Part One of a Two Part Series
"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist" ~ Pablo Picasso
The seven elements of art are the building blocks of any visual art form. These elements include; line, shape, form, value, texture, color and space. Understanding the importance of these elements and how they work together is essential to creating dynamic compositions. Though they are not just for artists.
Having some knowledge of the seven elements is also helpful in viewing and understanding a work of art. By analyzing and interpreting each element, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the artist's intention and the underlying meaning of the artwork. Let's explore the importance of each element and how it contributes to the overall understanding of a work of art.
In this first series, I will be discussing line, shape, form and value.
"A line is a dot that went for a walk" ~ Paul Klee
Most artworks begin with a line. A line is simply a mark that spans a distance, or as Paul Klee said, "A line is a dot that went for a walk". Lines are the most basic element of an artwork. They have width, length and direction, and can be definitive or suggested.
Lines can be described in many ways: thick, thin, diagonal, curving, broken, continuous, bold, delicate, straight, precise, sketchy, and irregular, just to name a few. Lines convey movement, direction, energy, emotions and mood, depending on how they are made. For example, lines that are jagged, have tension, and provoke anxiety. Lines that are smooth and curving suggesting calmness and serenity. And through we have all of these words to describe lines, technically, there are only two types - straight and curved. Lines also define shapes and forms, and guide the viewer's eye through a composition.
Looking closely at, "View from the Wheatfields", by Vincent van Gogh, 1888, describe how many different lines you see. Notice length, direction, and width of the lines, and the distances from each other. What emotions are being expressed in the line work?
"The object of art is to give life a shape" ~ William Shakespeare
Shapes are two-dimensional objects that are enclosed by a line. Shapes define objects in space. Shapes have height and width and come in two types, geometric and organic. Shapes are essential in art because they help define the structure of a composition, create visual interest, and convey ideas or a message. By analyzing the shapes in an artwork, we can infer the objects or subjects depicted and their relative importance.
Shapes can also be positive or negative. A positive shape is the actual object. A negative shape is the area around that object. Positive and negative shapes are equally important to give balance to an artwork. Sometimes negative shapes become positive and sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.
Angel Columns at the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany. Originally created by David Barker in 1989 for the San Francisco Exploratorium Museum.
What do you see?
In 1941 Henri Matisse's health suffered a great blow and he became wheelchair-bound, but this did not stop his great creative spirit from expressing itself. He focused his creativity on a new language which he called, “painting with scissors”.
Observe: 'The Sorrow of the King', 1952, by Matisse and notice his use of shapes.
"Art is nothing without form" ~ Gustave Flaubert
Picture a square, a triangle, and a circle in your mind. Now imagine using an air pump to inflate those flat shapes. Those inflated shapes are now forms! When a shape, like a square, gets the third-dimension of depth, it becomes a form. Forms are three-dimensional objects that occupy space.
Spheres, cubes, pyramids, cones, cylinders, etc., are geometric forms and are precise and regular. They have height, width, and depth. Showing the depth, thickness, or roundness of an object makes them appear more real.
Biomorphic or organic forms are irregular. Leaves, flowers, clouds, and other objects seen in nature are organic forms, but sometimes biomorphic forms can be abstract and made-up too.
Forms are three-dimensional volumes having height, width, and depth. When we think about forms in art, sculpture comes to mind because by its nature, it is three-dimensional. Its form is real. In drawing and painting, artists' learn to create the illusion of three-dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. Light and shadow effects created through specific drawing and painting techniques are used to create the illusion of form. Here, form is implied.
Forms are important in art because they help create a sense of realism and solidity. Forms also create contrast and interest in a composition.
3D: What shapes and forms do you see in the sculpture: 'Moondog', 1964, by Tony Smith?
"In painting as in life, you can get away with a great deal as long as you get your values right" ~ Harley Brown
Value is the magic that artists, like illustrators and painters, use to create the illusion of form in their art. Value is lightness or darkness of a color. Values create depth, contrast, and mood. Value is used when creating highlights and shadows in an artwork. This creates depth, making the object or composition look three-dimensional.
When creating the illusion of form using values, there are a set of rules to follow. Specifically if the light is coming from one predetermined direction, the the light and shadow will conform to these rules:
Highlight is the lightest value of the object. This is where the light hits the surface directly. This is usually your whitest white.
Shadows move around the object away from the highlight. The darkest black does not receive any light. Moving up from black on the gray scale, the object receives various levels of indirect light.
Reflective light is the light that is bounced off the surface of the object. It is light in value but not as white as the highlight.
The cast shadow is the darkest value closest to the object and gets lighter the further it moves from the object.
The value halfway between the highlight and the shadow is called the mid-tone or middle gray.
Value is used in artworks to create depth, rendering the objects three-dimensional with highlights and shadows. Value also shows space and perspective. Objects closest to you are the darkest and as you move back into the distance, objects become lighter and lighter. This is called atmospheric effect.
The technique in art used to create contrast between light and dark to emphasize and illuminate important figures in a painting or drawings called chiaroscuro (ki-air-a-scu-ro), an Italian term meaning "light-dark". It was a technique developed in the 4th century BC by the Greeks but it was the Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Albrect Durer, who developed the technique to a very hight level. Chiaroscuro follows the rules of I stated above and has five distinct areas: highlight, halftone, deep shadow, reflected light, and cast shadow.
This is one of the most beautiful examples of chiaroscuro (or the use of value) - "Study of a Man Aged 93", 1521, by Albrecht Durer, (also attributed to Hans Hoffmann). We know from Durer's notes that this is a brush drawing on violet/grey prepared paper. It was a study sketch for his painting of St. Jerome. Durer used white heightening to draw out elements of light to the left hand side of the work, providing contrast and depth. The right hand side is somewhat darker, allowing a shadow to fall across the subject. The lighter areas draw the eye particularly towards the man's beard and also his nose which stands out prominently.
Atmospheric effect: "Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland", 1798, by William Turner
The seven elements of art are essential for creating effective and impactful visual art. They provide the basic building blocks for any composition and help to convey meaning, mood, and emotion. No matter your level of artistry, understanding and utilizing the seven elements can help you create more dynamic and compelling artwork.
In viewing and analyzing artworks for the seven elements, we can gain a more profound understanding of the artwork itself and the artist's intension, therefore enriching our viewing experience and expanding our knowledge of art.
In the second part of this series, The Seven Elements of Art, I will be discussing texture, color and space.
Are you ready to try for yourself? Check out these two learning resources:
This instructional guide offers a simple tool to increase your observation skills, easy to follow exercises to help break down complex subjects into basic shapes, and lessons in the fundamentals of values and how to use them to add depth and dimension to your artwork. With some time and practice, you'll be able to achieve amazing results.
How to Make a Picture Framer, FREE download
A picture framer is a simple tool used to help you to focus on your subject and not get distracted by what's around it. It will help you pay close attention to what you are trying to create.