Ceramics, Sculpture and ”extended media”
amy hauber

The Elements and Principles of Three-Dimensional DesignL E X I C O N

NOTE: These “principles” found here relate to what some people believe are the best ways in which to make / think about / talk about three-dimensional works. However, it needs to be said that many contemporary artists today, while often referring to this language when discussing aspects of three-dimensional works, do not rely heavily on these design principles when conceptualizing their own creative work since contemporary sculpture is so varied and divergent in its practice.

Nonetheless, it is very important that you understand these principles since they are born from the recent history of modernist sculpture, the predecessor of contemporary sculpture and the agreed upon terms that are used to describe and discuss three dimensional form…


v. to mark out, to plan, purpose, intend…
v. to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan
deliberate purposive planning

The Elements of Form

in Dimensional Order, a theoretical explanation:

Point: By definition a point is a non-dimensional unit. One can imagine a tiny dot on a piece of paper and call that a point, put in reality that is a very tiny shape, having both characteristics of height and width.

Line: Line is a form whose characteristic is overwhelmingly length. If you can imagine a star (point) moving through the sky and imagine the trail that would follow its path of movement, the result would be a line.

Plane: Planes are forms whose characteristics include length and height. If you can imagine a line moving through the sky and imagine the trail that would follow its path of movement, the result would be a line.

Volume: Fully three dimensional forms (which, isn’t everything, really, three-dimensional in the physical world?) are forms whose characteristics include length and height and depth. If you can imagine a plane moving through the sky and imagine the trail that would follow its path of movement, the result would be a volume.

The Elements of 3-D Design

Space: distance, area, volume; physical space independent of what occupies it; absolute space.

Line: the edge or outline of a form, the meeting of planes; linear materials include: wire, wood, metal rod, string or any materials with a long thin shape.

Plane: a flat or level surface –– planar materials include foam core, cardboard, sheet metal, plastic sheets, and plywood.

Mass/ Volume: closed, independent, three-dimensional form, that is completely surrounded by space –– volumetric materials include found objects, blocks of plaster, wood or stone.  Sometimes mass refers to a positive solid and volume refers to a negative, open space surrounded by material, as in a bowl or other vessel.

Shape: positive and negative: positive shape is the totality of the mass lying between its contours; in three-dimensional work, the visible shape or outer limit of a form changes as the viewer’s position is changed.  These outer limits are seen as shapes moving back and forth between major contours.  Negative space is empty space defined by positive shape.  Sometimes referred to as occupied and unoccupied space.

Value: the lightness or darkness of an object, light and shadows on the surface of forms; quantity of light actually reflected by an object’s surface; value changes might be affected by the addition of color to the surface of a work.

Texture: the surface quality of a form –– rough, smooth, weathered and so on.

Color: in 3D design, the actual color of the material being used, or the color on the surface of the material or object.

The Principles of 3-D Design

Harmony: resolution of forces in opposition, or the whole is greater that the sum of it’s parts. This is a somewhat outdated concept, though certainly still applies in many cases.

Contrast/ Variety: different qualities or characteristics in a form; interest generated in a work by using a variety of possibly opposing shapes, forms, textures and so on.

Rhythm/ Repetition: rhythm is the result of repetition; three rhythmic devices include:

1) the duplication of the same form

2) two forms used alternately; and

3) the sequential change of a form (large to small, for example.)

Emphasis: something in the work that is visually, emotionally or experientially dominant.  Like focal point in 2D design.

Continuity: uninterrupted (or interrupted) connection, succession, or union within forms. Possibly organized through organized movement or rhythm (repetition, alteration and progression).

Balance: ordered relationship of parts. whether symmetrical or asymmetrical; equilibrium.

Symmetrical Balance: equal visual units right and left/ top to bottom of an imaginary center point.

Asymmetrical Balance: visual balance achieved by dissimilar visual units; for example, two or three small shapes on the right balancing one larger shape on the left.

Proportion: elements compared, one to another, in terms of their properties of size, quantity, and degree of emphasis.

Some Methods For Creating Three-Dimensional Forms

According to some book (I forget which), these are the “four basic methods” for creating three-dimensional form:

the old cliché of the sculptor seeing his “ideal form” within a rock (or other mass of material) and carving or chipping

away at the excess until he finds it, or “frees” it (in critic Rosalind Krauss’s words, “releas[ing] the sculptural object like surgeons assisting a birth.”)

The process of removing or subtracting bits of material from a larger mass of raw material in service of your design.

Manipulation: modeling malleable materials such as clay, changing a pre-existing form or object, or most generally: somehow changing your material to suit your design.

Addition: a sculptural method in which form is created by building up materials. This method encompasses many contemporary materials and techniques, such as the assemblage of objects from wood, metal, plastics, adhesives, fasteners, etc.  Objects that use techniques derived from the world of furniture construction and carpentry are included in this category, as are objects welded or riveted together, or made from found materials.

Substitution/Replication/Duplication: the creation of a duplicate of an object (either found or made) by making a mold of that object and casting another material into the mold to make the replica (synonymous with substitute), as in “I created a substitute for xyz form, by creating a mold and casting it in abc material.

Additional vocabulary Commonly Used When Describing 3-D Design/form

Abstract: (adjective) referring to art that simplifies, emphasizes, or distorts qualities of a real-life image rather than art that tries to represent its surface details accurately.  In some cases, the intent is to present the essence of an object rather than its outer form.

Abstract: (verb) to simplify, emphasize or distort qualities of a real-life image.

Amorphous: having a shape without clarity of definition/ formless, indistinct, and of uncertain dimension.

Anthropomorphic: Having qualities reminiscent of the human form; referring, however remotely, to the human form or human gestures.

Yes, I know what it is, but do you?? you should…

Articulated: attached with a flexible or movable joint, as in the digits of a finger.

Assemblage: a work generated from a variety of objects and/or forms originally intended for other purposes.

Attenuate: make thinner, more slender or tapered.

Axis: a line, real or imagined, around which the material that composes an object appears to be organized.

Cantilever: a structural member, as in architecture, projecting from an upright, and unsupported at the opposite end.

Casting: a sculptural technique in which liquid or plastic materials are shaped by being poured or pressed into a mold.

Composition: the mindful relationship among parts or elements of a design.

Concave: a negative area in a plane or surface, a scooped out or indented form or area.

Content: the conceptual substance of a work of art, including its emotional, intellectual, symbolic, thematic, and narrative connotations. (SEE FORM)

Contour: the outline of an object

Convex: a protrusion, or outwardly pushing form.

Craftsmanship OR CRAFT: aptitude, skill, or quality of workmanship in use of tools and materials.

Disparate: separate, distinct, dissimilar (often applied to objects or elements placed together in a composition).

Dominant: refers to elements in a composition; the dominant volume is the largest element in a group, or maybe the most interesting and dramatic in character. Depends, really.

Elegant: with respect to design (or mathematics): ingeniously simple and effective, free of extraneous detail.

Elevation: in orthographic projection, the front, back, and side views of an object or architectural structure.

Fabrication: the action or process of manufacturing or constructing something, typically applies to additive processes with non-plastic (malleable) materials.

Form: The visual, “objective” elements of a work of art. (SEE CONTENT)

Found object: any object incorporated into a piece of art but not actually “made” by the artist, e.g. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades.

Gesture: the dominant sense of direction or movement suggested by the arrangement of elements in a work of art, refers to movement as expressed through the human form.

Geometric: mechanical shapes, forms utilizing rectilinear or simple curvilinear motifs or outlines, normally viewed as inorganic in nature.

In-the-round: sort of synonymous with three-dimensionality. Something that is walk around-able.

Joinery: the system which connects two or more parts of a thing.

Juxtaposition: placement side by side; relationship (normally one of strong contrast) of two or more elements in a composition.

Kinetic: construction that contains moving elements set in motion by air, motors or gravity.

Linear: involving or consisting of lines, looking like a line, narrow and elongated.

Malleable, malleability: the capability of being molded, taking shape or being made to receive desired form.

Maquette: a small, scale model for a work intended to be enlarged.

Medium, media (pl): The material(s) used by the artist to create the visual elements of a work.

Minimal: in art, characterized by the use of simple or primary forms, structures, etc., often geometric but not always, extreme economy of “expression”. Often rather impersonal-seeming. (See ABSTRACT)

Modular: involving the systematic use of a unit or units of design, repeated and varied in position, angle, or combinations creating larger forms or units.

Object: anything that is visible or tangible and stable in form. A thing.

Organic: free forms suggesting living things that have irregular edges.  Also, biomorphic.

Perforated: pierced with a hole or holes (like Swiss cheese, for example.)

Planar: made of, or dealing with, planes (as opposed to lines or volumes.)

Radial: compositions that have the major images or design parts emanating from a central location.

Relief: sculpture in which forms project from a background, usually mounted on a wall.  It is classified according to the degree to which it is raised from the surface: high relief, forms moving out from the surface; low relief, forms remaining close to the surface.

Representational: presenting a subject (a person or object) in such a way that the viewer is reminded of “real” people or objects.

Scale: the relationship between the size of an object and the size of its surroundings.

Sculpture: the art of expressive shaping of three-dimensional materials – this definition is somewhat anachronistic at this point… discussion to follow…

Serial: things in succession (like a row), which may or may not vary from one another but belong together through form or content.

Subordinate: refers to the  “lesser” elements that complement or support the role of the “dominant” element in a composition.

Style: the specific artistic character and dominant trends of form noted during periods of history and art movements.  Style may also refer to artists’ expressive use of media to give their works individual character. But this does not really apply anymore, it can, but one does not need to have a trademark “style.”

Stylization: Like mannerist art, referring to affected or exaggerated “representations” of an object as opposed to what is actually present. Often refers to representational works.

Symbol: something used for or regarded as representing something else, as in signs, emblems or tokens.

Tactile: perceptible to touch, that which is tangible.

Three-dimensional: having height, width, and depth. A thing existing in space, as above in Elements of Form in Dimensional Order.

Translucent: allowing some light to pass through, though not clear view of what lies beyond.

Transparent: totally clear view of what lies beyond, like glass.

Void: a hollow, concavity, or unoccupied space within a solid object or mass.

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