Whenever you view a painting, you’re witnessing multiple working parts in action. The elements of art are how you break down these different parts and understand why they resonate with you.
While I’ve been painting since I was a child, I’m still learning new ways to approach artistic elements. Sometimes these new methods mean returning to the basics and becoming a student all over again.
Below you’ll learn why the art world uses the seven elements, helping you develop the building blocks for powerful paintings.
For those in a hurry, the elements of art are:
- Linework – a Simple Translation of Life
- Shape – Breaking Down the World Into Simple Forms
- Form – Fleshing Out a Subject With Light and Shadow
- Value – Determining the Lightness or Darkness
- Space – Strategic Placement of Subjects Within the Frame
- Color – Understanding the Relationships Between Hues
- Texture – Creating the Illusion of Lifelike Details
- Frequently Asked Questions
- The Elements of Art are the Foundation of Unforgettable Paintings
Linework – a Simple Translation of Life
The first element is among the best-known among beginners – linework. Rough sketches, refined lineart, and even borders are all ways we help define a subject.
A Horseman in Combat with a Griffin by Leonardo da Vinci is a spectacular example of creating depth through linework. Notice how the contour lines swoop and bubble to create the illusion of a muscled horse.
Linework is incredibly dynamic, taking on just about any shape you need. Thick lines feel dramatic and heavy, while thin or light lines suggest wispiness.
Another strong example of how to suggest organic shapes and handmade constructions is Van Gogh’s ‘Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer’ study. The curling and chaotic lines do a spectacular job of creating the foliage in the village he visited.
Many artists use line work as a ‘skeleton’ to layer on other elements such as colors and shading. However, you can leave linework as its own art form.
Shape – Breaking Down the World Into Simple Forms
The second element of art is well-known, stretching all the way back to using building blocks as a child. Shape helps us create incredibly memorable works in character design, fashion design, and more.
If you’re a fan of animated movies, you’ll already know the power of shapes in creating dynamic characters. This concept art of Po from the Kung Fu Panda series is a lesson in shape language. His entire design is basically composed of circles and ovals – his head, body, ears, and even the patches over his eyes.
Other common shapes include ovals, triangles, rectangles, squares, and ‘hoses’ (like a thick noodle). When you combine these shapes, you open up a million possibilities for breathing life into your world.
This concept art of another character from the Kung Fu Panda series is a fantastic example of combining shapes. Notice how this character has geometric shapes like rectangles for his tail, yet a triangular-shaped head. Even his spikes, hands, and feet are just tiny triangles.
Shapes not only create believable and weighty characters, but they also communicate personality. Soft, rounded shapes feel comfortable through association with other subjects (like the moon or a ball). In contrast, sharp and angular shapes suggest danger (like a knife or a thorn).
Lastly, let’s look at the art of shapes in one of my favorite famous paintings, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. This painting showcases both the visually pleasing aspect of shapes as well as the emotion we suggest with them.
The blobby oval surrounding the lovers makes them appear swaddled in a blanket. It’s a comforting shape that supports the tender romance between the two subjects.
There’s also delightful color contrast, but we’ll explore those elements of art further below.
Form – Fleshing Out a Subject With Light and Shadow
The third element of art involves light and shadow to carve out a shape into something three-dimensional. It’s one of the most potent ways of fooling the viewer’s eye into thinking they’re in front of an organic form.
One of my absolute favorite classical painters is Frank Brangwyn. He has an exceptionally plush and weighty approach to light and shadow.
The above sketch is a vivid lesson in how a few well-placed shadows can make a subject pop from the page. While this element is sometimes daunting for beginners due to its complexity, it can be broken down like anything else.
Both light and shadow come in different types. Below is a simple diagram showing the most common terms you’ll be using in the visual arts.
Jenny Lu Illustration
Each one of these light and shadow forms work in harmony to create a three-dimensional figure. While Jenny Lu’s above art refers to a realistic style, these elements of art can be used with any style.
Portrait of a Woman by Hugues Merle showcases several of these terms in one place. You can see the highlights on her nose, brow, and the top of her hair.
The rest of her face and neck is a blend of form and core shadows. You can see a little reflected light near the bottom viewer’s right corner. As you create art, cross-reference these elements of art with your everyday life. Ask yourself why a brow pops out, but the back of a neck recedes from the viewer’s eye.
Value – Determining the Lightness or Darkness
Form is easier to understand when you understand value, an essential element to determine the lightness or darkness of a color. This contrast is how you make your two-dimensional surface pop out at the viewer.
While black and white are shades, not colors, this value scale is still useful to understand how these elements of artwork.
When you vary your value, you give the eye-stopping and starting points. You may confuse the viewer if everything is too bright or too dark.
This is another value scale for a specific color – in this case, orange. Shifting this range will help your art feel more believable. For example, you can fade a color as it recedes from the viewer’s eye. You can also create richer color contrast to stand out more.
The classical portrait Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer showcases value across the board. You see the lightness and darkness of black and white areas, such as the highlight on the earring or the black background.
You also see changes in value within the same color. Her headwrap becomes brighter closer to the light, then darker as it recedes.
Painting better value also means understanding the difference between a tint and a shade. You create a shade by adding black to a color. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you add white to a color to create a tint and brighten things up.
Space – Strategic Placement of Subjects Within the Frame
Positive and negative space is among the most complex elements. These elements of art determine where each subject is in your illustration, the placement of which can make or break a painting.
Positive space refers to the focal point of your painting – this is where you want the viewer to look at first and focus on. Negative space is everything else surrounding your subject, such as a backdrop or supporting details.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine is a straightforward way of understanding space. The bold, dark background immediately pushes the viewer’s eye toward the subject and her pet.
It’s important to note that space also refers to the illusion of space, not just placement. Many elements of art involve learning the rules, and then breaking them stylistically. For example, you can suggest a linear perspective with little visual tricks instead of drawing out a meticulous grid.
Effet de Brouillard by Claude Monet creates the illusion of space through atmospheric perspective. This term refers to how objects fade as they recede from the viewer. They not only lose detail but become less intense in color.
He suggests atmospheric perspective by softening the furthest background elements with hazy grays and creams. There’s also significant color contrast – the color is richer closer to the viewer, yet becomes grayer further away.
The Blacksmiths by Frank Brangwyn showcases two ways of creating the illusion of space and depth – overlapping subjects and size difference.
The workers overlapping with all their tools makes the space feel realistically cramped. Likewise, the smaller workers in the back suggest distance. You can even see the elements of art in the color choices, such as more intense colors closer to the viewer.
Color – Understanding the Relationships Between Hues
Color is one of the elements of art that comes with some of the most working parts. Here you’ll learn about warm vs. cool colors, the color wheel, and the psychology behind color.
The primary colors are blue, yellow, and red. Secondary is purple, green, and orange. Lastly, tertiary are subtle colors like yellow-orange or violet. You don’t have to memorize everything: even experienced artists use shortcuts like color charts.
Secondly, using intense color contrast means knowing the differences between warm vs cool. Warm colors are orange, yellow, and red. Cool colors are purple, green, and blue.
Warm colors make cool colors feel colder and vice versa. Below is the color wheel with primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.
Picking Flowers in a Field by Mary Cassatt showcases how color contrast balances out a painting. The warm orange flowers and yellow grass nicely complement the pale blue sky.
Not only does color contrast ensure all elements of art are in harmony, it also influences the mood of a piece. Psychology and color is a complex field of study that analyzes why specific colors make us feel a certain way.
One study found that some colors have broader associations, such as red for excitement or purple for fanciness. However, most colors resonate with a viewer through the artist’s association. For example, blue can be a somber and cheery color.
Texture – Creating the Illusion of Lifelike Details
Texture breathes fresh life into your painting by manipulating our sense of touch. There are two types of texture you can use: physical and implied.
An artist can create physical texture with techniques like impasto, leaving thick and jagged brushstrokes that feel bumpy to the touch. You can also create implied texture by using contour lines to suggest fur or hair. As you create art, you’ll recall these art elements as a way to communicate certain details to your viewer’s eye.
Young Hare by Albrecht Dürer is a watercolor study of a hare that feels like it could spring to life. A significant component of this effect is the loving recreation of the animal’s fur, portrayed through repetitive and varied brushstrokes.
The artist used shorter strokes along the ears and face to suggest smooth, thin fur. The surface quality changes into more wavy lines where the fur grows denser. Some of these techniques look free-form, capturing the casual chaos of nature and its inhabitants.
Also, note the value and color contrast between the hare and backdrop. The smooth, cream color makes the animal’s darker fur stand out.
Frequently Asked Questions
Have a few more questions about the art elements? I’ll answer a few of them below.
What are the Principles of Art?
Principles of art refer more to the emotional aspects of a piece, while art elements are more technical. Think of it like baking a cake – art elements are ingredients, while the principles are the recipe.
A few art principles you may know of include visual balance, movement, and color harmony.
What are the 4 Most Important Elements of Art?
While all elements of art are essential, the most beginner-friendly are linework, shape, space, and form. These elements don’t have a learning curve as sharp as, say, color or texture.
Over time, you’ll feel more confident bumping up to seven elements with color, value, and texture.
The Elements of Art are the Foundation of Unforgettable Paintings
The more you study the elements of art, the more you’ll improve your visual literacy. After all, these elements are like your painting vocabulary – the more words you know, the more you can paint.
The elements of art are linework, shape, color, value, space, form, and texture. Adopting these tools isn’t a task you have to do alone, either. Boost your understanding of art fundamentals with accessible online tools.