Today you’ll learn precisely what the elements of art are and how these basic ingredients are used to create a work of art. You’ll start off with a basic list format and ultimately be taken through a multitude of examples including tons of shareable graphics. I’m also going to share my opinions on why I believe the most widely accepted wisdom in this field needs a slight change.
So how many elements are there? My art teacher claims there’s seven but I’ve read online there’s only 5 elements. What’s going on here?
Note: The elements of art and the elements of design are the same thing. Each phrase is synonymous with one another. As an art student or art teacher you’ll probably come across both terms. In this post we’ll mostly be defining them as the “elements of art”. Once in a while I might use the term “elements of design” just for variety!
Elements of Art = Elements of Design = Design Elements (all synonyms)
How Many Art Elements Are There?
That really depends on who you ask. Most art education textbooks and therefor art teachers work from a list of 7 elements. If you look them up on the internet you’ll often encounter only 5.
Whether 7 or 5 each list contains the same items, they are just organized differently to include sub-components.
Shape & Form are considered close enough as a visual concept to be included together in the case for five elements of art. Also, value is really a part of color and should be listed as a sub-component of color and not constitute a main element on its own. The following is the most common lists of art elements you’ll encounter.
By the way, we’ll be describing each element in greater depth and each definition will be accompanied by multiple photo references.
7 Elements of Art
5 Elements of Art
- Shape & Form
Now that you’re acquainted with the seven and five art elements I’d like to propose another approach.
A Case for 4 Art Elements!
I’d like to propose a new idea. In the spirit of building a pure hierarchy that makes logical sense. There really only needs to be 4 elements of art. That’s right…I said four! Hear me out and I’ll show you reasons why the most common art elements lists are illogical (especially the 7 elements listed above)…
Shape and form should really be considered a sub-component of space.
- Shape is a two-dimensionally enclosed space.
- Form is the three-dimensional space that an object occupies.
You see? Whether 2D or 3D, occupied or empty, space is really just space.
How about another area for improvement?
Value is one of the three properties of color so listing it as its own art element is silly.
My Proposal for 4 Elements of Art and their breakdown looks like this:
4 Elements of Art
Now folks, that is about as logical as it gets. Will I convince the rest of the art world to adopt this hierarchy? Doubtful, but at least I tried. If I can get a few minds thinking rationally then it’s been worth it!
( I was tempted to include line in the space category because line is really just a one-dimensional space, but that’s more of a mathematical definition, rather than an art definition.)
Okay… I’ve put my 2 cents in so let’s get to the good stuff…
What Are These Elements (and what makes them so special)?
Art can often be very confusing to students looking to learn how to draw, paint or even sculpt. There’s so many vocabulary words used inconsistently by various art professionals and instructors alike.
The Elements of Design are a way to instill a little bit of commonality between all forms of visual art. Whether that is two-dimensional art or three-dimensional art forms. These basic components of art allow us to describe a work of art in a more precise way.
Think of these art elements as the visual building blocks for all visual art forms.
Think about that for a moment… Anytime you are creating something you are using one, if not many of the elements.
Getting Started: A Few Simple Examples
Before we start defining them individually let’s run through a quick example to demonstrate what I mean:
If you were to start drawing you would immediately be working with line. Once you start to shade in your drawing your end up with value.
Want a quick 3-D example? Try this… If you were to throw a vase on a potter’s wheel you are working with form and the clay body has a certain texture to it.
Now that you have a small understanding of how the elements of visual art are used in everyday art we can dive deeper into each element’s definition.
Making Informed Observations
It’s important to remember that the elements of design (art) are seldom used in isolation. They often work together in a drawing, painting or any other type of art. In fact many of the elements cannot exist without one another. For example, you’ll never notice a shape unless it is outlined or is filled in solid with a different color.
Defining the Elements of Art
Don’t forget, the elements are nothing more than the visual building blocks for art-making.
If art was cooking the elements of art would be the ingredients!
Element of Art: Line
A line is a continuous mark made on a surface defined by a point moving through space. A line is an discernible path that divides up the artwork’s space in some fashion.
Lines can have many properties. As a simple entity, line has width, length, and direction. Sometimes a line’s thickness is referred to as its “stroke” especially in computer programs aimed at drawing and photo editing.
In a mathematical sense a line is one-dimensional. If anything was truly one-dimensional in a piece of art you wouldn’t be able to see it. So really, when we investigate it further lines must contain a small amount of width in order for us to actually see them.
Besides the most obvious properties just discussed, lines can exhibit more complicated and interesting qualities. They can be curved, straight, horizontal, vertical or diagonal. Lines can also be thick, thin or of variable thickness. And still yet lines can be continuous or broken.
Some of the most interesting use of line comes from its implied use. Certain aspects in a work of art can “lead” the view’s eye along a path.
Element of Art: Shape
Element of Art: Form
Element of Art: Color
Color is what you see when looking at objects under light. It’s your brain’s mental image or response to certain wavelengths of light reflected off the objects around you.
Even though there is a science to color, what you are seeing is really all made up in your own mind. However, what’s made up is a direct response to the reality before you. This reality being the rays of “light” striking an object’s surface and bouncing off that surface and finally striking your eye. Here, light is actually the electromagnetic radiation in the visible light spectrum.
There are 3 properties that make up a color.
Just to be clear there a many synonyms for these terms. Saturation is also referred to as “intensity” or “chroma”. Value is sometimes referred to as “lightness”, “brightness” or even “tone”. If you’re interested in art you really should get familiar with color’s three properties. Let’s briefly outline each property and look at some examples.
A color’s hue defines where that color exists on the color wheel. Hue is what gives color its name. For example: something that appears blue is from the blue area of the color spectrum. Remember, the color wheel is nothing more than the color spectrum formed into a circle.
A color’s hue is a direct result of the wavelength(s) of light reflecting off an object’s surface. Certain materials (different pigments) reflect/favor specific ranges of visible light and our brain informs us of these changes by allowing us to see things as different hues!
Value describes the brightness of color. Value is a measurement of how light or dark a color is. To understand a color’s value it is helpful to remove saturation and hue. You can observe a color’s value by taking a photograph and converting the photograph to a grayscale image.
The saturation of a color is a measure of how pure or vivid a color is. Also referred to as a color’s intensity or chroma ( Munsell system of color), saturation describes just how dull a color is. When a color appears dull and grayish it is a color with low saturation. When a color is vivid looking you are seeing a color that is saturated.
The image below demonstrates how colors can have different saturations. Both The yellow ochre (on the left) and the Cadmium Yellow Light (on the right) are yellow hues but where they contrast greatly is in their saturation levels. The Cadmium Yellow is much more saturated than the Yellow Ochre.
Color Changes: Some Final Observations
Once you gain an understanding of color, especially through pigment mixing in a medium such as painting, you’ll soon realize that hue, value, and saturation are intimately related. Each color component although defined independent of one another has a direct influence upon each other.
Once you alter one component of color you’ll find that you have also altered another.
Let’s illustrate this principle by looking at a simple example involving paint. If you have red paint on your palette and lighten it up with white you would be changing the red’s value. But, you are at the same time reducing the red paint’s saturation. Remember a color’s saturation is a measure of its purity. Red + White = less than 100% red!
Advanced Painting Tip!
Adding titanium white to any warm color also adjusts its hue as well because titanium white favors the blue spectrum. It is not purely neutral as we’d like to think! You’ll only notice this hue change in extreme examples.
To illustrate this point using a different color, take a look below at this paint string I mixed up using Raw Umber and Titanium White. It shows what happens when you mix a warm, low-saturation color with titanium white. Moving across the swatches from left to right you can see the value getting lighter as expected. But you can also observe the raw umber getting grayer and greener.
Raw umber which is a very low-saturation yellow starts to turn grayish-green when you add titanium white to it.
This is because titanium white is not actually pure white. Although titanium dioxide, the pigment used to make most modern white paints IS the brightest white available it favors the cooler side of the spectrum. Yep, it’s nothing more than a really, really, really, light blue-ish color. That’s why you get greenish colors when you mix yellow colors with titanium white. Or you get neutral colors when working with oranges!
Element of Art: Value
It’s redundant to list value as its own element of art because value is a subcomponent of color. You will find, however, that most art books and therefor art teachers include value as its own element of art.
To demonstrate how silly their logic is let’s use a simple example:
Take a look at how scientists classify vertebrates from the animal kingdom. We have: Amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, etc… We don’t suddenly give frogs their own class (Frogs are a sub-group of amphibians). That would be ridiculous wouldn’t it?
If we were classifying styles of homes we could start generating a list of categories like: tudor, colonial, ranch, cape cod, etc. We wouldn’t add “bedroom” to this list of categories would we? Yet that is precisely what we are doing when we include color AND value as their own distinct art elements.
Element of Art: Space
Space is the element of art that refers to the area between, around, or within things. Space can be 2D or 3D. Space is everywhere and is sometimes even forgotten. A chair in a room occupies a certain three-dimensional space but the “empty” space around the chair is also a space.
A shape can be defined as a two-dimensionally enclosed space. Shape is defined by other visual elements of design such as line, color, or texture. Shape is flat and contains height and width but no depth.
Shapes can be either geometric or organic.
Geometric shapes are 2D spaces that are very precise and mechanical looking. Examples of geometric shapes are circles, rectangles, triangles, or any polygon really.
When drawing geometric shapes you’ll typically be using some kind of tool such as a straight edge or compass.
We can see geometric shapes throughout most of the architecture we see around us.
Organic shapes are 2D spaces that are more free-form in their appearance. Unlike a geometric shape, an organic shape looks more hand-drawn and less precise.
It comes as no surprise that you’ll find tons of organic shapes throughout nature. Nature is rarely made up of perfectly straight lines and precisely calculated angles.
Form is the three-dimensional space that an object occupies. Form contains height, width, and depth.
Three-dimensional forms can be seen from more than one side, such as this sculpture I saw on the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic. I thought it was interesting how the sculptor included a curious dog in the sculpture. (You can see the dog peering, curiously into the gated arch).
It’s important to note that in the disciplines of two-dimensional art such as drawing and painting, form is implied and nothing more than an illusion. When we describe the “form” in a drawing we are really describing the illusion of form. This is the case because a drawing is flat.
Positive & Negative Space
You can’t go for very long in the field of art without hearing about positive and negative space. But what are they?
Positive Space is the space occupied by any element or subject matter while Negative Space is the space around the positive space. Please note that both negative and positive space can be 2D or 3D. They are also subject to the element being referenced.
Often when describing the large-scale space created by artwork (usually illusiory space in drawings and paintings) we refer to the various distances as “grounds”. Grounds are the groups of items that appear to be at similar distances in the work of art. While artwork can have unlimited amounts of grounds the three most common terms you’ll hear discussed are:
- Foreground: The area(s) closest to the viewer.
- Middle Ground: The area(s) in between the foreground and the background.
- Background: The area(s) farthest away from the viewer.
Element of Art: Texture
Texture in art is its surface quality in whole or part of. Texture describes how something feels when touched or in the case of most 2D works how something would appear to feel. As a result, texture can be actual or implied (simulated).
Art teachers love to teach the elements of art. The elements have been a nice way to apply a small amount of standardization in a field that can otherwise be really difficult to quantify.
Art is not as finite as math. Well actually, one can exhibit creativity within mathematics and artists can be very mathematical and logical in their own right. But, that’s another topic for another time.
The point is, you’re likely to encounter the elements of art in one form or another if you are involved in drawing, painting, design, sculpture or any visually creative field in any academic sense. Knowing the elements of art won’t instantly make you a better artist. They are simply a means of identifying some visual aspects of artwork.
Familiarity with the elements of art will help you break-down artwork into simpler to understand components and understand how the artwork is made. So that’s definitely a step in the right direction if you’re looking to increase your artistic awareness.
The Visual Experience 3rd Ed. Hobbs, Salome, Vieth Davis Publications
Exploring Painting 3rd Ed. Brommers & Kinne Davis Publications
Exploring Visual Design 3rd Ed. Gatto, Porter, Selleck