Corner Ornament

Why we’re doing it:

The Goal:

  • To develop our sensitivity to spacing and proportion through refining a simple design. With practice, the skills we develop through repetition of this exercise will start to come into play naturally in everything we do.

Core Skills:

  • Sensitivity to spacing and harmony of proportion
  • Line control: This exercise requires very careful control – particularly the final stage with brush and ink.

What it is:

“Spacing is the very groundwork of design” – Arthur Wesley Dow

This exercise is an effective way to practice spacing and proportion by creating and then refining a simple corner ornament. Through this exercise, you’ll produce many versions of the same design, striving to refine and improve it each time. It is this striving and pushing to improve that that takes us just beyond our comfort zone, stretches our design muscles and develops our skills.

The exercise may seem simple at first. But encapsulated within it is the foundation of good design: spacing and harmony. Good spacing and harmony is felt, not measured. In order to create it, we need to develop our sensitivity to it. The only effective way to do that is to practice it repeatedly.

In his book Composition, Arthur Wesley Dow introduces opposition as the first way of creating harmony in design. Opposition is simply the meeting of straight lines at a right angle. The foundation of this exercise is what Dow calls transition – the softening and unifying of opposition by the addition of a third line. This addition softens the opposition, creating unity and completeness from opposing elements. In many ways this is the definition of beauty.

Here’s a few examples of charcoal of a very simple form of transition, two lines forming a right angle, softened by a third:


There are plenty of examples of transition in decorative design and ornamentation. Rug designs, picture frames, ceiling mouldings, the decorative art of just about any culture you care to name has examples.

This example is fairly simple.


They can get more complex:


Much more:


corner stencil

You’ll find examples in furniture and brackets for hanging baskets.



You will also find transition at work in the compositions of paintings and drawings. I’d encourage you to look around and gather your own examples. A great exercise is to go to a major gallery (the National in London is my favourite) and look for examples of transition. They’re literally everywhere once you start to look.





The designs we’ll be producing for this exercise can begin very simply, becoming as complex as you like. But don’t mistake complexity and invention for beauty. Three simple lines can be more beautiful than a complex arrangement, if they are sensitively combined. Good spacing, harmony and beauty should be your main considerations.

This exercise is in three stages:

1. Initial Designs

Getting used to different ways of transitioning between intersecting straight lines. Developing simple ideas for corner ornaments.

Start this exercise

2. Choosing and Developing a design

Taking one of your designs and developing it, trying out different proportions and spacings.

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3. Refining with Brush and Ink

In this stage, you’ll take your favourite one of your designs from stage 2 and trace and retrace it, trying to make the best version of it you can.

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