Sunday, April 02, 2006

Design and Improvisation

As artists we think about improvisation as a form of play which may lead towards discovery. Some new idea may be hiding in wait in our subconscious and by playing around with line or shape, color and value, order or layout we may discover something new and wonderful that will bring our work to life.
When we improvise we may scatter ideas randomly like a roll of the dice, or toss them in the air and watch them fly, or fall. From those accidental arrangements, we pick and choose ideas that have possibilities.

We collect, distribute and organize those ideas until hopefully they fall into place. Sometimes we just leave them looking random and call it a finished work. What makes one way better than the other?

We mustn’t just look at a work and decide we like it or hate it. We must analyze, discover and declare why.

Recently I have been looking at the work of several quilt artists and have evaluated the strengths of their work based on criteria that I call The Organization of Design.
Here is that criteria:
Was there a plan here? Is the layout of this design discernable?
Did the artist group objects, colors, values, lines, and sizes in such a way as to have a clear and readable design?
Is there an overall concept visible?
Is there a focal point, or is the focal point irrelevant?
Does the design have more than one focal point? Would it be better/stronger, if it were divided into more than one finished work?
What did the artist intend?

Intention, not accident is what makes a design strong. It may have been derived by accident, but it is the job of the artist to develop it further into the intended result.

We may have struggled too much and need to simplify our task. Leave out the clutter, discard our darlings, and keep only the essentials.

Imagine your living room when it has been the dumping ground of the family. Everything in it is of some value, but it may not all be where it belongs. It is hard to feel comfortable in surroundings that include all the toys, paperwork, shoes, books, and dirty dishes that a room accumulates.
When all that clutter is eliminated, and things are where they should be, we all feel so much better.
So it is with design. Mies Van Der Rohe said it best. Less is more.

Intentional design is that which reveals its essential structure and purpose with unfettered clarity.

Take a look at your favorite work and make a determination about the intent of the artist. How are the elements of the design organized? Is there a visible structure?
While there are no true rules there are guidelines that help us make a better design. We have heard it said: ‘if an element is good, repeat it three times’. That sounds a bit too simplistic, but it has merit. At least it makes the element seem less accidental and more deliberate.
Remove the color from the artwork (digital cameras are great for this) and the structure becomes much more apparent.
Crop the most interesting part of the artwork and decide if it loses or gains strength.
Look at a piece in thumbnail size so that the details disappear and only the larger areas of value become evident.

While it is possible to improvise and produce a masterpiece, it is usually after the artist has distilled the concepts of good design until they become internalized and translate into a natural way of working. It’s what makes a mature artist so much better than the young upstart!
Thank heaven.