Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Intuitive Design Perspective

Hen & Chicks (detail)
Watercolor on Arches   19.5 x 15.5   © Kristine Fretheim

Recently I discovered a sweet little book called, Elements of Japanese Design by Boy√© LaFayette De Mente. The design elements De Mente writes about are considerably different than the six elements— line, shape, value, color, pattern, size— that I learned in art school. They could be from a different planet! Alive with emotion and sensuality, the sixty-five design elements discussed in this book have infused Japanese culture and arts for centuries. Each of these short essays about design could inspire life-long study and practice. None are easily communicated with words and they beg for artistic expression. They are intangible yet essential. Without them artwork falls flat. The great challenge for a painter is how to imbue one's work with such elusive qualities. With brush in hand and an intuitive design perspective in mind, I'm eager to paint and see what evolves.

One of the design elements, sabishisa (sah-bee-she-sah), is translated as indulging in sad contentment. It can be likened to the discomfort of knowing that life is fleeting, that all things continually change. The lonely feeling can be particularly acute in autumn as leaves wither and fall, cicadas reach crescendo and days darken. Western culture tries to distract us from discomfort and convince us that we're incomplete if not perpetually happy. De Mente says, "The Japanese of old did not try to avoid or relieve this loneliness. They catered to it. Moon viewing, insect listening and autumnal pilgrimages to mountain shrines were fraught with a sense of studied melancholy." Aah! Moon viewing and insect listening! Wonderful! He also describes this loneliness, as shinmiri, a sense of intimate tranquility. The sadness and loneliness he describes is not about wallowing in grief. Both sabishisa and shinmiri lead to a contemplative sense of calm, an appreciation for the richness of our lives. An inner stillness. Contentment.

As an artist I'm continually asking myself, "What is my intention with this new work?" What am I attempting to convey? Life is an emotional, sensual experience. How can I express that visually? I want to explore these intuitive design elements as I paint this winter. Supporting them will be the eight design principles and six design elements already in my toolbox. This winter promises to be an interesting one. Stay tuned!

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