From ancient rock paintings to Botticelli's The Birth Of Venus, from lush hand-woven tapestries to Kazimir Malevich's revolutionary Black Square, all visual artworks operate on at least one element of art.
Traditionally, there are seven elements of art - line, value, colour, shape, form, texture and space. But the application of the elements of art are not a recent invention, they developed alongside thousands of years of visual culture - Paleolithic paintings in the ancient caves of Lascaux for example, exhibit extensive use of line, shape and colour. However, it was Arthur Wesley Dow, an American painter, printmaker, photographer and arts educator, who grouped several key artistic devices or elements together in the 1899 publication Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers.
Dow encouraged his students to move away from copying nature, shifting the creative emphasis to self-expression guided by the mindful application of line, form, colour and tone. In 1903 Dow became head of the art department at Columbia University Teachers College where he continued teaching his theories. His efforts influenced the first generation of American modernist painters who adopted and then expanded upon Dow's teachings, culminating in the elements of art as we know them today.
Section 1: Defining the Elements of Art
Often referred to as the building blocks or ingredients of image-making, the elements of art are the basic techniques an artist uses to build an artwork. These artistic devices - line, value, colour, shape, form, texture and space - allow artists to exploit a standard of visual awareness that is familiar to both the artist and an audience.
While the exact interpretation of an artwork may vary from artist to artist and culture to culture, the basic elements of design can unify artistic experience through simple fundamental structures. With a grounding in the visual foundations of image-making, both the artist and the viewer can forge a deeper exchange with an artwork.
How Many Elements of Art are There?
Googling the number of elements in the elements of art reveals conflicting answers. The standard number seems to be seven - line, value, colour, shape, form, texture and space. Some accounts leave out form because it is considered a three-dimensional alternative to shape. Others may also exclude value as an individual element because it can fit under the heading of colour. That said, the brain best digests information broken down into parts, so for the purpose of this article, I'll retain the traditional seven-element model.
Section 2: The Elements of Art
The elements of art can manifest in an endless array of forms dependent on an infinite amount of artistic variants. Line, value, colour, shape, form, texture and space - even if art is created by leaning into chance (see Jean Arp), the aesthetic outcome of an artwork can be assessed for its successes and failures through the prism of the elements of art.
The Nature of Line
As the most basic component of visual construction and analysis, line frequently forms the foundation of an artwork. A primary tool for artistic expression, lines can manifest vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. Straight, broken, angled or bowed, thick or thin, line guides the perception and momentum of the viewer and tracks the physicality and methodology of the artist.
Lines can create links between subjects or separate them, adding or simplifying depth and forming patterns and texture. Leading lines can create a route for the viewer's eyes to follow to a focal point and a simple horizontal line can establish the horizon in a landscape. Expressive, varied lines can cultivate an energetic reading with sharp peaks and troughs. Soft, organic curves create a more harmonious impression.
Value, also known as tint, defines the lightness and darkness of specific colours in an artwork. A colour appears lighter or darker depending on the amount of white and/or black in a specific hue. When shades of similar values are used in conjunction with each other, they create a low-contrast palette. Dramatic, high-contrast artworks exhibit fewer values between dark and light.
A climactic example of value is seen in the use of tenebrism. A style common in Baroque paintings, a tenebristic artwork exhibits violent contrasts of light and dark. The technique was developed solely to convey visual drama with the spotlight effect found in fervid artworks by Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Contemporary examples of tenebrism include works by Nicola Samori, Whitney Ott, Bill Henson and Josh S. Rose.
The Quality of Colour
Colour is frequently credited as the most evocative element of art. Considered the mother of American modernism, Georgia O'Keefe once said colour is often an extension of human expression:
I found I could say things with colours that I couldn’t say any other way – things that I had no words for
Colour carries both intuitive and symbolic significances. Through experience, humans build up visceral relationships with colour - the colour red is, for example, often associated with blood, heat and physicality. O'Keeffe was fascinated with bright, bold and intense colours. Fluctuating between painting flat renderings of colour and creating the illusion of three-dimensional forms, O'Keeffe executed paintings with a dynamic fluidity.
Impressionists Armand Guillaumin and Claude Monet were both known for their masterful application of colour. Guillaumin's expressive landscapes of the 1890s were vivid renderings that anticipated the Fauves movement. Monet's palette, on the other hand, infused harmonious, analogous hues as a way of cultivating a sense of peace in his voluminous landscapes.
The Foundation of Shape
Measured in length and width, shapes are closed and two-dimensional. At their most basic, shapes are created when a line is enclosed, although boundaries can also be formed with textures, colours, and other shapes or forms.
Shapes outlined with thick lines and sharp angles emphasize visual weight. Freeform, organic or irregular shapes (often found in nature) manifest in a more subtle capacity. Squares or rectangles cultivate the perception of stability and strength, circles evoke a locomotive quality, and triangles actively guide the eye and/or destabilize an artwork depending on their orientation. Geometric shapes harden the structure of an artwork. The more fluid or organic a shape, the harder it is to pin down visually.
Manifestations of Form
Enclosing volume and possessing length, width and depth, form defines three-dimensional objects in a given space. Form can be static or dynamic, with edges ranging from hard and bold to soft and subtle. Often delineated by line, value and texture, form is prominent in sculptural fields.
Form can be described in relative terms as open or closed. In an open form, every visual aspect extends beyond the focal point, guiding the eye through the piece and out into the ambient surroundings. Open forms are not solid masses, rather they exhibit openings or lines that replace solid volumes or closed surfaces.
In contrast, the closed or self-contained form describes a three-dimensional structure or scene where form directs the eye through an artwork and back into itself. If spaces are present within the closed form, they are usually contained or confined.
Much like the two-dimensional shape, three-dimensional forms exhibit geometric or organic qualities. Geometric forms are precise and often mathematical in execution - basic cubes, spheres and pyramids are all geometric forms. Sometimes nebulous, organic forms are curvy, free-flowing and sinewy, often manifesting in nature.
Tactility in Texture
Texture refers to the tactility of a surface, defining the way an art object feels or is perceived to feel. Actual texture (also known as tactile texture) is the physical feeling of a touchable surface, like that of a sculpture or textile artwork. This touchable quality contributes to the overall reading of the artwork and tells a story about its creation and history as well as the artist's intent.
Simulated texture refers to the impression of texture in an art object - a painting of a rabbit for example, stimulates our knowledge of what soft fur feels like, so we assign this quality to the viewing experience. Another example is that of the work by Bridget Riley, who creates the illusion of a rippled surface through the repetition of lines, shapes and colours. Artists appeal to our mental bank of haptic knowledge as a type of shorthand to generate a more immersive encounter with an artwork.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "space is the breath of art". The element of space can refer to the distances around, within and between features and objects in an artwork. Empty or occupied, dense or sparse, closed or open, deep or shallow, and two-dimensional or three-dimensional, spatial qualities are ineluctable in art.
Like all elements of art, space can be approached in numerous ways. Described as the areas in a work of art that consist of subject matter or areas of interest, positive space defines areas occupied by critical artistic content. Negative space then, is the visually quieter areas of space that surrounds the subjects or focal points.
Generally, a greater amount of positive space creates a more frenetic reading, whereas more negative space is quieter and more reflective. Negative space can be seen in the context of traditional Chinese and Japanese paintings, which are often simple compositions of expressive yet minimal brushwork paired with vast, untouched areas of canvas. An example of vividly populated positive space within an artwork is exemplified in Hans Memling's Last Judgement.
The position of subject matter is also defined by space. Thought to have been devised around 1415, linear perspective sees objects skilfully distributed over orthogonal guides. These lines converge in a single vanishing point on a horizontal axis to create a distinctively dimensional use of space.
Executed with a skyward hole in the central chamber, James Turrell's Within Without is an example of positive and negative three-dimensional space. The open sky window and interior of the structure are negative, framed by the positive space of the surrounding architecture. On the spacial quality of Within Without, Turrell himself says:
My work is about space and the light that inhabits it. It is about how you confront that space and plumb it with vision.
Section 3: The Elements of Art in Practice
We know that the elements of art manifest in an endless variety of ways. Through the use of line, value, colour, shape, form, texture and space, the elements of art create a common language with which artists and audiences can analyse, experience, make and discuss artworks more rigorously while building on an established standard. From the origins of creativity to contemporary art, the elements build perception through the application of basic visual essentials. In this section, we'll look at a few artworks and put the elements of art into practice.
The Scream - Edvard Munch
Painted in 1893 by Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch, The Scream is the visual epitome of intensified anguish. We know this in part because Edvard Munch said so himself - an account of the event that inspired The Scream can be found on the frame of a later version of the seminal painting:
I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
But even without this account, Munch's acute characterization of overwhelming mental and physical distress is executed through a compelling network of elemental artistic techniques. The sinuous forms of the focal figure's body, skull and hands correspond closely with the flexure of the landscape and sky in the background - a direct contrast with the comparatively clean lines of the bridge, balustrade and slender associates exiting to the left. If the stiffened shapes, lines and forms are an embodiment of solidity or integrity, then the figure in the foreground is clearly teetering closer to the chaotic rendering of the wilderness.
Although we know that the central figure is not screaming themselves, but witnessing the scream of nature, the ovoid shape of the figure's mouth and head indicate a kind of corporeal compression, a visual symptom of the apocalyptic chorus of nature. The spatial placement of The Scream's main figure at the bottom centre of the frame cultivates a perilous illusion of proximity to the viewer, while the conspiratorially textual unrest of vividly exaggerated sunset hues creates a current of constant flux. Within the matrix of the wilderness, a darkly textured form radiates and twists away from the head of the main figure, a coiling manifestation of rapidly expanding anguish.
Cyanotypes - Anna Atkins
In 1843, Anna Atkins became the first person to publish a book with exclusively photographic images. Using light, plant material and a mixture of UV-sensitive iron compounds on paper, Atkins' detailed cyanotype prints were a deviceful approach to nineteenth-century photographic technology, transforming the possibilities of visual scientific documentation.
Noted for their deftly elegant arrangements, the expanse of Atkins' cameraless photographic work is a precursor to the minimalist movement. By carefully distributing positive organic matter over the primed paper, Atkins' reductive manifestations capitalize on a judicious application of space.
While cyanotypes, like much of photography, exists as a flat medium, many of Atkins' botanical subjects exhibit a strong dimensionality in texture, line and shape. The higher value of the silhouettes separates the plant life from a featureless background while the linear flow of organic subject matter over Prussian blue projects a distinct ataractic or meditative quality.
Tableau I - Piet Mondrian
To create his now-unmistakable works of art, Mondrian worked within rigid parameters. Through the restrained application of basic artistic elements, Mondrian (and other De Stijl artists) hoped to create pure abstraction and subsequently universalize art. Rejecting the naturalistic representations of the past, Mondrian relied instead on the material qualities of paint and the manifestation of abstract ideas while maintaining formal elements of art like shape, line and colour.
Painted in 1921, Tableau I demonstrates Mondrian commits to planes of pure colour, asymmetry and the visual harmony of tension and balance. Eradicating the notion of illusionistic three-dimensional space, Mondrian distributed the shapes, lines and forms of each painting asymmetrically, balancing primary colours with black, white and grey so that no single feature is dominant. As both natural and opposing forces, the horizontal and vertical use of line creates a duality of stability and opposition within the artwork. When viewed up close, the textural brushwork of the artist counters the notion that the artwork was executed with artificial exactitude - alluding to the imperfectly experiential quality of the process and the materiality of the medium.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen - Edgar Degas
First exhibited at the impressionist exhibition of 1881 in Paris, Edgar Degas's Petite Danseuse de 14 Ans or Little Dancer Aged Fourteen would become one of the most beloved works of modern art. Moved by the plight of young ballerinas who were often impoverished, physically overwrought and a frequent target of institutionalized sexual abuse, Degas modelled his sculpture on Marie van Goethem, a so-called opera rat of the Paris Opera Ballet. Built on a metal armature, the original artwork consists of pigmented beeswax, clay, rope, human hair, paint brushes, ribbon, a cotton faille bodice, a cotton and silk tutu and linen slippers.
One of the most fundamental elemental devices of Dega's sculpture is texture. At a time when serious sculpture was popularly limited to bronze or marble, Degas's highly textural surface treatment challenged the historically smoothed renderings of human skin to create a more expressive patina. With tooling marks and rough fluctuations embedded in her hardened surface, Degas's dancer provokes a level of scrutiny similar to that endured by the young dancers in reality. At the same time, the juxtaposition of the dancer's soft fabric tutu and hard facade presented an unprecedented shift towards realism and still serves as an admonition against art made at the expense of the dramatis personae.
Section 4: Elements of Art - a Mini Zine
Great for a quick guide to the elements of art, each page contains the visual interpretation of an element, paired with a brief explanatory sentence and relevant keywords.
Constructing the Elements of Art Zine
First, download and extract the zip file above. Locate and open the extracted file folder, right-click on the extracted file and select Print. Alternatively, open the file and select Print in an image-based application like Photoshop.
In the Print interface, adjust the print orientation to Landscape Mode on A4 paper and change the print settings to Scale to Fit Media. If needed, adjust the print quality and paper type and select Print.
Fold the freshly printed sheet into 8 even sections (figure 1). Then, unfold the sheet and fold it in half so that the shorter sides meet. Cut a slit, starting at the middle of the outer fold and stopping at the central intersection (figure 2). Unfold the sheet again.
Next, fold the paper so the long sides meet, with the slit facing the up (figure 3). Hold each end of the print and push the slit into a diamond shape (figure 4). Keep pressing in until the slit folds into itself, the paper will fold into a booklet, creating an 8-page zine.
If needed, refold so the zine edges are crisp. Done!
Through the use of line, value, colour, shape, form, texture and space, artists apply the elements of art to build an artwork. These artistic devices allow artists to convey an artwork through a language that deconstructs visual experience.
Often referred to as the building blocks or ingredients of image-making, the elements of art can unify artistic experience through simple fundamental structures. With a grounding in the visual foundations of image-making, both the artist and the viewer can forge a more meaningful exchange with an artwork.
More information on Arthur Wesley Dow here.
Wölfflin, Heinrich. 1950. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, translated by Marie D. Hottinger. New York: Dover Publications