Jewelry, Form, and Fun

Before we go on and talk about form as an element of design, let’s talk about the pleasant, joyful aspects of jewelry form. What makes it fun?

There’s no doubt that jewelry is beautiful to behold, but jewelry is essentially small sculpture. So while it’s meant to be seen from multiple sides, jewelry—its form, surfaces, corners, edges, and texture, whether smooth, rough, nubby, scratchy—is really all about touch. In fact, most people who wear jewelry fiddle with it. Have you seen men and women finger a ring when nervous? Adjust a watch or bracelet? Slide a pendant on a chain? Pull an earring? Of course you have. You’ve done it yourself. (Pandora bracelets are excellent jewelry toys. They have substantial weight, they slide around the wrist, and the beads spin on their cables. You can even take all the beads off, reorganize them, and put them back on the cable. Perfect for fiddling!) Continue reading

Form: Where Line, Shape, and Space Converge

I probably should have put a warning notice upfront before I began this series of posts on the elements and principles of design. Although I’m going to discuss each of these separately, it’s really impossible to separate them. While I danced around this in my posts on shape, I can’t tap dance fast enough to get around it here, when we begin to look at form. Because this is where the language gets muddy. Stick with me and see. Continue reading

Storytelling with Shape in Jewelry Design

All the elements of design tend to have certain connotations to makers and viewers. Shape is no different. Rectilinear geometric shapes, for example, often create a feeling of something artificial, man-made, architectural, or structural. Some people may consider these shapes more masculine, intellectual, planned, thoughtful, or contrived. They may seem aloof, rigid, distant, stable, dependable. Such shapes may feel conservative—even the slang term “square” means out of step with the times. Continue reading

More on Figure/Ground in Jewelry Design

Being clear about which shapes or group of shapes is the subject or focus of a jewelry piece helps you direct the viewer’s attention to where you want it. If the visual weight of the figure (focal point) and the ground (background) are equal—in area, contrast, color, or texture–the eye can’t tell what the “subject” is.

You’ve probably seen the classic visual exercise used to help people see the relationship between the subject and background in a work. Continue reading

Positive and Negative Shapes in Jewelry Design

Shapes in design are never seen alone. They are always seen in relationship to the shapes or the area around them. This is because, at its simplest level, the mind sees everything as either/or. It puts whatever it sees into one of two general categories: this/that, friend/foe, dark/light, good/bad, edible/inedible, important/unimportant, and so on. Continue reading

Shape in Jewelry Design

Two terms describe the dimensionality of elements in jewelry: shape and form. Shape refers to the outline of a flat, two-dimensional area; form refers to the volume of space occupied by three-dimensional objects. Continue reading

What Are the Elements and Principles of Design?

There are two aspects to aesthetic design. First there are the elements of design (line, shape, form, space, texture, color, and—I believe when it comes to jewelry–light). These are the building blocks of design, like construction materials, cooking ingredients, or vocabulary. Then there are the principles of design (unity, variety, repetition, balance, contrast, and scale) which are guidelines to putting the elements together, like a blueprint, recipe, or rules of grammar. Continue reading

Heikki Seppä and the Rediscovery of Shell Forms

Peacock, by Heikki Seppä. Photo courtesy Nick Felkey

Peacock, by Heikki Seppä. Photo courtesy Nick Felkey.

When master metalsmith Heikki Seppä began his career as a metalsmith, silvermithing was strongly influenced—even dominated, according to Seppä–by the silver hollowware industry. Hollowware makers had become focused on speed and mass production. As a result, the forms they used to make tea and coffee pots, candlesticks, and other silver pieces, were greatly influenced by the prolific industrial use of rotation forms—forms that can be created on a lathe.

Other forms had been used in the past when silversmithing was still largely done by hand. But Seppä discovered that the language of these creative forms, forms that emphasized the fluidity of the metal rather than the speed of mass production, was rapidly disappearing. Continue reading

Why Learn a Formal Design Language?

The best way to learn design is to look closely and analytically at the work of other artists—specifically, here, other jewelry makers. But for beginners, without the language to describe the formal qualities of design, how do you analyze the work? “I like it/I don’t like it/It’s good/It’s not good” is certainly a start, but then comes the question: Why? What makes it good or not good? Why does it hold your attention or not, stop your breath or not? And there, without a formal language, most analysis stops.

By the way, the term “formal” in this context doesn’t mean classical, high-falutin’ or dressed up. It refers to the elements and principles of design from which “forms” are made, things like line, shape, space, balance, size and so on. Without a grasp of formal language, what can often happen is that a beginner, looking at other work, ends up simply copying or imitating it. The derivative work is almost always weak and less than it might have been. Worse, it is never truly one’s own.

(And if you believe the old saw that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” it isn’t. It usually just ticks off the original artist or, if terribly blatant and if you start selling the work, can end up in a lawsuit. Now inspiration, that is a sincere form of flattery.)

This talk of language, vocabulary, structure and form may sound like an academic discussion, but it really—as I finally found, after years of trying to ignore it–is not. Although artists express their ideas through various media–pigment for a painter, clay for a potter, music for a composer, or metal for a metalsmith or jeweler–we are still language-using creatures. We depend on language to describe, explore, and even, to some extent, create our world—even to ourselves. In fact, sometimes our understanding of our world and of ideas is limited by existing language.

Which brings me to the amazing metalsmith Heikki Seppä, who discovered, or rediscovered, this when he began introducing his students to his ground-breaking concept of shell forms to his students.

The Importance of Design Language: A Revelation

Learning to draw was a revelation to me. As a child, I thought you either did or did not have the talent to draw. I was convinced I did not have it, although I kept taking workshops and classes to try to learn. Finally, in my 30s, I took a workshop from the brilliant and inspiring art teacher, Beverly Cassel. Beverly taught me that it was not a matter of talent. It was a matter of learning to see.

Yes, well that only took me so far. My drawings kept failing. Much as I respected Beverly, she must have been wrong and I really was missing the talent.

But I kept taking classes.

Including one that covered the elements and principles of design. I’d like to say the light came on. It didn’t. Because learning about line, form, balance, blah, blah, was like practicing scales: you know you should but…why? Can’t you just move ahead and play?

THEN (drum roll), I got into a workshop where we did a critique. This time, the brilliant painter and teacher Eileen Cotter Howell helped me discover how these basics could be applied to actually evaluate and improve my work. By employing the language of design, I could see my work—and that of others–in a new way. The lights finally, after I will not tell you how many years, came on. (I never said I was a quick study.)

Over the last many, many years, it’s been my privilege to interview and see the breathtaking work of a huge number of brilliant jewelry artists. And I’ve come to realize that they employ the elements and principles of design. I wondered to myself, how many beginning jewelry makers, like me those many years ago, keep wondering why their work fails? Even when they copy the work of those brilliant jewelry artists.

Part of the answer, I think, may lie in the fact that many jewelry makers start their work without a structured art background—most art programs teach the elements and principles of design. Jewelry makers may start their work as a hobby, beading, or working with metal clays, or wire wrapping. They may take a class on metalsmithing and get stoked the first time the metal melts under their torch. Other jewelers learn on the job, at a bench, doing repairs, casting, or other jewelry work.

When you learn to cast, forge, solder, set, string beads, wrap wire, or work with precious metal clay (PMC), you come to grips with one aspect of jewelry making—that of tools, techniques, methods and manufacturing. (Like managing paint, ink, or heaven forbid, glue.) But, like me, you may not know there is, or how to apply, a design language.

When jewelry makers talk about design, they are often talking about how the object functions. Designing jewelry that functions well–a ring that doesn’t roll, earrings that are comfortable, or a catch that opens easily, but doesn’t open at the wrong time—is certainly one type of design. But here I’m talking about aesthetic design: Is there enough (or too much) contrast between these two textures; does this large pearl balance this selection of colored stone melee; is the work visually appealing, or even exciting. To answer (or even ask) these questions, artists of all kinds, I think, can be helped by learning the language of aesthetic design.

Knowing the language of design helped me become a better painter/drawer, whatever it is I really do. But because I’ve spent so much of my life associated with jewelry, I wanted to help jewelry makers, who may not be familiar with it, to learn to this language. Hopefully, it will help them see ways they might apply it to their own work.

As a result, with the enthusiasm of a convert, I began writing Good Bones: the Elements and Principles of Design for Jewelry Makers. Since life and work keep getting in the way, I decided to blog some of this information so that it can begin helping people until I can get the book finished.

I hope this will prove useful to you.