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Create Art Through Photography

Lesson 12 of 16

Elements of Design in Photography

Art Wolfe

Create Art Through Photography

Art Wolfe

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Lesson Info

12. Elements of Design in Photography

Lesson Info

Elements of Design in Photography

I learned from Ernst Haas. I was inspired by the work of Ernst Hass, Ansel Adams, and Eliot Porter and other photographers that were really thriving right at the end of World War II and into the 70s. I'm now 66. I got out of college in 1979, and as I picked up the camera, first the 4x5s, then the 35 milimeter. I was yeah, photographing mountains but I also was bringing in elements of art and design, and that has only bloomed in the more recent years. So this photo shot in the tea plantations of South India exemplify the three elements of design, line, pattern, and texture. Why bring that up is that is the first thing I look for when I'm traveling through a new environment. When I'm out there, I have all this history of various painters in the back of my mind, but I also have the elements of design in the back of my mind. And so why do I bring this up? As I'm walking through an environment whether it's out on the beach or in a forest or in a city, I'm hardwired. I may be talking to some...

body about where we're going to eat, but my eyes are scanning, looking for things that are familiar to me. And so patterns, structure and lines are those red lights that are blinking. Or it could be a number of different painters that suddenly, oh that looks like a van Gogh. I might look closer. That's the process, and that's the reason it's a little bit difficult to explain, but let me try. So I teach a workshop out on the Oregon coast, and when I bring people in from around the country and we had out to Cannon Beach, yeah. Everybody thinks we're going straight for Haystack Rock, the most iconic rock on the coast. Okay, that's where everybody wants to go. We say, stop, we're not heading there. Look down, look down in that foam, and as I say it's akin to red lights blinking in the back of my mind. It's like hey look closely, there may be something here. I like nothing more than to find a subject that most people tromp through on their way to the classic view points and train my eyes. And you know, when we're doing this with a class, people that come to the beach that are on vacation, look at this lake. Don't go near those people. They're night like us. Ya know if they think you're crazy, maybe, just maybe we're on to something good. So in those bubbles on the beach, if you look closely you can see refracted color in the prisms of that circle of bubbles on the beach in that foamy water that is make up of sea water but also degrading kelp. There's a slippness to it and in those bubbles are art, patterns and so if you shoot us out like that, it looks like bubbles in the beach with sea kelp and sand. If you frame it, and detach it from scale as in this image, whatever lies within that frame, is a piece of art. We have no scale and it stands alone as a piece of art. I have framed it in a unique way. Nobody's got that one shot of bubbles quite like that. The color's important. I've saturated the color a little bit. You can see my reflection in there. But that's what I'm gonna be talkin' about just largely. So I start looking for things that attract my attention, and patterns are appreciated by every culture on the planet. I've seen it in the Eskimo up on the ice flow and in the deepest part of the Amazon, in the deserts of Africa. People have patterns in the dress. You saw that in the chest of the simra wires. Patterns are uniquely attractive to humans, and I start to notice it everywhere I go. So elements of design, patterns are in the shot. And I first start shooting them fairly tight, but as you see it becomes the basis of a lot of books. Patterns was basically what Migrations was. I could have called that book Wallpaper because that's what it really was, patterns of animals. Tribes was largely adornment and the patterns of line and texture and patterns on the bodies of the human. So it starts off as a these abstracts, but then it opens up to being other things. And that's kind of where I'm taking you with that. Years ago, I taught a workshop in Versai, big white regal horses in their stalls. And yet above the stalls where the cinder block shapes with beautiful antlers silhouetted against the late afternoon light. That became my focus while everybody's still photographing the big 'ol fat butts of a horse which is not that attractive quite honestly unless you zoom in and do the texture of their fur, their hair. In this shot, which is a cultural shot, it's the beautiful patterns within the dress of West African women in a fish market on the edge of a big lake. But it was those patterns and the dress, the textures of the baskets that first attracted my attention like those red lights that revealed the subject to me. And yeah I would have photographed these women differently probably as portraits, but the patterns and the textures really spelled out the subject and the scale of what I was after. The other second element of design is texture and the more you start to look at texture the more you start to see it, and you witness it everywhere. As I was working on the body of work called The Human Canvas, I first started thinking, the book would be about the shapes that you find within sand dunes or snow covered rocks. You start to see back and butts and body parts in this. Do you not? So it's like looking for those revealed secrets. But it's first and foremost a textural shot. This is nothing more than just a tight shot of a bicycle seat in Old Delhi India, totally factured by use, but it's leather, and it holds together, and of course, I'm walking in and I look at this bicycle seat, and I frame the camera and I shoot it and everybody in the vicinity is watching me, and as I go, they all go and look, and then they look at me, and they look, and they look at me, and. Again, if they think you're nuts, maybe you have something there. So foremost element within all of what you're looking at, it is in this case texture. The entire life of that woman is written in the wrinkles in her face in the mountains of Napal. So textual qualities. If you're a dock worker working in Myanmar and you were paying homage to the generals that ruled that country ruthlessly for so many years, you're gonna tattoo a general on the back of your head. If you're a young Thai man and you are following the writings of some Hindu philosopher, you're gonna tattoo your back like newspaper. And there's a beautiful textural shot. If you're a Bumi tribesman in the deserts of Africa, you're gonna scar your test as a badge of honor because you have killed a enemy of your tribe. So beautiful textures and it goes on and on and on. And like the first element pattern, it starts off as tight shots and then it becomes the primary focus of an image. So all these shots are really tight, very graphic. But then the story gets broader and broader and broader. It becomes icebergs in Antarctica defined by the oblique angle of the sun or the way laundry is drying in Mumbai, India. So if I can photograph laundry drying in India, can I not then photograph a beautiful landscape in the Amazon. I can see beauty in something that most people would not even consider. Then it really opens up the world as potential subjects. An ariel shot over the Amazon is the beauty of the reflected light in late afternoon on the surface of the itself, but it's also those watery clouds hanging low over the Amazon. It's an abstraction of the river itself. Or they fold the water just before the second largest animal that's ever lived on the face of the planet the fin whale comes out of the deep cold waters of the Sea of Cortez. But it's is that textural quality of the bend of the water that makes the shot to me more special, more memorable. The surface of a lake in Altiplano, Bolivia, the clouds reflected in the water, a few flamingos give scale to the scene. It's an abstraction of the landscape noted for its textural quality. Sage brush and softness of the plant to find the slope above Mono Lake in California. Ya know, a shot of a eroded slope in Arizona is beautiful for those stones of silence and the cathedral like nature of those pillars. But it's also the texture of the slope beyond, the erosion becomes a sign of beauty. Or this reflection in a cannon in Australia. So I focus really close and then I broaden my perspective. The texture, the patterns first draw my attention in, and then I start to shoot wider. I usually go in tight and then result in a wider perspective. You know this is a very textural shot of an iceberg on the Icelantic Coast. And you can feel that texture, y'all can feel that wet cold of the ice. But it's also shot within the context of its environment. So all of these shots are ways I see, and they're the triggers that open up my imagination and they're in a way they're saying hey dummy look at this a little more because we all get distracted. We all want to go to the viewpoints. We all want to see the obvious. But it's the challenge to look again and again at something that most people wouldn't see. And there in lies the real challenge for all of us photographers. People that have worked forty years in the field, colleagues of mine that have been around forever, that's still the same challenge as it is for people that have just picked up the camera for the first time or the first couple of years. We all see the obvious. It's not so obvious to photograph a detail as in this case of a piece of paper in an abandoned store in Hilo, Hawaii where the moisture of the environment has stained the paper into this abstraction. That's not so easy. That is not so easy to see, but once you start training the eye to look for the potential, and you use that lens I was using, 24 to 70, then the world opens up. You can start to find things that look like an abstract expression that's line drawing. So line is the last of the three that I talk about, but it's everywhere. It's the most obvious for me. You know needles that have collected on the surface of an old canvas in Mexico becomes a Robert Motherwell abstract expression in this painting. And again along the way. You know what I'm seeing here is-- you may not like this work. You may not get abstract expressionists, but I'm unlocking the msytery of finding and cultivating of ever increasingly broader visual vocabulary. In other words, if I still photograph the same mountain shots that I started off 40 years ago, or the same duck on the lake, I would've left photography years and years ago and found some other pursuit. But the very fact that I keep broadening my perspective and my playing field which is the globe, I'm never ever going to run out of ideas. And that's the main thing that I also want to get across is writer's block something akin to writer's block happens to photographers when they run out of inspiration, they run out of ideas. They put the camera away, and they don't go back to it. And I think that's tragic because I really believe that the creative process in our brains keep you healthy, mentally active and longer lived. I believe that whole heartedly. This shot of a rock in Point Lobos is the beginning of a photo. And if you're a geologist, maybe you're gonna shoot a shot like that. A geologist would shoot that and say All right there's cracks in the rock, they leech minerals out, they turn gold. It's kind of an interesting shot. But a artist would say, all right that's a starting point. When I photograph a subject, I want to fill the frame with content. I want every part of the frame that you're looking at to fill and move the eye. And so I'm gonna zoom in. And I'm gonna make lines come out of the corner of the frame and the intent just like an abstract expressionist is to have every part of that composition work to the greater good. And here's another example of that same shot of rocks where every part of that frame is contributing to the greater whole. And that is the message magic of what these painters were able to do. They weren't just randomly shooting or painting. They were carefully calculating where the next brush stroke would be. So an old abandon railroad car in a Astoria, Oregon. I'm gonna think, okay where's the lines? Where'd the eye go? Crop it into a panoramic. Play with the contrast and suddenly you've transformed it into an abstract painting where every line within that composition contributes to the greater whole. There's no dark areas. There's no blank areas. Those dark areas, blank areas, bright areas, would pull you're eye away. But everything's pretty much even throughout that content. And there's a lot of right ways, only a few wrong ways to do that, okay? All right in this particular shot, sea grass on a beach. That whole left area is kind of random. To the right, there's some beautiful curved grasses. I'm just gonna zoom in on that, shoot it like that. And again there's a uniformity throughout that composition. So it just goes on and on and on. Now I'm jumping to this. You know, you look at this shot, and it is pilgrims on the Gangis, and you shoot the shot, it's not great light, but that's not really what I'm into. That's what everybody would shoot. No, there's something happening in that frame that most people would never see. And it lies there in those reflections. We live at a time as I said before. When we have the ability to shoot, fast shutter speeds, at great at the field. This next series were shot, and I couldn't even perceive what I was shooting. I could perceive what I was shooting. I couldn't see with clarity what I was shooting because it happened so fast. You know, reflections on water is happening so fast by the time the eye sees it, it's already gone. So you can't really capture it, but with a frame, with a shutter speed of a thousandth of a second at F22 I can get these shots, and I can't even see them with my naked eye. Isn't that the very definition of creativity, if you can intellectualize it and shoot it? And these are abstract. They look like other things that you would never see with a wide angle on the edge of the river. And there's beauty in that line. As in this, this shot of grass and snow in Iceland. You know that quality of the line, the jaggedness is very different than those slick lines in the reflection of the Ganges River. So lines is a huge element that I work with. And if you don't believe that, pick up one of my books, and look through and you'll see that yeah it may be a mountain scape but there's beautiful lines within it, and the way I framed it was intentional, not accidental. This is chipped paint on an old wooden building in Patagonia after photographing a great glacier. There was just this little building and to me it's an abstraction of mesas in Utah, plateaus and mesas. If you start to see it that way, your imagination is expanding. 'Cause I want everybody to get to that point we're opening up our imagination, we're seeing potential subjects. This is a boat harbor in Astoria. Yeah I desaturated the color, I played with contrast. But the lines were there. And that is as much a piece of art as anything hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. As arrogant as it may seem, you go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York or San Francisco, you'll see pieces of work that look just like this, and yet this is the drafting table of an artist in Havana, Cuba. After he's etched and cut pieces of paper, this is what the X-acto knives leave behind on the table below. And yet as a piece of art, it stands alone just like any of those artists were. So you start to look at barbed wire differently. You start to look at lines, and in a typical landscape like this is no less different than the previous shots. Every tree is clearly focused and has even value so the eye is moving and navigating throughout this composition in a very balanced way. So the trick is balanced and movement of the eye. If I watch your eyes looking at one of my photos and it just stops and doesn't move, I'm failing at communicating to you. So movement through the eye throughout the entirety of the composition is exactly what we want. As an artist, as a communicator, as a photographer. So it's the way we perceive nature. It's the way we look at lines, and the way we expand our visual vocabulary. Suddenly tracks in the desert of Bolivia becomes a potential subject. And again you frame it-- I chose to crop this into a panoramic. I'm playing to the strength of how those lines-- those tracks in that dirt really fold. Every line in Picasso's painting right here was calculated and executed with the effect of keeping the eye moving throughout the entirety of this composition. And if Picasso, this great artist, was held to that standard why should we as photographers be held to any lesser standard? Just because we're using camera devices, doesn't mean we shouldn't provide the care, the thought, the composition that all others really were held to. Does that make sense to you? You know people are-- we're living in a time where people are just randomly holding up i-pads or i-phones without any thought of composition. Okay there having fun, they're photographing their neighbors or their kid or whatever, but that's not really art. In this lecture today is really about art. And the device that you're using is irrelevant to me. The camera brand is irrelevant. It's about the eye and choosing the subject which becomes paramount. So if Picasso was held to that standard, yeah, we should be as well. So this is sea grass, dead desecrated sea grass on white sand in Western Australia. That's what you're looking at. But when I shot the shot, there were areas up here that were without line. It was just white, and so I picked and put lines in there, and some people came by and they said, "Oh are you altering the scene? Is that right? Is that legal?" It's like, yes. I don't know where this belief that as photographers we're only recording reality. I don't know really where that came from. Because photography has never been real. You know, we can alter the reality by the angle of the lens we chose to shoot, the type of lens, the color film that we chose to shoot, what you would include or exclude. Do you get that? That photography has never been exactly a recording of reality, but under the guise of art as photography, who gives a, you know, behind whether I've added grass or not. In fact I'm gonna own and called it an assemblage which a term that has been used by the art world forever. So I tried for this lecture to do a few assemblages. I went up to the Cascades on a spring day. I collected a bunch of buds, and arranged them in a way to exemplify this point I'm making, but all along the way as I'm teaching it, I'm learning it. And so there's beauty in that line. Yeah, I completely orchestrated and assembled that but really is that cheating? Does the word cheating really exist in the world of art? I don't believe so.

Class Description

Photography is more than just a click of the shutter as it can create a statement or evoke a feeling and thus becomes a powerful art form. Internationally acclaimed photographer, artist and educator Art Wolfe joins CreativeLive to teach creative professionals how to see and make art in exciting new ways. 

In this class Art will share:

  • How to maximize photographic opportunities while traveling to unique and beautiful photographic destinations.
  • The best ways to take those special images efficiently. 
  • His favorite technological advances and how he uses them to enhance his creative vision. 
As a special segment, Art will preview how knowledge of art history provides a creative foundation and show students how to apply these principles to enhance their own compositions. He will also include a live critique of student images and, using Adobe® Lightroom® CC, will guide students through the editing process to transform the images into stronger artistic statements.



Thank you, Art Wolfe and Creative Live for this outstanding and astounding invitation to open my eyes and mind to a new way of thinking based on classic elements of design. This set of video lectures is a rich feast for the brain and heart willing to consider change. Art explains the elements of design such as texture, line, etc., and then shows how he has applied those basic principles. He explores metaphor, ambiguity, graphic design and negative/positive space--all with eye-popping examples. Wolfe takes us through the galleries of the Impressionists, Abstractionists, and Pop Artists to show how visiting our local art museums with a photographers eye can teach us to see in new ways. I love the way he shows, for example, a Mondrian or a Jackson Pollack or a Hokusai painting and then segues beautifully into examples of his own work inspired by those greats. Never does Art lose sight of the mission he has in this series, which is to inspire serious-hearted photographers to rise to new visual heights in their own work. He has a way of seeming to say, "Look. If I can do it, you can do it. Here are my secrets--let me break them down for you." To me, it was a privilege to take this class--my brain is exploding, and I'm itching to get out and shoot! Thank you so much, Art Wolfe and the Creative Live team--you are both amazing! Sandy Brown Jensen Eugene, Oregon

JIll C.

After watching Art Wolfe's presentation for just a short while, I have an almost irresistible urge to pick up my camera and get out into the world to look for the abstracts that can make stunning images. His body of work is simply stunning, and his verbal patter is mesmerizing. He proposes to find beauty in decay, and to train our eyes to see what others overlook. This is not a technical class, and there is no discussion of gear or camera settings. I found it very inspiring, and his ideas will surely help me to overcome the lethargy that has overcome my photography hobby.


Wonderful lecture with tips and tricks of how he shoots, what gear he uses, suggestions for comp, and samples of how he processes a RAW file in LR. Art was just as awesome as I had heard he was in person. I'm a professional photographer and definitely came away with many new tips, perspectives and inspiration to see your image differently and to look closer at the less obvious scene. Thank you Art for sharing your talent, its so very much appreciated!!