Visual Design – Shapes (part 3)

Summary – Light creates tone & color, the basic building blocks of visual design. Tones & color, in turn, give rise to visual design’s primary elements – lines, shapes, textures & perspective. Previous posts in this series looked at lines. Now – on to shapes. This is part 3 of 3.

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Note – part 2 of 3 had the lowest number of views – by FAR, more than 50% below average – of any post in months. It was well written & informative. My takeaway – this is a topic that holds little interest for the typical follower of this blog who decides to read or not based on the summary topic description that accompanies the email announcement they get with each new post. That said, today’s post will be the last in the visual design series. For those of you looking for more, buy the two Freeman Patterson books I’d referenced previously and again at the end of this post. Get it from the horse’s-mouth so to speak.

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Let’s look a some real world examples that illustrate shapes. The shapes in most images may not be so obvious as the examples but these serve the purpose of making some points about shapes. Click on any image to enlarge it.

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#1 – The circle is a powerful shape. This image shows an obvious large circle. It also has many smaller circles – some are all green and some are warmer colored circles inside the small green ones. Note that a shape can contain other shapes within itself – or be formed by a combination of other shapes. The smaller circles within the large circle create a texture (another visual design symbol to be covered later). Textures do not exist on a two-dimensional surface – just the illusion of one. The illusion is created by some combination of shapes and lines.

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#2 – This is a variation of #1. Although the circle is cut off by a corner of the frame, our mind still recognizes it as a circle. As a side note – the circle is located in the lower left part of the frame. This is the area most favored by our visual system. We tend to start there and return there to rest the eye. (Also, things that start near the lower left and proceed toward the upper right are viewed as “positive” statements.) Place the “circle” in either of the other four corners and ask yourself if your feelings about the “message” changes.

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#3. This simply illustrates that an object can depart pretty far from its idealized shape and still be recognized for what it represents. The reason for making this point is that although this is, and always will be, a water-lily and not a circle – its psychological impact on the viewer is similar to that of a circle.

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#4. Three circles – yes. But combined they form a fourth shape – a soft oblique curved shape extending from the lower left to the upper right. (See the note on upward left to right movement in #2 above).

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#5. A circle derivative. This oval is placed on the oblique which is more pleasing than vertical or horizontal. Further, although a single circle doesn’t suggest movement or directionality (that took multiple circles as in #4) a single oval can – especially when placed on the oblique. Which direction is this poppy bud moving your eye?

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#6. What have we here? If you said three rectangles you’re right. Note the important role played by the frame. It forms three sides of the upper and lower rectangles and two of the middle. Big deal you say. So what?  First – You need to recognize that the frame is every bit as important in creating visual design symbols as are real objects in your scene. Further, you have almost total control over the size and placement of these “virtual shapes”. In this example we can control whether there are one, two or three rectangles as well as the relative size of each as compared to the others, and their vertical placement in the frame. This control is exerted primarily by lens focal length, camera height, and camera angle (tipped up/down/left right) as well as horizontal versus vertical orientation. Lot & lots of design choices to be made for just this simplest of landscapes – and each choice tells a different story.

Do you see that a two rectangle version of this need not include the water?? Yes, the water and sky version is obvious. Water and sand are also obvious. What happens when you get flat on the ground with your camera? The height of the water rectangle, proportional to sand and sky, gets smaller & smaller as the camera gets lower & lower. Stop taking pictures with the camera always at eye level.

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#7 – Two rectangles. The design decision was where to place the horizon (how large to make each rectangle?).  The story here is mostly about the sunrise and clouds and not about Lake Michigan except as context. A very simple image – two textured rectangles with contrasting warm and cool colors.

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#8 – Two triangles, each with two sides formed by the image frame. Since this image is fairly abstract, it could be rotated and flipped without much harm. It wasn’t, but if the actual scene had been as shown but flipped horizontally then I most likely would have flipped it to the way it’s shown here – upward left to right (stated by those who study visual psychology, not me) really works for me to the point that I may over use it.

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#9 – Here we have two rectangles again as in #7. This time there’s a twist – the lower rectangle is made up of two triangles as in #8. This adds a visual dynamic of movement which is missing in #7. Which, if either, appear more restful and calming to you – #7 or #9?

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#10 – This image made up of lines, rectangles, a triangle, texture and perspective (a visual design symbol “full house”). It was done as an “academic exercise”. I was forcing myself to ignore “reality” and to focus (another bad pun) solely on visual design symbols – forcing myself to see photographically and to put the names of the objects (bricks, torn wallpaper, etc.) out of my mind.

A variation on the exercise is to do this in black and white thus removing the possible distractions of color. The right hand image was rotated for display purposes but  since it’s all about shapes (and not a door, chimney, flue cover, wall) no real harm was done.

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Exercise – make images along the lines of these last two. Force yourself to see visual design symbols and try to forget what is actually before your eyes. Try making the same symbols different sizes (focal length and distance) from one image to another. And – try placing the symbols in different locations within the frame. Ask yourself how the different sizes and placements change the “feel”. Also, use the frame to create shapes. Don’t just do this for a few minutes. Stick with it long enough to make at least 25 images – and then do it again each day for several days.

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Freeman Patterson is the master of photographic visual design. If you are at all serious about improving your images buy Photography and the Art of Seeing and Photographing the World Around You.

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5 thoughts on “Visual Design – Shapes (part 3)

  1. Ed, very thorough analysis of visual design. I wonder how the great master painters figured it all out without computers and the net?
    Nick Ide

  2. Sad to hear that you’ll be discontinuing the series. Yes I have the books and started reading them but yet I like your compressed descriptions. I don’t really understand why such posts attract way less viewers than say a comprehensive review of painting programs or a manual of some Google software. Seems we’re really living in the Instagram age. Well then, so long and thanks for all the fish! (Don’t get me wrong. I do understand and accept your motivation. And I’ll still read your posts — well, I’ll click on them, but don’t expect me to read all the way to the bottom for each of them 🙂 )

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