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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 10 – texture



Texture refers to surface quality. It can generally be thought of as a tactile element, but it also has visual dimensions. Infants have a natural desire to use their tactile sense to gather information. As adults we still want to touch something if it has a surface we are unfamiliar with. An example of this is often seen in galleries and museums where people are confronted with an unusual surface on a sculpture or painting.  Even “grown-ups” are sometimes severely tempted to sneak a feel, and often a child won’t hesitate to simply reach out and grab it to the dismay of the parents and the attendant or guard.

We exist in a tactile environment and are ourselves covered with various textures. It is a shocking revelation to see electron microscope photos of our skin (and the creatures that live on it). Nature, as always, provides us with an unmatched treasure of inspiration.  To study the variations of texture found on a single tree can be a surprisingly rewarding experience (Bevlin 87).  Heavy, rough old bark; evenly patterned, middle-aged bark; tautly stretched, new bark; areas of shiny, sticky sap; branches of bare, smooth, dead wood; glossy, shiny, new leaves; deeply veined, mature leaves; crisp, dry dead leaves. These are some of the variety of textures that are not only visually satisfying but also conceptually fascinating in their expression of the layers of life and death existing on one organism.

In the study of design, texture can be broken down into two main categories: tactile texture and visual texture.


Tactile textures are those having physical surfaces the fingers can touch. Even a perfectly smooth surface is a tactile texture but in most discussions of texture, tactile texture usually refers to a more varied surface. In painting a common tactile texture is created when the artist uses an impasto technique. This is a heavy use of paint, creating ridges and bumps by the stroke of the brush and other tools. Subtle impasto techniques are visible in many of the great Dutch Baroque painters such as Rembrandt and Rubens, but the most famous of all impasto painters is the late 19th century Post- Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh. The dense thick textures on his canvases are major contributors to the tremendous energy so many of his works have. The tactile textures create a relief of paint that not only suggest the subjects he painted, but also produce the powerful emotional undercurrent that makes Van Gogh one of the parents of the many forms of expressionism that were to evolve in the 20th century.

Tactile texture is a constant factor in three-dimensional works. The artist or designer’s use of materials determines what the texture will be. Sometimes the function of the object designed is a major consideration.  A smooth interior texture is necessary on utensils used in food preparation and serving so they can be easily and thoroughly cleaned. The exterior of these same utensils might be designed with a subtle texture to help the user maintain a grip while using them.  Materials have inherent textural possibilities that the experienced artist can use. Marble, sandstone. alabaster, and granite are all stone used in carving, but each has unique textural qualities that make it more suitable in certain circumstances. The processes of creating mass are equally important. Clay is a material that can yield a broad range of texture surfaces. Pinched, stamped, pressed, squirted, thrown, incised, and carved – clay can be shaped into an unending variety of tactile textures. The materials and the process, in the hands of the experienced artist, can shape a surface that communicates the desired message: inviting, forbidding, sleek, rugged, sensual, irritating. August Rodin, a French sculptor of the late 19th century, was one of the great masters of tactile texture. His figurative sculptures express a great depth of human emotion, not through simple naturalistic illusion but through the tremendous expressive qualities of his tactile textures, carefully and humanly formed by Rodin’s hands.

Although tactile texture has the potential of giving us information through the sense of touch, we more often gain the knowledge though the sense of sight and therefore through the way light is reflected from the tactile texture. The reflections and shadows across the surface of a sculpture are dependent on the type and intensity of light source – a factor that must be considered when designing both texture and mass.


Visual texture is an illusion of texture on a flat surface.  This can be an illusion created by the manipulation of the visual elements, or it can be a naturally occurring illusion such as the grained texture in a smoothly sanded piece of wood. Visual textures are textures to be experienced by the eyes. The artist’s creation of visual textures has a long tradition in artwork that attempts to depict illusions of both reality and fantasy. The portrait painter tries to create visual textures of flesh, hair, the wet surface of the eye, the textural change in the surface of the lips, and the various textures of fabrics and jewelry that the subject may be wearing. All are exercises in creating visual textures.

Trompe l’oeil (trick the eye) compositions try to deceive the viewer even more than ordinary illusions. The artist might paint an illusion of a frame around the edge of the painting. William Harnett’s still life compositions of the late 19th century are carefully composed grouping of objects in which the actual surface texture of the painting is absolutely smooth but the visual texture is so carefully rendered the viewer feels it would be possible to pick up a horseshoe or catch your sleeve on an illusion of a nail projecting out of the canvas.


Texture and pattern are related concepts and one surface can sometimes be both texture and pattern. Pattern can be defined as a repetitive design with the same motif appearing again and again (Lauer 160).  From this definition most textures could be considered patterns because most have repeated elements that create the tactile or visual texture.  But not all patterns suggest texture. Patterns that are primarily shape repetition (especially larger shapes) sometimes don’t have textural qualities; instead they create positive and negative shape and space relationships that are flat and non-textural.

Pattern has long been a very important part of decorative design. Today we are surrounded by fabric, wallpaper, tile, vinyl, carpet and furniture, many with a multitude of patterns. We many times dress ourselves in patterns.  The repeated shapes of patterns automatically create a sense of unity, rhythm, and predictability. This predictable recurrence of shape may be comforting to us as we are creatures of predictable patterns and cycles: the heartbeats, respiration, night and day, the seasons – all are repetitions and rhythms.


It is difficult to appreciate the amount of information that can be communicated by texture until you watch visually impaired people use their tactile skills. Fingers skim across tiny textural dots on flat surfaces (Braille) and the blind translate them into language as readily as sighted people read the letters of our alphabet. Fingers gently trace the surface of a face and record an identity as surely as our eyes. This tremendous sensitivity is developed as compensation for the loss or impairment of sight; yet I can’t help but wonder how much more we could enjoy our sensory environments if sighted people were to develop some of these tactile skills.

Many people do enjoy textural diversity. The popularity of handmade crafts testifies to this. Most handmade crafts are highly involved in tactile texture: pottery, weaving, basket making, woodworking, and glass. Craftspeople create objects that want to be tacitly experienced.  The appeal of these textures is heightened in our post-industrial society’s output of dull and boring textures due to mass production processes and unimaginative design promoted by corporate and public ignorance.

An area of textural design that appears in many cultures is that of texture in food preparation. Chefs cooking in many traditions are very conscious of the textural qualities of the food they prepare. Fine Japanese cooks are prime examples. They create a meal as a total sensory experience. The way the food looks, the way it smells, the way it tastes, the way it feels in the mouth (texture), and the way it is served are all part of the total experience. All these components are considered and designed into the meal; to dine is a total aesthetic experience – not exactly a Big Mac attack.



materials: pencils, paper, brushes, acrylic paint, 8” X 8” illustration board – the following supplies are provided by the materials fee: 20”X 20” hardboard, gel medium, modeling paste, gesso, acrylic varnish, sandpaper, drill, drill bits, screws.

objectives: (1) to use visual and tactile texture concepts combined with color and composition knowledge to create a well crafted creation of texturally abstracted forms. (2) to gain a better understanding of the potential of visual and tactile texture. (3) to produce an enjoyable artistic experience for the students and staff of SDSBVI.


1.find examples of the assigned subject matter (not photos). Do quick square-format pencil sketches to work out a variety of compositional possibilities – use some or extreme implied space.

2.on an 8 X 8” piece of illustration do a color study with acrylics of the composition you have decided on. This is just a quick study and will have no or minimal tactile texture.

3.sand the edges and corners and lightly sand the surface of your 20” X 20” hardboard. Give the smooth side two coats of gesso (letting it dry between coats).

4.pencil sketch your composition on the gessoed board. Develop the composition with the gel medium and modeling paste using the techniques demonstrated in class (squeeze bottles, engraved lines & textures, pressed textures, sponged textures, etc.)  Remember that the tactile textures need not be illusionary, they may be expressive and abstract – interesting texture and composition is the objective not realism. Sign your work clearly in Braille texture.

5.when the surface is completely dry paint the composition using wash and opaque techniques as demonstrated in class. Create some purely visual textures with your paint and use color qualities that will appeal to visually impaired people. Remember, again, realism is not the objective, strong color and value use is! Sign your work with your name on the front with legible printing or script.

6.when the paint is completely dry give the entire surface one coat of acrylic varnish – be careful to get full coverage and not miss spots.

7.drill a hole in each corner of the painting using the class template to mark the hole a group we will decide on the sequence of the installation of the paintings and install them at SDSBVI.

9.the paintings will remain at SDSBVI until next year at this time when a new series will be installed. At that time you may pick up your project at M.McGinnis’ office.

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