Elements and Principles of Art
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
The elements of art are the building blocks used by artists to create a work of art. Traditionally, there are 7 basic elements to produce a strong piece: medium, color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value. In addition to the elements of art, the principles of art and design are a set of tools used by artists to explain how visual elements of a piece are arranged successfully. They include: balance, emphasis, harmony, movement, pattern, proportion, repetition, rhythm, and unity.
Other important terms to consider when discussing or examining art include:
Medium refers to the material used or incorporated in a work of art. There are many types of media: acrylics, oil, paper, bronze, mixed media, etc.
images and mediums (top right, left):
-"Female Head", 1490 by Leonardo da Vinci, chalk
-"Glass Tears", 1932 by Man Ray, photography
-"Trade (Gifts for Trading Land With White People)", 1992 by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, collage/assemblage
-"The Girl with Green Eyes", 1908 by Henri Matisse, oil paint
-Close up from "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa", 1647-52 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, marble sculpture
Theme is the overall subject or narrative being displayed. A theme can be obvious in a piece, such as many religious scenes or narratives, 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. Renaissance works often had religious themes, like Raphael's"Madonna of the Meadow", 1506, which features the Mary the mother of Christ, along with Christ and John the Baptist.
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. These values are often expressed through light and shadow in art.
Primary colors are the only true colors (red, blue, and yellow). All other colors are mixes of primary colors.
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.
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.
(color palettes from invaluable.com "5 Art Movements & Their Painters’ Palettes")
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 a indicator of motion and movement.
In Munch's "Scream" lithograph, lines make up the details and variations in environment in the scene. These lines also add to the drama of the scene.
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.”
Georgia O’Keefe’s close-ups of flowers were meant to emphasize the abstraction of their forms.
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 left are arranged in a very specific way to call attention to various elements of the piece.
Gericault's painting uses a pyramidal composition, forcing to 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; in visual art, when we create the feeling or illusion of depth, we call it space. The space around objects is often called negative space.
The concept of space can 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- or perspective...
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 and receding depths (often seen in changing colors or values) as seen on the painting on the left.
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 (click on the image on the right to see a close-up of Van Gogh's strokes in "Starry Night"). Texture can also be implied- or not physically raised- through many drawing and painting techniques.
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.
The texture of Anatsui’s monumental “textile,” made of bottle caps, is best appreciated close up.
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 raking light to emphasize the drama of her subject.
Principles of Design
Balance gives a sense of equilibrium and completion to a composition.
Asymmetry can be used to give a sense of dynamism or even informality to a piece.
A cropped, asymmetrical composition adds a sense of dynamic energy to Ogata Korin’s screen painting of Irises.
The rounded forms of peasants arrayed across the foreground in Millet’s Gleaners give a sense of balance and stability to the composition.
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.
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.
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.
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...
Benin kings are always represented with large eyes to represent their spiritual and political power.
Hindu apsara figures are always in dance poses which emphasize their small waists, flared hips and full breasts.
Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral warps the proportions in many of her painting- notice the massive foot and leg compared to the tiny head- this figure in particular is meant to represent a character from Brazilian folklore.
Repetition can be seen through a repeated object or shape. This principles often goes hand in hand with pattern, but can be much more subtle.
Wayne Thiebaud's version of Pop art is to show arrays of delectably painted desserts.
The Inka site Machu Picchu the stone structures echo the angles of the surrounding mountains.
Harmony or Unity is achieved by using similar elements within the composition and placing them in a way that brings them all together. Harmonious colors or forms are one of the easiest ways to note this principle in practice.
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 soft color palette.
Yayoi Kusama's repeated polkadots on various forms are a great example of harmony (as well as repetition and unity) and they have an almost hypnotic rhythmic effect.
Rhythm is a combination of elements repeated, but with variations. It allows the elements to come together in a harmonious unity.
Native California basket weavers are known for their rhythmic patterns and decorations which reflect the landscape around them.
GeoRutherford.com: a great personal website that has pdfs and slides depicting the elements and principles of art.