design strategy
George Bellows Blue Morning

Here the scene is framed by the post and lintel of the interior building and the fence along the bottom, forming a square.

A circle design
Charles M. Russell Flying Hooves

This is an example of an oval formed by the horses and the wolves provide the frame that leads the eye around the scene.

Using an armature such as the steelyard or the circle allows you to construct a foundation for your painting that gives many benefits. Armatures have been used by artists throughout history to arrange elements of a composition in a tried and true method.

Deeply understanding armature types opens the door to variation and experimentation, for instance, combining armatures to achieve signature compositions. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of these strategies, they are powerful tools to achieve harmony between balance and tension.

In your journal: Take a picture of a landscape or set up a still life. Now, choose your dominant element and a minor element. Arrange them according to the design strategies we discussed today. Then add supporting elements from your scene or still life, always keeping the design strategy in mind. Do this as thumbnail drawings in your journal so that you can quickly change elements and explore. Here is an example from my journal.

picture of a lake
A lake scene Photo by Wendy Kalimeris
journal prompt example

In this thumbnail of the lake scene above, I used the reflections and foreground plant material to form the circle along with the background trees.

Journal prompt example

In this thumbnail, I edited the foreground, made one tree dominant and moved the pier closer to the edge.

This is great practice in choosing a focal element and building your work around it. You will learn to edit elements that do not contribute to your main idea, and as Harvey Dunn advises: “If you think your picture needs something, take something out.”

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