Elements of Art

There are a number of elements every artist can choose from when they make their art. They may draw a line, make shapes, add shading to create depth, use colour, arrange the picture in a particular way on the page, use tones, create or diminish space. When writing about art, it is important to be aware of all these elements and comment on them in your essay, giving both a description as well as saying something about the effect it has. This section gives an overview of 7 elements and some writing exercises. There are also individual posts on the elements – so take a look at those too.

1. Line

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continuous line self-portrait

Line – enough said?

A simple line is just a simple line, isn’t it? Not much to say! Well, that’s where you would be wrong! Line might be the most simple and basic feature an artist uses, but there is a lot to say about it.

Let’s consider two things: i) describing the line; ii) writing about the effects of the line.

i) Describing the Line:

  • width – thick, thin, bold, pale
  • direction – straight, curved, diagonal
  • quality – continuous, broken, smooth, jagged
  • Different kinds of Line: outlines/contour lines; hatch lines; crosshatch lines

ii) Effects of the line:

  • movement, dynamic, fluid
  • sturdy, rigid,
  • expressive – calm, anger, jarring, serene
  • delicate, confident

So much can be said just about Line!

FIRST – LOOK! It is really, really important always to look at the Artwork and keep looking! Everything you write has to have its basis in the actual Artwork. That might sound very basic, but it’s easy to get carried away with what we think we have seen, rather than comment on what is actually in the Artwork.

SECOND – WHAT IS NOT THERE? In choosing to draw a line in one way, the artist has decided against creating the line in another way. That is worth mentioning.

Artists such as Picasso has made some delightful Artworks just using line. Michael Craig-Martin also has done some interesting things with line – superimposing one outline on another in his Artworks in the 1980’s. See https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/howtowriteaboutart.com/119

Artists who do book illustrations can use line predominantly, to great effect. See the effect that John Minton created https://wordpress.com/post/howtowriteaboutart.com/325 as well as the work of Brian Wildsmith https://wordpress.com/post/howtowriteaboutart.com/205

2. Shape

When you are analysing a piece of Art and writing about it you can comment on the shapes in the work, describing them, as well as saying something about the effect they have. Put simply, a shape is an enclosed area in two dimensions, having height and width but not depth. It is created by enclosing an area, and this can be done with an outline, surrounding an area with other shapes or placing textures in particular positions. We might categorise shapes into geometric shapes and organic shapes.

Description: Geometric shapes: – mathematical shapes that are perfect and regular: straight lines, angles, points, circle.

Effect of Geometric shapes: gives a sense of balance, order, repetitive; can highlight that something is a human creation/invention, artificial, uniform. These shapes can also convey emotions that might be hard and harsh – jagged lines for a disquiet atmosphere

Description: Organic shapes: shapes occurring in nature, irregular; curves, flowing, variation

Effect of Organic shape: gives a sense of uniqueness, unrepeatability, not repetitive, natural and therefore ‘true’. These shapes can also convey emotions such as calmness, serenity, love, peace.

LOOK : make sure that you look closely at the Artwork so that you can describe elements accurately, and also think about how it makes you feel – what are the effects, and write that down too.

Think about the effect that Picasso creates through the use of organic shapes and geometric shapes in his two paintings The Dream, and The Weeping Woman. See my post ‘Shape: Weeping and Dreaming’. https://howtowriteaboutart.com/2020/08/28/shapes-dreaming-and-weeping/

3. Form

An artist will use techniques to create objects that look three-dimensional on the flat, two-dimensional surface. This creates Form. While Shapes have the two dimensions of length and width, Form creates a sense of depth and volume. An example of this is when the Shape of a circle, looking flat like a disc, is given volume by the use of tones or shading by which it becomes a Form.

4. Space

Space is the area that surrounds objects. Photographers capture space and architects build space but in painting space is created as an illusion, transforming the two-dimensional surface to appear to contain a three-dimensional scene.

Space can be conveyed by linear perspective, which was an innovation in Western art in the fifteenth-century, which helps the picture appear to have depth. It is as if the viewer is looking through a window onto the scene. By having a vanishing point, where the lines in a painting converge in one place, and by painting nearer objects larger than distant objects, an illusion of three-dimensional space is created. Atmospheric perspective is created through the contrast of strong colours in the foreground and paler colours in the background: this is particularly important in landscape painting. Have a look at how I used this: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/howtowriteaboutart.com/273

Negative space is the space around objects, and positive space is the space taken up by objects. Click here for an example: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/howtowriteaboutart.com/278

Non-linear perspective is a flatter use of pictorial space, found in the traditions of many non-Western cultures. Space is created through overlapping objects, making objects different sizes or objects placed vertically to convey distance. In such works, vantage points are created rather than vanishing points.

Overturning linear space. At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists such as Picasso and Braque developed a new sense of space by amalgamating different points of view and light sources, and presenting their subject matter in many ways at once, shifting the foreground, middle ground and background.

See John Minton’s illustrations and an analysis of his creation of space https://howtowriteaboutart.com/2020/11/15/space-and-substance/

5. Value and Contrast

Value is the degree of lightness or darkness created by an artist in their work; the difference between values is called value contrast. The lightest value is white and the darkest value is black. Placing lighter areas of value against much darker ones creates a dynamic effect, which can be used deliberately by the artist. Low contrast can give a much more subtle, much less dynamic effect which could be used intentionally by an artist to convey mood and create an atmosphere. The Italian term chiaroscuro refers specifically to the use of light and dark in a piece of art – and the Baroque painter, Caravaggio used this technique with consummate skill.

6. Colour

A whole array of emotions can be conveyed and evoked through the use of colour alone, by using different hues, different values and different intensities. Colour can be used symbolically, to create a pattern or to convey a specific mood. Colour theory is the study of colour in art and design, and it categorises colour into primary [red, blue and yellow], secondary[orange, green, and violet] and tertiary [obtained by mixing one primary colour and one secondary colour]. White and black are not considered colours and can be used to lighten a colour by adding white [called a tint], or to make a colour darker by adding black [called a shade].

Hans Hofmann used colour in a distinctive way – referred to as the ‘push and pull’ theory whereby he created depth in pictures just through playing off the dynamics of one colour against another. See https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/howtowriteaboutart.com/299

7. Texture

Texture is the look and feel of a surface. Some art movements have tried to create little texture, thinking that smoothness and invisible brush strokes is the measure of excellence. Many modern artists, however, have positively exploited textures to create effects and to reveal the painterliness of their art.

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