Sunday, December 28, 2014

Strong Centers, Boundaries and Contrast

Strong Centers, Boundaries and Contrast are three of the Fifteen Properties of Wholeness defined by Christopher Alexander in his book "The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book 1 - The Phenomenon of Life."    These postcard sized embroidered collages are my attempt to grasp each principle.
Strong Centers - Good Example
Strong Centers - Bad Example
After reading about Strong Centers, I created the piece on the left.   It started out alright with some tidy circles and lines, but took a sharp turn down ugly lane.  The piece displeased me - the lines are messy, the embroidery doesn't seem to relate to the collage below and the dead center placement leaves that bullseye floating awkwardly alone.  If you've read some of my previous posts, you'll know that I've given myself permission to risk making ugly art in my explorations.   (I just don't plan to post most of it...)   I decided not to attempt to fix this piece.   Once you've pierced the card stock collage, you're stuck with a hole.  I cut extra collage paper blanks for this eventuality.  On the right is a piece I consider to be much more successful.   Besides  pleasing me aesthetically, it demonstrates the principle of Strong Centers more fully.

My design group of 6 fiber artists has decided to study one of Christopher Alexander's principles each month.   Happily, we discussed Strong Centers in November.  We brought examples of the principle we're studying to kick start the discussion.  Some examples were challenges.   Does the example have a center(s)?  What constitutes a center?   What makes a center strong or weak?   We had a lot of opinions.  We dug back into the source book.   My understanding of Strong Centers was too limited upon my first reading.   Group discussion broadened my thinking.   The piece of the left is just a bullseye sitting in the middle of open space.   Yikes!  This did not result in beauty or wholeness to my eyes.   The idea that multiple supporting centers can strengthen a design and build to a strong center made the piece on the right much more successful.   I used 4 small orange circles in the corners bisected by a partial frame and additional circles around the small black circle to achieve a Strong Center.   I purposefully did not center the design on the postcard sized paper to remind myself that's not necessarily the kind of "centering" we're seeking.   I can identify several more principles in this design - Roughness, Levels of Scale and Contrast.  I suspect this design also qualifies for Positive Space and Echoes.   I'm looking forward to revisiting these pieces as I learn about each principle to see how many of the properties I've used unwittingly.

Boundaries was a fairly concrete concept after dealing with Strong Centers.  I've always liked designs with strata and clear delineations.   We'll see if my understanding needs adjusting when the design group reaches boundaries!   This design is a thick frame around a center area.

Contrast was another concept that came to our design group easily.  We were used to thinking of color contrast, but were able to broaden our thinking to find many other kinds of contrast.  We brought more examples than we had time to review.   Contrast is everywhere!   We had good discussions on the necessary degree of contrast for effectiveness.   We pondered contrast in themes - summer/winter, apples/oranges, wet/dry, dogs/cats, rain/sunshine, male/female, etc...   It was fun to play with contrast in the piece above::

  • light and dark
  • odd and even
  • shiny and matt (hard to discern in the photo!)
  • open and closed shapes
  • thick and thin (1/3 to 2/3 proportions taken up by shapes)
  • overlapping versus non-overlapping shapes
  • filled versus unfilled shapes

If you've read this far, you'll know I'm way over my word count goal:-)  I'll just finish by saying how valuable it is to view design from a new viewpoint.   It's interesting to contrast the traditional elements and principles of design with Christopher Alexander's vision.