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Understanding the elements of art

Appreciating art is similar to understanding something that is read. There is a need to understand the language of the narrative in order to interpret its meaning. Art cannot be fully understood unless there is familiarity with some basic principles of art and how this affects interpretation. 


Several principles of viewing art remain true when observing old masters or the contemporary works of today. Whether they are in a historical building or online, the principles are the same and have been for thousands of years.


It can take time and effort to learn how to view art properly, but it is well worth the energy. There are a number of elements of art that we can turn to.


Focal point

Photo of a hot air balloon on the edge of a lake with forest and sky behind it. The balloon is colourful and centred, a good example of focal point.
Photo of a hot air balloon showing focal point, Manik Rathee

A focal point directs the eye of the viewer to a specific area of the art and gives the eye a place to rest, and it will be repeatedly returned to by the viewer. Point of view refers to where the art observer stands in relation to the scene shown in the scene of representational art. Together, the focal point and the point of view determine how the viewer engages with the art, and both are intentionally created by the artist.


Colour and value 


Colour and value are some of the most relatable and intentional elements that artists use. Value refers to the amount of light and dark. Colour and its corresponding value can be used to infuse depth, create shapes and manipulate perspective with varying colour intensity of brightness and dullness (saturation). These emotional contributions can bring about mood and personality while analogously softening colours and stark intensity with complementary colours and specific value attenuation. The combinations and applications of colour create values that are dramatic and subtle to guide the observer to an illusionary interpretation of the piece. 


An image of a branch of soft leaves with soft hues of pink, blue, orange, and purple blurring the line between image and background.
Branch in Bloom, Social Wesley

All colours start from the primary hues of yellow, blue and red, and the artist makes various assimilations of them to create the desired colour value within their art. To benefit from the artist’s colour choices, the viewer should identify the colours as presented, carefully study the colours as grouped or in contrast and relate them to the nearby colours and values within the piece. Contemplating how colours and values affect art interpretation and how they accentuate or highlight specific elements is key to maximum appreciation of these colour and value choices.


Wild Tulip, by William Morris 1884. A linework piece of tulips with colour only on the flowers in the centre.
Wild Tulip, William Morris 1884

Line work


Lines in art include both descriptive lines as presenting an actual object, and expressive, free-flowing lines that are not found in nature but show emotion. The depth, brevity and style of lines directly relate to what the artist is communicating. Both in representational and abstract art, lines are used in various patterns and striations to create a particular feeling. Descriptive lines show the actual lines to present a shape or image as it is known in nature. Directional lines presented upwards convey a happy, positive feeling while downward lines present a dismal and sad effect on the viewer.  Lines can be shown in different ways including geometric or angular and curvilinear or organic. The artist uses them in various combinations and blends to represent a shape or feeling, and they can be bold, light or in another colour or value.


Shape and mass


Shape and mass in art are for visual and emotional effect. Artists use the negative space and ground around it to present shapes that include geometric, organic, descriptive and expressive shapes. All shapes have expressive features and if used correctly, can provide great depth. Like lines, geometric and perfectly aligned shapes are considered stable, while irregular shapes are viewed as less stable but lively. Two-dimensional surfaces are shown through shading to identify shapes through light hitting at different angles. In abstract painting, overlapping colours and variable brushstrokes provide for shapes that are not realistic in nature. Three-dimensional shapes are conveyed by showing a void space around the art.


Light and texture


An image looking up into a tree with orange and green leaves.
Tree, Mabel Amber

Light and texture play an important role in art. Through the use of colour values, artists create the illusion of various textures as they would be experienced in real life. For example, to present shininess, a white light area is shown on a relatively small area, providing a concentrated view of brightness. Conversely, to show softness, the colour values need to be more concentrated and less highlighted with a rougher texture. Techniques also include variations in thin (luminism) versus thick (impasto) paint to create texture. Contrasts of light and dark painting (tenebrism) along with raking light are also devices used to convey texture quality.


All of these elements are important to the overall creation of art, which is generally referred to as composition. The two most prevalent compositional styles are symmetrical and asymmetrical with the former being balanced in line, colour and form, while the latter presents an off-center focal point and incongruent elements. The emotional effects of these two compositions are static versus dynamic. The advantage of quality composition allows the artist to show a suitable scale, the actual or illusionary size of one object in relation to another.  From these foundations, artists can create works of art that bring meaning and joy both to everyday and emotional tiers of experience.  


By Shantel Susan

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