The Rowena Reed Kostellow Fund

Problem One: Rectilinear Volumes

“At first working with 3-dimensional forms in this way is difficult. But soon you will begin to speak this language. You really have to make these beautiful. That sounds pretentious. How can you make three blocks beautiful?

…But I know that you can.”

Make up to fifty rectilinear volumes in clay in a wide variety of shapes. Clay is the best medium because you can both add and take away with relative ease. The edges should read as clearly as possible. Organize the rectangles in groups of three, keeping these four principles in mind:

  1. Appreciate the qualities of contrasting shapes. The volumes you choose should vary in character as much as possible and no two should have the same measurements. Learn to assess the volume of an element by eye, without measuring.
  2. Establish relationships between the volumes by choosing dominant, subdominant, and subordinate forms. The dominant volume is the largest element, the most interesting and dramatic in character. It occupies the dominant position in the group.
  3. The subdominant complements the dominant in character. Unless there is a 20% improvement in the character of the dominant when the subdominant is added, more experimentation is needed. The dominant/subdominant relationship can be very exciting due not only to contrasts in character, but to position as well. More often than not, the relationship is enhanced if the axes are not parallel.
  4. The subordinate makes the design still more interesting by introducing a third visual element and axis. The subordinate should make the design more three dimensional, complement the existing forms, and complete the unity of the design. It is not as independent as the dominant or subdominant. It should be contrasting, but sensitive to, the other forms. It must be designed to fill in what is missing in the other two.

Be aware of proportions: overall, inherent, and comparative.

  • The inherent proportion refers to the proportions within a form: length to width to thickness.
  • The comparative proportions are the proportions of one form in relation to another. Think of a tall thin person compared to a short stocky one.
  • The overall proportion refers to the character or overall configuration of a group of forms. (If you squint and look at the silhouetted proportions of a group of forms you’re seeing its overall proportions.) No view should be uninteresting in character. In general, in these experiences, you should exaggerate the vertical in some and the horizontal in others. Most students make a horizontal overall proportion—perhaps because it seems more stable. Never emphasize the cube.

It’s important to vary the proportions in your design. Make it interesting. The last thing you want is a predictable sequence of forms that looks like “going-going-gone.”

The difference between beautiful and ordinary form is the sensitivity of these proportions. It is an intangible, but very real quality. Understanding it is one of the most valuable assets for a visual artist. Too much time cannot be spent in developing this sensitivity in oneself and becoming intuitively aware of beautiful relationships.

Carefully position the axes of the volumes. The axis refers to an imaginary line through the center of the longest dimension of the form and indicates the strongest movement of the form. The axis gives a form its position in space. In all of the problems we try to give each volume its own position in space.

In this exercise keep the axes of the volumes static (perpendicular to each other). The static axis is the simplest and will help you get away from flat compositions. Later, in more advanced exercises, you will try to achieve a variety of movements of the axes. In fact, to make your designs more three-dimensional you should use as many movements of the axes as possible. But for now, we start with a simpler challenge.

Always conceive a design from all positions. Work on a sturdy turntable and continually rotate the sketch to make sure it “reads” from all directions.

Consider how the volumes are joined.There are three ways to join the volumes: piercing, wedging and cradling.

Ask yourself the following questions as you look at your design:

  • Is there contrast between the dominant and subdominant forms?
  • Are they complementary? Are they too similar in size and shape? Students sometimes have a tendency to repeat the same dimensions.
  • Is the dominant form in the most prominent position? Students like to put the dominant form on the bottom because that seems to hold things up, but it’s not necessarily the dominant position.
  • Does the subordinate form add something to the three-dimensional quality and unity of the whole? Sometimes there’s a tendency to treat the subordinate as an orphan.
  • Does the design look good from all sides, at eye level, and from the top?

In Summary…

The challenge here is to create a unity from forms as essentially different in character as possible. Start by designing the dominant, then the subdominant. Spend a little time on this relationship. Quickly complete the subordinate element and arrange in as three-dimensional a grouping as possible. This will give you a sense of the overall configuration. Then you can begin to refine. Emphasize either the vertical or horizontal proportion in each sketch. All joinings should appear structural. A balance of directional forces should be established. The design should look interesting and three-dimensional from every position. It should achieve an effect of unity in which every part relates to every other part and every design relationship contributes to the whole.

Unity is the visual glue that holds everything together. You know that you have achieved it when all the visual relationships within the design are organized in such an exquisite dependent relationship that every element supports and strengthens every other and any minor change would upset the perfect balance and tension.

Take your best sketch and develop it in plaster. You may want to make your plaster sketch larger than your clay piece—perhaps one and a half or two times larger. Differences in proportion will become more apparent as you enlarge the design.

Enlarging isn’t simply a matter of copying. It requires you to pay attention to subtle changes in order to achieve a harmonious whole.

Be sure to use hydrocal. The mixture is harder and comes out cleaner than standard plaster.