Abstract Design and How to Create It

Abstract Design and How to Create It

by Amor Fenn

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Students, designers, and craftspeople who want to create their own abstract patterns and designs will find this profusely illustrated guide one of the best books available on the subject. After an introductory chapter dealing with the geometric basis of design, the author goes on to discuss implements and their use (T-square, compass, dividers, ruling pen, etc.),


Students, designers, and craftspeople who want to create their own abstract patterns and designs will find this profusely illustrated guide one of the best books available on the subject. After an introductory chapter dealing with the geometric basis of design, the author goes on to discuss implements and their use (T-square, compass, dividers, ruling pen, etc.), borders, textile patterns, nature study, and treatment.
Over 380 illustrations include many diagrams, designs for title pages, border patterns, allover patterns, textile patterns, and historical examples from an extraordinary number of cultures and periods: Assyrian stone carvings, Greek and Roman jewelry, 18th-century English silverwork, and more. Thorough and comprehensive, Abstract Design and How to Create It will be an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to learn the principles and techniques of creating nonrepresentative designs.

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Art Instruction Series
Edition description:
Dover ed
Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 8.45(h) x 0.54(d)

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Abstract Design and How to Create It

By Amor Fenn, Richard M. Proctor

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1993 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13984-5



THE object of this book is to deal with elementary pattern and its construction. The design of structural work or formative processes is not dealt with, though experience will show that the underlying factors are much the same in all cases.

Early attempts usually fail through having too much variety. With painted ornament, usually a personal performance, more licence may be allowed, but a good deal of restraint is aesthetically essential to good decoration. An extremely simple unit may by its repetition give an elaborate effect of pattern. Students are advised to analyse patterns that appeal to them and endeavour to determine the factors to which the effect is due.

The desire to be original is an early obsession, but originality is a misapplied word, since we can only deal with that which has entered into experience—a more appropriate term is personal or individual—and this is the main quality that gives distinction to an artist's work.

Invention is involved in design to a certain extent, but rather in adapting and arranging than in evolving anything that is entirely new. At no time has anything been produced that had no resemblance to nature in some way or another, often remote certainly, and often curious and with symbolic significance; such strange combinations, for instance, as the Assyrian winged and man-headed bull, which were attempts to represent certain qualities in a symbolic way.

Repeating patterns are constructed on a geometric basis. The design may be frankly geometric in detail, that is, such as can be directly executed by the mathematical instruments, or floral or other details not so obviously abstract may be employed, and in many cases the geometric structure on which it is built may not be directly apparent. In a perfectly free all-over pattern the geometric element may merely consist of the general line to ensure repetition; the unit may be planned on a rectangle, a square, or a diamond, and any further geometric element may not appear. In many patterns the dominant lines are obviously drawn with the aid of instruments such as those where the undulate line is employed either as a stem, or to define and emphasize shapes.

Good effects are obtained by grouping details into deliberate geometric shapes, such as the circle, square, or triangle, and these should be arranged so that the recurrence of them also forms pattern. The shapes may be rigidly adhered to, or they may be modified with the detail to disguise to some extent the plan on which the latter is arranged. As a general rule a design that is to be repeated indefinitely should when seen at a moderate distance suggest pattern in the dominant shapes which on closer observation are seen to be composed of smaller detail. The Persian design illustrated No. 344 is an example of this. The dominant detail is in the form of a conventionalized pink composed within the limit of a circle, and the general plan is that of the diamond.

Reference to the illustrations will show the influence and importance of geometry in design, and the recognition of this as the general basis and in some cases in the detail will be found a saving of time, and will avoid aimless floundering about, only to arrive eventually at the same point. It is desirable, therefore, that in practice a geometric structure should be the first step.



THE evolution of a design is a compound performance, con sisting in the first place of the idea, and in the second of its methodical working out as a concise detail suitable for the process of reproduction for which it is intended. This methodical side of the work involves careful attention to drawing and arrangement, and is necessary if the design is to be of any particular use.

Although the idea may be a matter of impulse, the final drawing of any pattern intended for some process of reproduction must conform to the conditions imposed by the process; and this drawing which is a working detail must be mathematically exact with regard to dimensions and its intended repetition. The meticulous procedure essential to a working drawing is generally foreign to the impulse which is so desirable in the inception of a design, and possibly a great deal of the original feeling may be lost in the necessarily protracted period of working out; but the endeavour should be to preserve this feeling throughout, and so retain the virility of the design in its final expression.

There appears to be an inherent superstition that all drawing to be really artistic must be freehand, and that the aid of mechanical implements should not be sought. Practically it does not matter how a drawing is done if only it is well done.

It is not immoral to rule lines that are intended to be straight, and the desirability of doing so is particularly apparent when a number of parallel lines are associated, as in borders and framings.

The angles of enclosed shapes, such as squares, rectangles, and polygons, should be correctly formed, and this is of vital importance when such shapes are bordered by a number of lines.

Where circles, parts of circles, or ovals are used, these can be more accurately drawn by means of instruments.

Work of this nature is technically known as "Geometrical Drawing," which may appear to many as appalling in its scientific suggestion; but it will be found in practice that very little knowledge of geometry is involved, and that most of the desirable results may be attained by easy methods and the use of very few instruments.

The consideration of these instruments does not seem to be common in early training, and few students appreciate their usefulness.

The most generally useful drawing-board for design is 30 in. by 22 in., known as an Imperial board.

It is as well when making any drawing to pin the paper properly on to the drawing-board-that is, at the four corners. Broad-headed pins are best, and should be pressed well in, so that the paper is held by the pressure of the head and not merely by the actual pin. They can be readily removed when necessary if levered up with the blade of a knife. In pinning the paper down make a practice of placing it with its edges parallel to those of the board, and not allow the paper to overlap the board, as this interferes with the accurate use of the T-square, and is in every way undesirable. If the paper is larger than the board, it should be trimmed to the required size.

For drawing horizontal lines the best implement is the T-square, so called because the head is at right angles to the drawing-edge. The object of this head, which is deeper than the blade, is that it can be moved along the edge of the drawing-board against which it engages. The T-square should have a bevelled edge, as this helps accuracy in drawing, and it should be long enough to reach the long way of the board—if longer it is all to the good, as the larger square is heavier and steadier, and therefore more accurate. The head should be kept true to the edge along which it slides. The upper edge should be used solely for drawing and not for cutting. The general impression appears to be that when a drawing has to be trimmed, the knife should be used on this side, with the inevitable result that the truth of the drawing-edge is impaired. When trimming is to be done, lines should be drawn where required, and the back of the T-square used to guide the knife if no other form of straight-edge is available. The blade of the T-square is usually tapered, at least in the better sort, and therefore the back-edge, not being parallel to the front, is not at right angles to the head. But for trimming this edge can easily be adjusted to the drawn lines by shifting the drawing. The T-square should be held firmly in position by the fingers of the left hand so that it cannot move, and care should be taken in using the knife that it is held parallel to the cutting-edge all the way, pressed through the paper at the start of the cut, and drawn slowly and firmly through the length of the line. If improperly held the knife may ride upon the T-square and injure it, or even come into unpleasant contact with the fingers.

The T-square is generally used from the left side of the drawing-board, in fact, this is inevitable if the square is tapered, and as already stated is the most workmanlike and convenient implement for drawing horizontal lines.

While drawing such lines, care should be exercised to keep the hand in the same attitude throughout, otherwise the angle at which the pencil is held may vary, and the result will be a curved instead of a straight line. Lines of slight curvature are sometimes deliberately ruled in this way when required. Lines at right angles to the horizontals may be drawn by using the T-square on the bottom edge of the board, but only if the latter be true; few boards, except those for architectural or engineering drawing, are to be relied on, and the vertical lines are best drawn by means of the set-square.

The set-square is triangular in shape—the two most commonly used are the 45° and the 60°. One of the properties of the triangle is that the sum of its angles is 180°. The 45° set-square has two angles of 45° and the third a right angle or 90°. The hypotenuse, or side opposite the right angle, is thus the diagonal of a square. The 60° set-square has one angle of 60°, one of 30°, and one of 90°. For pencil-drawing the best set-squares are of celluloid, as being transparent, the position of the required line is more readily seen, furthermore, they are thin and do not wear down the pencil-point to any great extent; but they should not be subjected to heat of any kind or they may warp, or otherwise suffer. Setsquares are also made of wood, the better sort of mahogany with bevelled ebony edges. These are the most suitable when ruling in ink, and should then be used with the bevelled side downwards, as this keeps the ruling-edge clear of the paper, and there is less chance therefore of the ink running and blotting the drawing.

Set-squares are more useful when large, 12 in. high is a very useful size.


It is obvious that as both of these set-squares have an angle of 90° either of them can be used to draw lines at right angles to horizontal lines by the simple expedient of placing the base edge on the T-square, and, as already stated, this is the most accurate method of drawing vertical lines.


The 45° square is employed in defining the mitres of square and right angular shapes. If for instance a square or rectangle is to have as a border a series of lines, these need only be spaced on one side, and a line at 45° drawn from the angle. From the points where this line which forms a mitral angle intersects the border lines, these are carried along the adjacent side, and by repeating the process at the remaining angles the border is completed.

If carefully done this is quite accurate, and saves time in measuring.

Again, if a surface has to be divided into squares, this can be readily accomplished by marking on a vertical line a number of points, the distance between them being the length of the side of the squares required, and drawing horizontal lines through them. The other dimensions are determined by a line at 45° to the horizontals. At the points of intersection verticals are drawn, which complete the divisions into squares.

The 45° set-square is useful in the formation of the octagon. Assuming the length of one side to be given, and that this is horizontal, the set-square can be employed to give the adjacent sides. The length of the original line should be measured off on these and the vertical sides drawn. By similar procedure the other sides are obtained.

When the height of the octagon is given, the figure may be constructed by striking a circle the radius of which is half the given height and drawing tangents by means of the T-square and set-square. These tangents form the sides of the octagon.

The irregular octagon, that is one which has four sides equal but dissimilar in length to the intermediate sides, which are also equal, can be drawn in precisely the same way by measuring the two lengths alternately as the figure is drawn.


Equilateral triangles can be drawn with the 60° set-square and extended indefinitely, also the six-sided figure known as the hexagon, which consists of six equilateral triangles, can be formed with the 60° set-square in precisely the same way as described for the octagon. Lines drawn with the 60° set-square at equal distances with similarly spaced lines crossing them form a diamond pattern. The spacing and points of intersection are first determined by horizontal or vertical lines. In a similar way a hexagonal pattern can be produced. Both the diamond and the hexagonal setting out form the foundation of a number of all-over patterns, and in some instances are emphasized till they become a feature of the design; in this case the diamond is known as a trellis pattern and the hexagonal as a net.


A mitral angle is the bisection of the angle at which lines meet. Obviously this is only an angle of 45° in the case of the square or rectangle. The mitral angles of hexagons, octagons, or any polygon having an even number of equal sides, can be obtained by drawing the diagonals.

The mitral angles of the enclosed curved form known as the trefoil is determined by joining the point where the arcs intersect to the centre point of the opposite arc. That of the quatrefoil is found by joining the opposite points of intersection of the adjacent arcs.

To find the mitral angle of concentric curves meeting parallel straight lines, the safest plan is to mark the total width of the border from the outer lines, draw the curve and corresponding straight line at this distance, and join the point where they intersect to the outer angle.

Borders of circular shapes are obviously formed of concentric circles. Borders of elliptical shapes are slightly more complicated due to the figure being struck from more than one centre. To ensure uniform spacing and perfect continuity of the border, lines must be drawn through the centres of the major and minor axes to determine where the arcs of which the border is composed should meet. Similar procedure is necessary if a number of parallel lines are used in a curve of double flexure.


For measuring, some form of rule divided into inches will be found useful, and since there is considerable variation in these, particularly in the cheaper kinds, it is desirable to obtain one that can be relied upon.

Scales either in ivory or boxwood can be depended on, but for ordinary measurements the most dependable rule is that used by engineers, which is of steel, and not easily affected by wear or other conditions.

Measurement by such means is often found in designing to be insufficient and cumbersome. For purposes of more accurate measurement one of the most useful instruments is the dividers. This is provided with two sharp points, which enable dimensions to be repeated with great accuracy, and is particularly useful in scale-drawing.

Of still greater accuracy is the small variety known as spring-dividers. This is adjusted by a screw which gives very delicate control, with the added advantage that once so adjusted they cannot change until the screw is manipulated.

If, for instance, it is required to indicate a repeated measurement of, say, in. along a line, the spring-dividers can be set to this dimension from a rule and the points pricked through the paper; uniformity of spacing is thus ensured, which is not readily achieved by any other means. As the points are fine, generally needle-points, they will not be visible on the completed drawing.

Divisions that are neither inches nor convenient fractions of them may be found by trial, but this is a tentative method, and may entail the waste of valuable time.

To bisect any line, either of the set-squares can be used; and obviously the two parts can be again bisected, and so on ad infinitum. The method is indicated in the diagram. This is only applicable when an even number of equal spacings is required, and only in the sequence 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.

If an odd number of divisions is required, the procedure is as diagram No. 11.

This method is not only accurate if carefully executed, but involves little time. It consists of drawing lines which must be parallel to each other at each extremity of the line to be divided. To ensure their being parallel it is as well to use a set-square, and the 60° is most suitable. On these lines the required number of divisions are marked off, any reasonable size will do, and the points are joined. The intersections on the original line give the spaces required.

Three varieties of compass are commonly used—the smallest, for fine small work, known as spring bows; the medium size or bow compass; and the large size, which can be used as dividers, has separate adjustable parts, a divider-point, a pencil, and pen, and a lengthening bar for larger circles.

The pen compass can be adjusted to give lines of different widths, thick or thin as required.


Excerpted from Abstract Design and How to Create It by Amor Fenn, Richard M. Proctor. Copyright © 1993 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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