Making the list is simple. It usually looks like this:
line, shape, form, space (positive & negative), size, mass, colour, value (odtien), contrast, rhythm, repetition, balance, emphasis, economy, movement, and unity.
Every teacher makes their own list, and they sometimes change the words around. You get to see an example or two for each item, and they hope you get the idea. And you do, kind of...
But, not so many teachers will tell you how to use these fundamental tools effectively in your art, and even worse, many students get the wrong impression that every artwork should use these tools the same way - that the ultimate goal of all artwork is balance and harmony.
I remember when illustrator Donato Giancola showcased this illustration, on Conceptart.org:
Between the well-deserved praise, one student asked, and I'm paraphrasing here, "I don't get it. Everyone's complimenting the composition, but I don't see a good composition. There's no order or harmony, all I see is chaos."
It was a great question, and people were quick to inform him -
The goal is to paint a place that's attractive enough,
or dramatic enough,
that people would want to go there. Some artists look for beauty in less than ideal places,
and some artists care more about romanticizing nature - creating a mood.
- focus on weather effects, like rain, mist, fog, snow, reflections, etc.
- Paint so realistically that the viewer feels one can reach in and take something out.
- Use the same principles borrowed from landscape painting to make the work as beautiful as possible. Focus on the colours, the play of light, the arrangement of elegant shapes, etc.
- Fill the painting with meaning through symbols. With hidden meaning, the still life becomes more like a puzzle to solve.
- Use abstraction to warp and distort what you see. Give enough clues so the viewer can decipher it. It's another form of puzzle making.
Others use portraiture as a way to mock:
And then, some artists use a face as a reference point to focus more on mood or expression, which is great. It's less of a portrait than a vision:
I would say this kind of work has less to do with portraiture, and more to do with illustrating a feeling.
In illustration, artists worry about:
- expressing movement and action
made to feel like they're in the scene?
- colour and emotion, do the colours fit the scene?
It's a juggling act, and I think it's worth exploring what happens when a work fails. The best example I can think of comes from Marvel Comics artist, Rob Liefeld.
Liefeld is a self-taught artist who caught the attention of Marvel editors at a young age, while attending a comics convention in California. Although they were not artists themselves, they were impressed with his original characters and extreme drawing style, so they hired him, at age 19.
These superheroes are fighting in mid-air. The hero has the villain by the leg. So, why does he look like he's sitting down in an invisible chair? And how can the villain's wing be behind the hero's head? Isn't he above the hero? Wouldn't he have to be? This is an example where, visually, it makes no sense, and will bother any viewer who stops to think about it.
I tell this to stress two points. First, art is hard, and failure is normal. Even the best artists fail on a regular basis. It's part of the process. Second, beware the praise of non-artists. It's easy to impress them, so don't let it go to your head!
When working non-representationally, you have all the same concerns as before - beauty, balance, harmony, mood, honesty, readability. But, in a way, you and your audience are working blind, with nothing recognizable to hold on to and make sense of things. So, abstract art always presents a bit of mystery and puzzlement. The challenge is in forming enough of a picture to excite the viewer, so that they want to think about it.