“When no preconceived ideas keep us from looking and we take all the time we need to really ‘feel’ what we see […] the universe opens up and we catch our breath in awe at the incredible complexity of design in the humblest things It is only when this happens that we regain our sense of wonder.”
(Bothwell, D., and Mayfield, M. (1991). Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design. New York: Dover Publications; pg. 75)
As much as the world may seem to be a disorganized, random amalgamation of elements, especially since we are bombarded by visual stimuli at every corner on a daily basis, there is in fact a pattern to be observed. This may be obvious in language – where specific and fixed symbols are used – but that is also the case in the pictorial world, even though it may quite ironically be less obvious. Part of this may be because we generally take the visual world around us for granted. We have internalized the fixed images that we observe on a daily basis, so for the most part we know exactly what to expect when we step outside our house and even more so when we return home … but if someone asks you to describe the intricate pattern on your carpet or the design of your coffee table, most of us would be surprisingly “blind”. The shapes (and colors) make up the visual language of the world that we see around us and consequently immediately interpret, yet we don’t see it per se, because it’s either too obvious or we and our eyes deem the details too bothersome to invest all our precious attention to them, when it’s needed elsewhere.
So, let’s clear the air. It’s try to describe the basic elements of visual composition that apply to both visual storytelling as well as plain visual awareness of ourselves and the world around us. We begin with rudimentary geometric elements (and their spatial relations) that like atoms through evolutionary process and arduous work make up the larger, greater and artistically awe-inspiring imagery. The four elements are the point, the straight line, the curved line and composite lines.
THE POINT •
The point is the one and only essential element from which every other shape is brought to life. Well, obviously. Like the atom (I know there are smaller elements still) or the pixel in the digital environment, the point is the building block of complexity and the starting point of this examination as well (let’s exclude negative space for the time being). While it can be said that every picture is an amalgamation of lines on paper, every line is constructed of points in a sequence. As such, the power of this singularity (like atoms creating higher units, morphemes creating words and further semantic sequences) is more evident in the general shapes that stem from this starting point. We can draw parallels to mythology, where the point symbolizes the center, which in turn is the source of life (the beginning and end). This is the axis mundi that connects the profane world (of basic shapes) with the sacred space (of artistic complexity). Further, this concept can be applied to the cosmos as well, because the Big Bang (whether theoretical or actual) is essentially just that singularity brought into complexity. Also, one other thing as far as mythology goes, there are more or less subtle connections between basic shapes and basic archetypes … of course referring not to their “basic” simplicity, but the foundation for though-provoking complexity. In such a way, were the devil archetype for example vied as negative space, both concepts carry a plethora of meanings and philosophical/transcended imagery. Not “bad”, but essential (in true Daoist sense, if not Jungian as well).
Since I’m generally ad-libbing with most of these oblique analogies, it could be fun to imagine the prototypical archetypes as rudimentary shapes and imagery, but at this point I’m just gonna shoot straight to the next element on the list.
THE STRAIGHT LINE
The basic geometrical shape that reflects stability has to be straight, right? Depending on its position, length, thickness etc., the straight line creates a number of responses. Albeit, in mathematic terms, the length is irrelevant in the sense that a line is just a visual representation and it extends beyond its starting or end point into infinity, but for the most part that is just our required formalistic simplification. Either way, the straight lines are as followed:
The horizontal line (–) expresses stability and exemplifies the horizon of the world that creates a down-to-earth effect and can be calming (like the horizon of a sunset) or overbearing and vast on the other hand.
The vertical line (׀) stresses upward movement, rejection of (earthly) gravity through its symbolic rising (towards the heavens) and obviously all-ensuing phallic symbolism. Schwing! Excellent, indeed.
The diagonal line implies dynamic movement, either upward (/) or downward (\).Therefore, it implies motion and creates tension. As an extension of this fact, uneven and steep terrain is harder to traverse, while angles and triangles have a visually less calming effect. Similarly, knives are dangerous because their edges can quite easily pierce our skin (even though this “sharpness” is less obvious on a molecular level).
Taking into account left-to-right reading pattern in the West, the diagonals “read” in this direction as well. In such a way, the peaks of diagonals /and \ are at the far right, stressing the aspects of progression and regression, respectively. Interestingly, such a left-to-right reading scheme is globally employing in graphs for example. Arguably, this usage can be a matter of worldwide agreement for the sake of comprehension – similarly as the English language has been forced … I mean adopted as the world language (taking into account global expansion and insemination of English-based culture, of course). Not that I’m complaining, but still, let’s call a spade a spade.
END of PART 1 (of 2)
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …