- Laurie Seban
Elements of Style in the Visual Arts
Updated: Mar 21
Overview: Discussion of terms used in the formal analysis of visual arts.
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 visual elements of style, like color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value, are also employed, and contribute to the meaning of the work. Other principles of design can be employed as well, including proportion, balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity.
Medium refers to the material used as an art form. There are many types of media: stone, wood, ceramics, fresco, and mosaics 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/media: Venus of Willendorf, c. 25,000 BCE, stone; Catal Huyuk Turkey c. 7500 BCE, Moche peanut necklace 5th c, gold/silver; Barbara Cerno, Acoma Pueblo pottery; Safavid carpet, Persia 16th century; Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, oil paint; Kathe Kollwitz, The People, 1922 print; Man Ray, Glass Tears 1932 photography; Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway, 1995 electronic art; Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Valley Floor 1972 land-based art, Yinka Shonibare, Scramble for Africa 2003, installation; Singsing dancer from Papua New Guinea
Subject is the topic of the work, often conveyed in the title. Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asniers (1884) is an example of a clear subject: bathers on a riverbank in 19th century Paris. Theme is the underlying subject or narrative. It can be obvious in a piece, or it can be hidden behind the imagery. shows a common theme at the time: leisure in the modern city.
The purpose or function of an artwork is the intended use or intentional meaning of the artwork. The purpose can be obvious, as in a pottery vessel--or a painting intended to hang on a wall. There can be more than one purpose, though. An artwork can contain more subtle political, or social commentary. Additional context is key: historical, social, cultural, even biographical information is what gives a comprehensive understanding of the purpose and impact of any artwork.
The ostensible purpose of Seurat's Bathers above was to provide a window into the pleasures of modern life for his wealthy patrons. But a deeper look at Seurat's life and the social context also provides insight into his attempt to show the inequalities of life at the time. Look closely 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.
Context is key to understanding any artwork--it explains not just the subject, but also the more subtle functions and themes specific to each culture or artistic period. Each of the following works all have a sacred function, but with very different subjects and themes.
The 3rd century Buddha from Gandhara (modern day Afghanistan) was meant to convey the sanctity of the Buddha and his teachings. The male-female couple is from the Dogon of Mali; In Africa, a deep reverence for ancestors is common. Giotto's altarpiece of Madonna and Child Enthroned (1297) showing the Virgin Mary and Christ as the two most important figures in Christianity, is typical of sacred works found in Christian churches at the time.
Anyone can make something that is later designated as "art." But an artist creating a work for others chooses to use visual elements in a certain way, according to their culture and time period--this makes up what we call style. We perceive objects according to our own cultural values, as well as our conscious or unconscious understanding of those visual elements. Those elements used most commonly in the arts are below, though it is just a fraction of the sophisticated concepts artists will use.
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.
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 magenta, vermilion, amber, chartreuse, teal, and violet.
Roy Lichtenstein used primary colors in paintings like In the Car (1963) to mimic the effect of comic books.
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, 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 (1897), 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 direct way in Hakuin Ekaku's Two Men Crossing a Log Bridge (18th century); 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, shape is more often a two-dimensional rendition. Forms, on the other hand,are usually defined as three-dimensional shapes expressing length, width, and depth
Piet Mondrian uses primary colors and geometric shapes in his Composition with Red, Blue and White (1930), varying the sizes and proportions of each to achieve what he called “dynamic equilibrium.”
The soft rounded forms of Jean Millet's Gleaners (1857), which echo the trees in the background, are 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 Raft of the Medusa (1819) uses a pyramidal composition, which leads the eye from the base of the raft closest to the viewer towards the passenger flagging down a ship in the distance.
Wendy Red Star's Fall from her Four Seasons series (2006), on the other hand, is very posed, meant to remind us of a museum diorama or exhibit. Her photo s an example of a "static" composition, though it is 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 12th century Cloudy Mountains, a scholar travels along a misty mountain path.
Negative space can also be an element in art. Henry Moore's Recumbent Figure (1938) is a study in organic form, pierced by a hole. Moore famously said "a hole can have as much shape as a solid mass."
Space can be painted in an organized way to convey distance; perspective is the organized means of giving scenes this feeling of three-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. Objects also appear smaller (and lighter) as they recede into the distance. Pieter Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow (1565) shows a group of hunters returning to their village; distant buildings are depicted using both linear and aerial perspective.
Asian and Middle Eastern artists often employ a stacked perspective to show distance.
This miniature from Herat, Afghanistan shows camels and cattle at a watering hole. Space is conveyed by stacking the perspective: figures and camel in the front foreground, the tent and cattle in the middle ground, and the trees and rocks in the background.
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.
Van Gogh used techniques such as impasto to add texture and a feeling of emotion to Starry Night (1884).
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. Early 20th century sculptor Constantin Brancusi, very much influenced by tribal arts, made a practice of juxtaposing different textures in his individual artworks and his studio arrangements. The Atelier Brancusi is a museum today; here you can see his artful arrangements of metal, stone, marble, and wood.
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 monumental Guernica (1937) 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 natural light used to illuminate details of an image, or a directed light source that can be used for dramatic effect. 17th century artist 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 (1625).
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 harmony to a composition. Raphael's Madonna and Child (1505) with its pyramidal composition is a classic example of symmetry and balance, which imbues the painting with a feeling of serenity and 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 18th century screen painting Irises.
Early modern photographers like Edward Weston intentionally cropped their images to create asymmetrical portraits of everyday objects. Cabbage Leaf (1931) is meant to be a study of form instead of a photograph of a vegetable.
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.
A 20th century Iatmul shield from New Guinea uses the eyes (of an ancestor) to draw attention and intimidate an opponent.
Jacques-Louis David used light to emphasize the four central figures with their arms raised in the Oath of the Horatii (1787).
Movement implies action as well as the passage of time. Is this Maya ceramic of a ballplayer (8th-9th century) 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. The carefully balanced arms of Untitled (1937) create a constantly changing composition of forms.
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 from Sierra Leone in Africa is just one small part of a ceremony that also includes music and movement.
When the same mask is stripped of its original context, it looks very different!
Here, you can see the visual elements important to the Mende: a smooth face, small mouth, large symmetrical eyes, and an elaborate hairdo.
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. The Greek definition of perfect proportions, however, is not universal; Egyptian tombs show very different proportions of the body.
Greek proportions are based on a mathematical system that was meant to define perfection in the human body--for Greeks, though today the standards you see in popular culture are remarkably similar.
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. Parvati, the Hindu Goddess of love, is poised to take another step in this 11th century bronze from the Chola dynasty
In the center image, you can see how 16th-19th century Benin kings in Africa are always represented with large eyes to represent their spiritual and political power. As another strategy, Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral warps the proportions in her painting Abaporu (1928); notice the massive foot and leg compared to the tiny head- this figure, in particular, is meant to represent a character from Brazilian folklore.
Patterns are combinations of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular
arrangement. The Lima tapestry of the Huari culture (700-1100) is a woven masterpiece of abstract patterns meant to represent a feline.
Kehinde Wiley is known for his portraits of African-Americans in traditional art historical poses, always against a patterned background. In Untitled (2012), two young men in contemporary clothes mimic the pose of earlier European portratis--Wiley's purpose is to create a space for African Americans in the canon of art portraiture.
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 repeating rows of delectably painted desserts.
At the 14th century 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. Unity is particularly important in large or complex works because it helps the viewer take in the entirety of the work. Diego Rivera emulated Renaissance artists in his fresco cycle of Mexican history. His Great City of Tenochtitlan (1945-52) shows the grandeur of the Aztec empire in a massive mural teeming with figures. The repeating rounded forms and earthy color palette give a sense of unity to a very complex composition.
James Lavadour is a Native American artist from the Walla Walla tribe 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. Expecting Rain (2020) is at once universal (especially out West!) and at the same time specific to the places around his homeland.
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.