Elements and Principles of Visual Arts
Updated: Aug 26
The elements of art are the building blocks traditionally used by Western European artists to create cohesive and effective artworks. The medium and subject are the conscious choice of the artist. But elements like color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value are also employed by the artist, and also commonly used in formal (visual) analysis. Many other principles of design can be employed as well, including proportion, balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity.
These terms can be useful to know when looking at or discussing works of art, but keep in mind these terms evolved in the Western European tradition of art, and are not primary considerations or criteria for artists outside that area (Asia, Africa, the Pacific and indigenous Americas). The following discussion gives an idea of how the terms can be used in a survey of arts across the world.
Medium refers to the material used as an art form. There are many types of media: stone, wood, ceramics, fresco, and paint are some of the earliest forms. Textiles, fiber, metalwork, ink, paper and mixed media (which incorporates more than one medium), have also existed for centuries. In the modern period, technologies have evolved to include photography, electronic arts, performance, installation, and land-based works etc.
Images and media (top right, left):
-Venus of Willendorf, c. 25,000 BCE, stone
- Leonardo Da Vinci, Female, 1490 chalk
-Man Ray, Glass Tears 1932 photography
-Moche peanut necklace 5th c, gold/silver
-Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, oil paint
-Kathe Kollwitz, The People, 1922 print
-Barbara Cerno, Acoma Pueblo pottery
-El Anatsui, detail of woven textile
(made up of liquor labels from landfills!)
-Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway, electronic art
-Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, 2010 performance art
-Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Valley Floor 1972 land-based art
Theme is the overall subject or narrative being displayed. A theme can be obvious in a piece, such as many religious scenes, or it can be a more hidden idea behind the imagery. Themes can often vary according to culture, artist, and period.
George-Pierre Seurat's "Bathers at Asniares", 1884 shows a common theme at the time: leisure in the modern city. Reverence for ancestors is very common throughout Africa; this male-female couple is from the Dogon of Mali. Renaissance works often had religious themes, like Giotto's Madonna and Child Enthroned.
The purpose of an artwork is the intent of the artist, which can be over, or quite subtle. The purpose can be to uphold spiritual values, as in Giotto's altarpiece, which was intended to be displayed on a church altar as a symbol of Christian devotion. The Dogon ancestors have a similar spiritual function, and emphasize the key role ancestors and elders played in the creation and the maintenance of Dogon life.
There can be more than one purpose, though. An artist might say that they'd like their work to be like a "comfortable armchair," as Matisse did. Or art can often have an obvious purpose (aesthetic pleasure, spirituality, artistic innovation) and at the same time contain more subtle political, or social commentary. Additional context can be key to understanding that. The ostensible purpose of Seurat's work, for example, was to provide a window into the pleasures of modern life for his wealthy patrons. But a deeper look at Seurat's life also provides insight into his attempt to show the inequalities of life at the time. Closely look at the skyline behind the bathers, and you'll see the toxic plumes (and beneath the water, the toxic sludge) invading this working class area.
Color is light reflected off of objects. Color has three main characteristics: hue (the name of the color, such as red, green, blue, etc.), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright or dull it is).
White is pure light; black is the absence of light. Primary colors are the only true colors (red, blue, and yellow). Secondary colors are two primary colors mixed together (green, orange, violet). Intermediate colors, sometimes called tertiary colors, are made by mixing a primary and secondary color together. Some examples of intermediate colors are yellow green, blue green, and blue violet.
Roy Lichtenstein often used primary colors in his pieces, like in this painting In the Car, 1963.
Complementary colors are located directly across from each other on the color wheel (an arrangement of colors along a circular diagram to show how they are related to one another). Complementary pairs contrast because they share no common colors. For example, red and green are complements, because green is made of blue and yellow. When complementary colors are mixed together, they neutralize each other to make brown.
Henri Matisse, in his Woman with the Green Stripe, 1905, worked carefully to ensure a series of complementary color relationships, like green and purple.
Line can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal; straight or curved; thick or thin. Different types of lines can have different implications- rigid, broken, or short strokes lines can imply anger or rage, whereas smooth curved lines can allude to harmony or balance. Line can also be an indicator of motion and movement.
In Edward Munch's Scream, various lines make up the details of scene. These lines also add to the emotional impact: the lines of the sky press down on the scene as the lines of the foreground move away in various directions, and the lines that make up the head of the subject emphasize a sense of horror and anxiety.
Line is showcased in a much more simple way in Hakuin Ekaku's "Two Men Crossing a Log Bridge"; the single brushstroke of the bridge is the focal point of the scene, and the rest of the elements and characters are centered around it.
Shapes/Forms are closed or encompassing lines. Shapes can be geometric, like squares and circles; or organic, like free-form or natural shapes. Though shape and form are similar, forms are usually defined as three-dimensional shapes expressing length, width, and depth. Shape, on the other hand, is more often a two-dimensional rendition.
Piet Mondrian uses primary colors and geometric shapes in his Composition, varying the sizes and proportions of each to achieve what he called “dynamic equilibrium.”
The soft rounded forms Jean Millet's Gleaners, which echo the trees in the background, is meant to give a sense of harmony and beauty to the painting (no matter how hard the work was for the women!).
The women in Pablo Picasso's Desmoiselles d'Avignon (1907) are deliberately sharp and fragmented. Here, Picasso's purpose is to shock and unsettle the viewer with his image of women on display.
Composition refers to the arrangement of elements in a design or piece that contributes to the overall dynamism of a work and produces an ordered whole with balance and harmony.
Notice how both artworks on the right are arranged in a very specific way to call attention to various elements of the piece.
Gericault's painting uses a pyramidal composition, leading the eye to begin at the base of the raft, closest to the viewer and work up to the passenger flagging down a ship in the distance.
Wendy Red Star's photo, on the other hand, is very posed, meant to remind us of a museum diorama or exhibit, her photo also is an example of a "static" composition- though it is equally as impactful as the dramatic scene above.
Space is the area between and around objects. Real space is three-dimensional. Sculptors can create a form, but they can also use the space around the form, called negative space. In two-dimensional art, when we create the feeling or illusion of depth, we call it space.
The concept of space can be accentuated by a lack of other elements, like in de Chirico's desolate and empty scene "The Enigma of a Day", 1914.
In Asian landscapes, space is often expressed by leaving areas of silk or paper empty; in Mi Youren’s Cloudy Mountains, a scholar travels along a misty mountain path.
Space can be painted in an organized way to convey distance. Perspective gives subjects dimensionality. Linear perspective gives the illusion of space by means of parallel lines meeting at a vanishing point, or a point where lines converge. Atmospheric, or aerial perspective shows distance by changing color value, as seen on the painting on the left. Objects also appear smaller as they recede into the distance.
Pieter Breughel’s painting shows a group of hunters returning to their village; distant buildings are depicted using both linear and aerial perspective.
Asian artists often employ a stacked perspective to show distance.
This miniature from Herat, Afghanistan shows the Biblical story of Joseph trying to escape the attentions of Potiphar's wife, with each room shown stacked on top of the other.
Texture is the surface quality that can be seen and felt. Textures can be rough or smooth, soft or hard. Textures do not always feel the way they look; for example, a drawing of a porcupine may look prickly, but if you touch the drawing, the paper is still smooth.
Texture can take many forms in art- many painters, like Van Gogh, use techniques such as impasto to add texture to their works.
This highly polished face of this Kpelie mask from the Senufo of West Africa is designed to be a gleaming contrast to the rough raffia which covers the wearer.
Value defines how light or dark a given color or hue can be. Values are best understood when visualized as a scale or gradient, from dark to light.
Picasso's Guernica utilizes every shade of gray between white and black. Notice how it is reminiscent of a grayscale newspaper- this piece is a social commentary on the 1937 bombing of Guernica, a current event of the time.
Light sources can vary, from a natural light used to illuminate details of an image, or a directed light source that can be used for dramatic effect.
Rachel Ruysch is known for her floral still lifes that use natural light to highlight the details of the flowers (and insects) in her paintings.
Artemesia Gentilischi, at roughly the same time, used a dramatic light to emphasize the drama of her subject in Judith Beheading Holofernes.
The list of other elements that can be used is endless!--and often very subjective, as every viewer sees things in a different way. But here are some other terms to consider when discussing art..
Balance gives a sense of equilibrium or harmony to a composition.
Raphael's Madonna and Child with its pyramidal composition is a classical example of symmetry and balance which conveys a sense of stability.
Asymmetry can be used to give a sense of dynamism, imbalance, or even informality to a piece.
A cropped, asymmetrical composition adds a sense of dynamic energy to Ogata Korin’s screen painting of Irises.
Early modern photographers like Edward Weston intentionally cropped their images to create asymmetrical images.
Emphasis refers to an area or object in a piece that draws attention, otherwise known as the focal point. Any of the major elements or principles of art can be used to show emphasis.
An Iatmul shield from New Guinea uses the eyes (of an ancestor) to draw attention and intimidate an opponent.
Jacques-Louis David created a focal point with a clear light emphasizing the 4 central figures with their arms raised in the Oath of the Horatii.
Movement implies action as well as the passage of time.
Plains ledger drawings like this page from the Moffett Ledger often show battles between native warriors and the U.S. military.
Is this Maya ceramic of a ballplayer showing the player getting up, or kneeling down?
Or an artwork may incorporate actual motion...
Alexander Calder's mobiles were one of the first works of fine art to include actual movement.
And many ceremonial works or artifacts, like masks and regalia, are only fully understood when in motion.
This Sande society mask of the Mende people mask is just one small part of a ceremony that also includes music and movement.
Proportion refers to the relative size of parts of a whole (elements within an object). Proportion can also be studied through the amount or space taken up by one element in reference to another- otherwise known as scale.
Greek proportions are based on a mathematical system which is meant to define perfection in the human body.
The Greek definition of perfect proportions, however, is not universal. Many other cultures display their ideals of beauty and proportion in unique ways...
Egyptian tombs show very different proportions of the body.
For centuries, Indian artists used specific proportions based on the Shilpa Shastra, a Hindu text. Female figures are always in dance poses which emphasize their small waists, flared hips and full breasts.
Benin kings in Africa are always represented with large eyes to represent their spiritual and political power.
Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral warps the proportions in her painting Abaporu- notice the massive foot and leg compared to the tiny head- this figure, in particular, is meant to represent a character from Brazilian folklore.
Pattern combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular
Kehinde Wiley is known for his portraits of African-Americans in traditional art historical poses, always against a patterned background. The Lima tapestry of the Huari culture is a woven masterpiece of abstract patterns meant to represent a feline.
Repetition can be seen through a repeated object or shape. Repeating forms with some variation creates an overall rhythm that conveys a sense of unity within a piece.
Wayne Thiebaud's version of Pop art is to show arrays of delectably painted desserts. At the Inka site Machu Picchu, the stone structures echo the angles of the surrounding mountains.
Native California basket weavers are known for their repeating motifs and rhythmic patterns which reflect the landscape around them.
Unity in an artwork can be achieved in many ways--with repetition of forms, patterns, color palette, and even theme.
Diego Rivera emulated Renaissance artists in his fresco cycle of Mexican history. The Great City of Tenochtitlan shows the sophistication, size and unity of the Aztec empire in a massive mural teeming with figures, all in the same rounded forms and earthy color palette.
James Lavadour is known for his compilation of small landscapes, each one a different place he has visited. He achieves repetition and unity not through color or form, but theme.
As you can see, medium, color, form, line, shape, space, texture, value, proportion, balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity are just some of the vocabulary that can be used when viewing, discussing, and analyzing art. But it is by no means complete! Add (or subtract) terms that you think are relevant to understand the arts around you.