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Elements & Principles of Art

The elements and principles of art and design are the foundation of the language we use to talk about art. The elements of art are the visual tools that the artist uses to create a composition. These are line, shape, color, value, form, texture, and space.

The principles of art represent how the artist uses the elements of art to create an effect and to help convey the artist's intent. The principles of art and design are balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity/variety. The use of these principles can help determine whether a painting is successful, and whether or not the painting is finished.

The artist decides what principles of art he or she wants to use in a painting. While an artist might not use all the principles of design in one piece, the principles are intertwined and the use of one will often depend on another. For example, when creating emphasis, the artist might also be using contrast or vice versa. It is generally agreed that a successful painting is unified, while also having some variety created by areas of contrast and emphasis; is visually balanced; and moves the viewer's eye around the composition. Thus it is that one principle of art can influence the effect and impact of another. 

The 7 principles of art

  • Balance refers to the visual weight of the elements of the composition. It is a sense that the painting feels stable and "feels right." Imbalance causes a feeling of discomfort in the viewer.

      Balance can be achieved in 3 different ways: 

  1. Symmetry, in which both sides of a composition have the same elements in the same position, as in a mirror-image, or the two sides of a face.

  2. Asymmetry, in which the composition is balanced due to the contrast of any of the elements of art. For example, a large circle on one side of a composition might be balanced by a small square on the other side

  3. Radial symmetry, in which elements are equally spaced around a central point, as in the spokes coming out of the hub of a bicycle tire.

          See the article, Balance, for some visual examples of how the elements of art can be used to achieve balance.

 

  • Contrast is the difference between elements of art in a composition, such that each element is made stronger in relation to the other. When placed next to each other, contrasting elements command the viewer's attention. Areas of contrast are among the first places that a viewer's eye is drawn. Contrast can be achieved by juxtapositions of any of the elements of art. Negative/Positive space is an example of contrast. Complementary colors placed side by side is an example of contrast. Notan is an example of contrast. 

 

  • Emphasis is when the artist creates an area of the composition that is visually dominant and commands the viewer's attention. This is often achieved by contrast.

 

  • Movement is the result of using the elements of art such that they move the viewer's eye around and within the image. A sense of movement can be created by diagonal or curvy lines, either real or implied, by edges, by the illusion of space, by repetition, by energetic mark-making. 

 

  • Pattern is the uniform repetition of any of the elements of art or any combination thereof. Anything can be turned into a pattern through repetition. Some classic patterns are spirals, grids, weaves. For examples of different pattern types see the Artlandia Glossary of Pattern Design. A popular drawing practice isZentangles, in which an abstract or representational outline is divided into different areas, each of which contains a unique pattern.

 

  • Rhythm is created by movement implied through the repetition of elements of art in a non-uniform but organized way. It is related to rhythm in music. Unlike pattern, which demands consistency, rhythm relies on variety.

 

  • Unity/Variety You want your painting to feel unified such that all the elements fit together comfortably. Too much unity creates monotony, too much variety creates chaos.You need both. Ideally, you want areas of interest in your composition along with places for your eye to rest. 

The 7 Elements of Art

     The elements of art are sort of like atoms in that both serve as "building blocks" for creating something. You know that atoms combine and form other things. Sometimes they'll casually make a simple molecule, as when hydrogen and oxygen form water (H2O). If hydrogen and oxygen take a more aggressive career path and bring carbon along as a co-worker, together they might form something more complex, like a molecule of sucrose (C12H22O11).

     A similar activity happens when the elements of art are combined. Instead of elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, in art you have these building blocks:

  1. Line- A line is an identifiable path created by a point moving in space.  Line is one-dimensional and can vary in width, direction and length.

  2. Shape- A Shape is a line that is “closed”.  They have an interior (inside) and an exterior (outside).  All shapes are two-dimensional, meaning that they have only length and width.

  3. Form- Form describes objects in three-dimensional space.  All forms have, height, width  and depth.

  4. Space- Space is the area between and around objects. It describes how the artist uses the area to arranges things within a picture.

  5. Texture  Texture is another element, like form or space, that can be real (run your fingers over an Oriental rug, or hold an unglazed pot), created (think of van Gogh's lumpy, impasto-ed canvases) or implied (through clever use of shading).

  6. Value- Value is the darkness or lightness of a color.  When dealing with pure color (hue), value can be affected by adding white or black to a color.

  7. Color- Color is the element of art that refers to reflected light.  Over many years, artists and scientists together have created general theories about how colors work together in art.  This is called Color theory.

   

      Artists manipulate these seven elements, mix them in with principles of design, and compose a piece of art. Not every work of art contains every one of these elements, but at least two are always present.

For example, a sculptor, by default, has to have both form and space in a sculpture, because these elements are three-dimensional. They can also be made to appear in two-dimensional works through the use of perspective and shading.

      Art would be sunk without line, sometimes known as "a moving point." While line isn't something found in nature, it is absolutely essential as a concept to depicting objects and symbols, and defining shapes.

Why Are the Elements of Art Important?

      The elements of art are important for several reasons. First, and most importantly, a person can't create art without utilizing at least a few of them. No elements, no art—end of story. And we wouldn't even be talking about any of this, would we?

      Secondly, knowing what the elements of art are enables us to (1) describe what an artist has done, (2) analyze what is going on in a particular piece and (3) communicate our thoughts and findings using a common language.

 

     Musicians can talk about the key of "A," and they all know it means "a pitch relating to 440 oscillations per second of vibration." Mathematicians may use the very basic word "algorithm" and feel confident that most people know they mean "a step-by-step procedure for carrying out computation." Botanists world-wide will employ the name "rosa rugosa," rather than the much longer "that old-fashioned shrub rose - you know, the one that leaves hips in the fall - with the five-petaled flowers that can be yellow, white, red or pink." These are all specific examples of a common language coming in handy for intelligent (and shortened) discourse.

 

     So it is with the elements of art. Once you know what the elements are, you can trot them out, time after time, and never put a wrong foot forward in the art world.


     The elements of art are both fun and useful. Remember ​line, shape, form, space, texture, value and color. Knowing these elements will allow you to analyze, appreciate, write and chat about art, as well as being of help should you create art yourself.