Designing Art. Part 2

 design elements

Understanding the  building blocks  of graphic design is vital to understanding photographic composition. Andy Cross continues his explanations of the key principles of design and how they apply to photography.

In the first Designing Art article-published in the April 2012 issue of ProPhoto —I covered key design elements such as point, grouping, positive and negative space, emphasising tone, colour and the use of various themes and rhythms.

In this second article I will look at the use of the golden mean, value, mood, figure ground confusion and symmetrical versus asymmetrical balance. The general population use these terms in a generic manner, but to designers and artists, all also have an aesthetic meaning.

The golden mean, however, is something that not only artists and designers would know about. People like engineers, astronomers and physicists would be familiar with also. In short, we are talking about a specific ratio of 1:1.618. This ratio is expressed graphically in Image #1 as a series of squares on a white background.

Examples of it can be found everywhere in nature... in the spirals found in flowers, snail shells and even in galaxies. Using a canvas of this proportion and designing the shot by positioning elements within the frame around this ratio nearly always makes a strong image. A designer once told me it was a method that had the potential to turn a sow s ear into a silk purse. A design engineer also commented that, from a structural standpoint, it was a strong foundation that required the least amount of materials.

When looked up in a dictionary, the term "value" has many meanings, but in design it suggests how the modelling effect of the lighting creates the illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional image. The only reason photographers light a subject —or attempt to control ambient light —through the use of reflectors, screens and choosing the time of day, is to control the modelling effect of the light upon the subject.

The ability to control the quantity, direction and quality of the light means you will be able to control value in an image and the three-dimensional effect that depends on it (see my article Undisclosed Facts About Lighting in the June 2007 issue for more information).

Value works in combination with greyscale or the number of tones within an image irrespective of their hue. If photographers can train their eyes to view tonal values only and ignore colour they will have a distinct advantage over those who have not developed the technique. One way this can be learned is by viewing the scene you are about to photograph through a Wratten #90 filter. This is quite a dense filter which significantly desaturates the colours you see. By allowing your eye to adjust to the lowered light level, you will be able to better appreciate the world in monochrome.

In my design course one of the class exercises was do blend various amounts of black and white pigment together to achieve a step wedge with each step being twice the density as the previous one, or a progressive one-stop change in density. Later it was confirmed using a densitometer and you would be surprised just how accurate the human eye can be when comparing your pigment density with that of a manufactured scale. But, without that step wedge for comparison, it was equally surprising how inaccurate you can be, especially when distinguishing the dark values from one another. Image #2 illustrates the final attempt which was very close.

In The Mood

Image #3 shows the class exercise where values from the step wedge had to be applied to a geometrical drawing. In doing this, other aspects relating to the formation of shadows had to be taken into consideration, such as the ratio of umbra to penumbra, the shadow shapes and their density in relation to the lighting ratio, and so on. These are all the same issues you need to think about when digitally stripping an object into an image.

 design elements

Value —which in photography is also exposure dependant —is one of the design elements that helps create the effect of another ambiguous term called "mood". To give an example of this, a photographer can create a night-for-day effect by underexposing a scene and inducing a blue colour cast. Mood, which I will expand on shortly, uses indefinitive terms like "sombre”"scary”"cold"... and the list goes on. Moods are induced by manipulating tone, value and exposure. Images #4 and #5 illustrate how the mood can be changed in a photograph by altering these design elements. In the days of using film, studio photographers would often proof using B&W instant film. The rule-of-thumb was that if you achieved the required tonal separation, and shadow and highlight detail in the instant film check then it would reproduce well off the printing press in four colours.

The late Dr Robert Green —the person who taught me the carbon printing process —was also a psychiatrist. He told me that a person viewing a print would interpret an image quite differently depending on how dense the print was, the tonal range it possessed and what colour biases (if any existed) in the image. Most of these interpretations were based on previous visual and physical experiences in which light played an important role.

Blues, greens and cyan usually conjure up a cool response while reds, yellows and browns a warm one. Soft light often means cosy and secure while dark or contrasty lighting triggers a sombre or insecure feeling.

Avoiding Confusion

Creating a figure ground confusion is another intriguing design element which, when it occurs, is often more about good luck than good management. Sometimes, when the confusion created is a rude or suggestive connotation, it becomes an unlucky break especially when no one has noticed it until the material has been printed and distributed.

I spent some time looking through my files, both film and digital, to find a good example of a figure ground confusion, but found nothing suitable. In a previous article about the use of reflections, I used the classic example of a silhouette which showed either a vase or the profiles of two people facing each another, if a photographer can recognise this type of phenomenon at the time the shutter button is pressed it can be used to their advantage, or the camera and lighting angle altered to suppress it.

Balance in an image is another powerful design element that can be found in just about every image we create irrespective of whether it is a painting, photograph or any type of flat art. Balance can be said to exist in two forms, being symmetrical and asymmetrical.

Symmetrical balance can be achieved by ensuring the image isn t weighted more in one portion of the canvas than another. The weighting can come from more colour in one area than another, more density or through the symmetry of shapes.

In short, so long as one side of the visual equation is balanced with the other then symmetrical balance will be achieved. The sheet from the class work book shown in Image #6 gives some good examples of this.

Asymmetrical balance is achieved by doing the complete opposite to using colour, tone, shape and placement within the frame as you do with symmetrical. Because the image is, for want of a better word, incomplete, it allows the viewer to fill in the gaps using their imagination.

Image #7 is a sheet from the class work book showing some well-defined examples of asymmetrical balance. Rarely are both types of balance used in the same image... with the exception of when an image might be used as a triptych. Images #8 and #9 are examples of my work using both types of balance.

 figure ground confusion

Colour Balances

The integration and combination of colours is the last area of design I will look at in these articles. This isn t just something that the colour photographer or artist needs to concern themselves about. B&W images can be neutral black, blue black and warm black. Inkjet and gelatin silver prints can be hand-coloured, toned or selectively toned.

The colour photographer has to make a conscious effort to ensure that the colours in the image are working together in such a way that they do not detract from the message that they are trying to convey. For example, many images that incorporate a large splash of red might suffer in this regard. In fact, an old adage an art director once told me was, "If the budget is tight with no time left and you can t make it good, make it red".

Sometimes the entire statement you want to make is the intense colour of the subject. A good technique is then to make the image entirely from the colour.

This often involves cropping everything else out and or making the depth-of-field very shallow.

A class book exercise was to create, by eye alone, a step wedge ranging from pastel colour through to black. It involved mixing pigments with varying amounts of black or white to produce the illustration shown in Image #10. It was used to educate the photographer or designer to recognise colours at their real tonal values.

Image #9. A shot taken for my unrelated objects series using asymmetrical balance.

Each step was supposed to be a one stop increase from the previous when checked with a densitometer using white light mode. I had many attempts and this was the closest match I achieved. You will notice yellow was not selected as the base colour. This is because no amount of yellow pigment can ever produce a yellow black due to its low printing density. This exercise also made me appreciate the deficiencies inherent to most light meters. In fact, both my meters have been modified to see 18 percent reflective red, green and blue cards at the same level of reflectivity as a grey one.

The second part of this exercise was to make up a colour wheel with colours ranging from the blue-green portion of the spectrum through to the complimentary red and yellow. If done accurately, when the wheel was rotated quickly the eye would integrate all the colours and then see grey. Image #11 came close to achieving this.

Being able to recognise which colours reinforce, clash or compliment one another can be a valuable tool to have in your arsenal when creating an image. The whole design tool kit is a bit like an aesthetic Lego set that you can put together in any number of ways. Some combinations nearly always work while others don t.

I have found working in the commercial, industrial imaging field, I have found that having the tried-and-tested design principles at my disposal is an insurance that will ensure you to get the shot in the can for the client.

Finding different ways of plugging the Lego set together and uncovering new approaches that shouldn t work but do brilliantly, is one of the things that keeps me inspired to try different ideas and keeps me motivated with my work. I hope those reading these pages found these excerpts from my four years of studying design as interesting as I did.

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