Did you know that when you look at a painting, you are really looking at several art elements composing it? Like an orchestra, each instrument has a part to play, culminating in a beautiful visual symphony. But what are the elements of art and how do they compose a painting? This is what we will discuss and describe in this article.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Fundamentals: What Are the Elements of Art?
- 2 The Seven Elements of Art
- 3 A Visual Symphony: Art Elements in Context
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
The Fundamentals: What Are the Elements of Art?
In simple terms, the elements of art are parts that make up the whole. These are often described as methods or components in the visual arts. There are typically seven primary elements of art namely, color, value, line, shape, form, texture, and space. We will discuss each of these in more detail below.
Artists can apply the seven elements of art in numerous different ways – and they do not have to utilize them in conjunction or simultaneously – to create artworks that are visually appealing and/or expressive.
Art elements can apply to almost all types of artworks, including painting, drawing, graphic design, or any other form of visual composition. It is important to understand the elements of art if you are an art student, or even if you are an art enthusiast because they act as guidelines or tools to not only compose an artwork but also analyze it. Once the art elements are understood, the possibilities are seemingly endless as to how they can be applied. Here is the overview:
|Elements of Art||Characteristics|
|Color in Art||Some of the main aspects of color include the color wheel, different color schemes, primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, complementary and analogous colors, hues, tones, tints, shades, saturation/intensity, value, and color temperature.|
|Value in Art||This refers to the light and dark aspects of color and it comes in low-key, high-key, or middle-key variations.|
|Line in Art||There are different types of lines – horizontal, vertical, diagonal, short, long, curved, or zig-zag, which all can be applied to form a fundamental structure of an artwork and provides different effects like movement, rhythm, or emphasis.|
|Shape in Art||Shape ranges from square, circular, triangular, or rectangular and is more two-dimensional, geometric, or organic.|
|Form in Art||These range from cubic, spherical, pyramidal, or conical, among many others, and it is three-dimensional, and can be geometric or organic.|
|Texture in Art||This refers to the “surface quality” of artworks, which can be real or implied.|
|Space in Art||This refers to the three-dimensionality or depth created in a composition, and it consists of positive and negative space, which can be utilized to create different effects.|
Have you ever looked at a painting without knowing what the elements of art are? Did it just look like a picture to you? Without the knowledge of these tools, we are not able to go deeper into the underlying structure of visual composition, in other words, the art elements will provide a context from which we can understand the artwork.
It is almost like learning a language and each element of art combines to form the visual “sentence”, so to say.
Some art sources describe it as “visual literacy”. So, the next time you visit an art gallery you will be able to look deeper into the structure of a painting. A landscape with a swirly sky or a curvy-shaped sculpture will mean more than meets the eye.
What About the Principles of Art?
Before we discuss the seven elements of art in more detail, we need to provide a brief overview of the principles of art, otherwise also referred to as the principles of design or the principles of organization. They provide more structure to how the art elements are utilized and applied, and they are often understood as the tools that organize them. We promise it will not be too complicated.
It is important to note that the principles of art vary according to different art sources, however, these are the most widely referred to. They are, namely, balance, contrast, emphasis, harmony, unity, proportion, rhythm, movement, variety, repetition/pattern, and scale.
The Seven Elements of Art
Now let us dive deeper into the seven elements of art. We will briefly go through each and how they are utilized and applied in the visual arts. We will also provide an example of the different ways each art element can be utilized in a visual composition.
Known as a “hue”, color is a critical art element because it shows us, the viewers, what the artwork is about. It can also evoke strong emotional responses and when applied strategically it can create a well-balanced visual composition. It is versatile and can convey realism, naturalism, or more abstract ideas.
For example, think of famous artworks like “The Blue Horses” (1911) and “The Yellow Cow” (1911) by the German Expressionist Franz Marc.
The Blue Horses (1911) by Franz Marc, located at the Walker Art Center in Minnesota, United States; Walker Art Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the aforenamed painting, there are three blue horses, not a color we would expect horses to be. Still, the blue is utilized to express a deeper meaning, reportedly “spirituality” and “masculinity”. Additionally, it is also believed to symbolize peace or harmony. Similarly, the yellow of the cow reportedly symbolizes “sensuality” and “femininity”.
Some Color Science: Think of a Rainbow
What, exactly, is color? The science of color explains that it occurs when “visible light”, which is one of the forms of electromagnetic radiation, reflects off – or is absorbed by – an object. We will perceive that light is a specific color depending on its wavelength.
There are different color wavelengths that make up a color spectrum.
Double Alaskan rainbow and supernumerary rainbows on the inside of the primary arc. The shadow of the photographer’s head on the bottom marks the center of the rainbow circle (antisolar point); Eric Rolph at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
It is important to note before we list the color spectrum that this is termed “visible light”, which our eyes can see or detect. There are other forms of light like ultraviolet or infrared light that we cannot see that make up part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
There are seven colors we can see, namely, violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.
These are in the order of their wavelength size, which ranges from the lowest to the highest. We can better understand these colors from their various divisions, which leads us to what you have probably heard of before, the color wheel.
The Color Wheel
The color wheel, which was invented by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666, is a useful tool that organizes the different colors into three groups, namely, primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Blue, red, and yellow are the primary colors; orange, green, and purple are secondary colors, and red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, yellow-green, and yellow-orange are the tertiary colors.
It is important to note that secondary colors are from a combination of primary colors, and tertiary colors occur from a combination of primary and secondary colors.
Moses Harris, in his book The Natural System of Colours (1776), presented this color palette; Moses Harris, The Natural System of Colours and Ignaz Schiffermüller, Versuch eines Farbensystems (Vienna, 1772), plate I, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The primary colors as noted above produces multitudes of different colors when combined. There are also complementary colors, which refer to the colors opposite one another on the color wheel, for example, blue is opposite orange, red is opposite green, and yellow is opposite purple.
Color Characteristics: Temperature
There are other characteristics associated with colors, for example, color temperature. This refers to cool or warm colors, however, some sources suggest that this is also related to psychology and what we associate the colors with.
If we look at colors like red or yellow it gives us a sense of warmth, we often associate these colors with the sun or fire. Conversely, if we look at blue or green, it might give us a feeling of being cold and we could associate it with water or foliage.
It is important to note that it has also been suggested that there is more versatility to color temperatures; some cooler colors could appear warmer than others and vice versa – some warmer colors could appear cooler than others depending on their combinations or intensities.
Color Characteristics: Intensity/Saturation
Color saturation, otherwise termed intensity, is often described as the “brightness” or “brilliance” and its level of intensity. The word “pure” is also utilized to describe when color is at its highest intensity because then it is at its purest form, in other words, it is saturated.
If a color is saturated what is the opposite of this? A color with low intensity is often described as appearing “dull” or “muted”.
A Meadow in the Mountains: Le Mas de Saint-Paul (1889) by Vincent van Gogh, located at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands; Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It will appear weaker or paler because of other colors like gray, white, or black added to it; other colors can also be combined to affect the saturation level. We will see an example of high saturation in the Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh’s painting A Meadow in the Mountains (1889).
Another typically used example is from the Impressionist Claude Monet and his painting “Impression, Sunrise” (1872), which is a combination of high and low color saturation; the sun is painted in a brighter orange and the surrounding colors are duller, which creates a contrasting effect.
Color value is another art element that relates to color. It refers to the light or dark quality of color. This is when white or black is added to a color; when white is added, it is referred to as a “tint” and black is otherwise referred to as a “shade”.
The color value can often be detected if an image is viewed as black and white.
Furthermore, color value can also create different meanings or emotional effects in an artwork, adding emphasis. Darker or lighter can create various “moods” or suggest the time of day. It can also highlight part of the subject matter or create a focal point in the composition.
Texture is broadly defined as the “surface quality” of an artwork. There are two ways texture can be utilized, namely implied or real. The implied texture will give the effect, or illusion, of surface quality, and it can range from rough, smooth, hard, soft, or any other surface imaginable.
In paintings, implied texture adds character and definition to the subject matter and there are thousands of examples.
If we look back to the Northern Renaissance, artists like Albrecht Dürer were skillful in portraying subject matter close to reality, for example in Young Hare (1502), we can see the meticulous detailing of the Hare’s long and short hair.
Young Hare (1502) by Albrecht Dürer, located at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria; Albrecht Dürer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the Dutch Golden Age, objects in Still Life paintings appeared almost real, which is usually described as “realism” or “naturalism”. An example includes Banquet Piece with Mince Pie (1635) by Willem Claesz Heda, who was active during the Dutch Golden Age. Here we see the skillful application of texture, from the smooth, shiny, surfaces of the metal objects to the soft, crumpled, fabric of the tablecloth.
Real texture refers to a tactile surface, either the paint on a canvas, the material of a sculpture, or an architectural structure. The Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, who would physically drip or pour paint onto his canvases, is a good example.
In his Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950), which is done with enamel paint, we can see the tactile texture of the paint creating a rhythmic pattern all over, which is evidently one of the art principles we mentioned above.
Sculptures also provide tactile textures ranging from marble, stone, wood, plastic, or any other medium. We see this in the marble sculpture like the Pietà (1498-1499) by Michelangelo, which also implies texture as seen in Mother Mary’s folding and falling robes, which adds further realism and emphasis to the subject matter.
Other examples include the contemporary sculptures made of stainless steel by Jeffrey Koons.
His famous balloon animals are larger than life and give the impression of a balloon we would find at a birthday party. Although these have hard surfaces, they give the illusion of being soft, inflated, balloons. An example includes Balloon Dog (Magenta) (1994 – 2000).
There are two primary types of shapes, typically termed “geometric”, and “organic” or “free form”. Geometric shapes refer to objects like circles, squares, rectangles, or triangles. They are usually described as being more two-dimensional and created by lines.
Other art elements like space and color can also contribute to creating a shape.
Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937 – 1942) by Piet Mondrian, located at the Tate in London, United Kingdom; Piet Mondrian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some of the best examples of geometric shapes utilized in the arts are from the famous Abstract artist Piet Mondrian and the Polish-Russian Kazimir Malevich. Among many, Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937 – 1942) depicts various squares and rectangles created by the placement of thick black lines across the canvas.
We will also see the square shape made famous by Malevich’s “Black Square” (1915) oil painting.
Form is another art element that is almost like the shapes mentioned above, but it is more related to three dimensions compared to two dimensions. Forms can be spherical, cubic, pyramidal, conical, cylindrical, and more.
Form also refers to the artwork’s entire form, be it a painting and the form the subject takes or the physical form of a sculpture. This can also range from geometric to organic forms.
An example of form in art can be seen in the stainless-steel Cloud Gate (2006) sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Chicago, the United States. It is an organic form reminiscent of a bean shape, which is also another name for it – The Bean.
The application of almost all the other art elements like color, line, texture, or space, can inform a form.
For example, with shading a geometric circular shape can become more three-dimensional, turning into a spherical form. Shading can also highlight an organic form, for example, a figure or an object. Similarly, outlines or what is termed “contour lines” can provide more definition to the subject matter.
Line is an important art element and is found in almost all types of artworks, providing the fundamental structure for the subject matter. From short, long, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved, straight, thin, or thick; lines can vary in length and shape.
There are also numerous methods of application of lines to create different effects for artworks.
As we mentioned prior in the article, art principles are tools that “organize” art elements; principles like movement, rhythm, perspective, pattern, or emphasis determine how lines are utilized. If lines are applied in repeated patterns, they can create a sense of movement and rhythm giving the artwork meaning and emphasis. A famous and often-used example comes from Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art painting In the Car (1963). The use of horizontal lines in this composition adds emphasis and creates the idea of movement and speed from the car.
The Last Supper (c. 1495 – 1498) by Leonardo da Vinci, located in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan, Italy; Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Lines can also draw attention to a focal point, for example in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c. 1495 to 1498). Here we see the lines from the painted tapestries along the left and right walls of the composition. Their alignment creates a horizontal line that focuses our attention on the endpoint by the window in the background, which also highlights the central figure of Jesus Christ.
There are seemingly endless ways that lines in the visual arts can be utilized, not only for dramatic or perspectival purposes but also for creating the necessary outlines or “contour lines” for subject matter, which can include figural drawings or sketches, to accentuate certain features.
Space as an art element is about the depth portrayed in a composition, which relates to its three-dimensionality. This typically refers to paintings or drawings, which depict what is termed the “illusion of space”. In sculptural or architectural art, space would be defined as the area around the object, including the space occupied by the object, whether it has openings or not.
There are also different types of space, namely positive and negative space; positive space refers to the object or subject matter itself and negative space is the space around it.
The Dog (c. 1819 – 1823) by Francisco Goya, located in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain; Francisco de Goya, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
An example of this is in Francisco Goya’s Black Painting series, namely The Dog (c. 1819 – 1823), in which there is a large open space, and in the lower portion, there is a dog. This large area of space can also create emphasis – one of the art principles – and draw our attention to the dog below.
There are also techniques that assist in creating depth on a two-dimensional surface. These are commonly named “linear” and “atmospheric” perspectives, all of which employ other art elements like lines, color, and value to enhance the spatial effect.
In linear perspective, parallel lines that “recede” into the background to a focal point create the illusion of space. This is what we see in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c. 1495 to 1498) mentioned above. Atmospheric perspective includes the use of color and value to create a hazy effect of the subject matter in the distance of a composition. The objects in the foreground would appear brighter or clearer, which also relates to value because the background would be lighter and the foreground darker. This also includes the foreground appearing more detailed compared to the background.
A Visual Symphony: Art Elements in Context
While there is extensively more detail to explore about the seven elements of art, in this article we provided the main characteristics for a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of a painting, drawing, or sculpture.
There is always more than meets the eye in any artwork, and understanding how art elements are utilized will enhance your capabilities to not only create art but analyze it too. The art elements are diverse and can be molded to suit any artistic need, be it more expressively abstract or traditionally figurative.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Elements of Art?
The elements of art are various tools like color, value, texture, line, shape, form, and space that artists or art history enthusiasts can utilize to create or analyze paintings, drawings, sculptures, graphic arts, or any other modality of art. They provide the means to create various effects in artworks to give them meaning and expression.
How Many Art Elements Are There?
There are typically seven elements of art, namely value, color, space, texture, line, form, and shape. These are commonly referred to by many art sources, however, some sources include more art elements.
What Are the Principles of Art?
The principles of art are unity, harmony, proportion, emphasis, balance, variety, contrast, rhythm, movement, pattern or repetition, and scale. These are usually referred to as organizing principles and work together with art elements to compose an artwork. Art elements arranged or utilized in a certain way will create different effects, which are informed by the art principles.