Mood in Art: How to Inject Nuance Into Your Creative Work

mood in art

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Mood in art is a powerful force that can be the defining detail of a work. It can even be what makes or breaks a piece in meeting your vision.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the mood in art. I can be feeling any sort of emotion at the moment, but a single picture can transport me into a different headspace. Wielding this ability isn’t lightning in a bottle. You can use principles and elements of art to generate a particular mood.

It’s time for a little art appreciation. Below I’ll share how you can convey different emotions using art fundamentals.

Defining Mood in Art

To get comfortable with creating mood, it’s important to define it first. Mood refers to a blend of emotions and atmosphere in a piece of art, whether it’s a painting or a simplistic logo.

Have you ever looked at a watercolor painting that made you feel moody or bittersweet? How about an oil painting that made you feel content and at peace? From cool blues to striking shapes, all parts of a painting contribute to the ‘feel’ of a piece of art.

How to Create Mood With the Elements of Art

The elements of art aren’t just for technical prowess, but to support the deeper emotional reality of a painting. Becoming comfortable with these tools will make it easier for you to wield moods just like a pencil or brush.


A simple sketch can sometimes be one of the most effective ways of expressing how you feel. Linework can invoke emotion through techniques such as crosshatching and line weight.

The Horse Fair Sketch by Rosa Bonheur

This sketch by Rosa Bonheur for her famous The Horse Fair painting is a stellar portrayal of linework. From the rough lines to the shaded areas, you get a real sense of life and energy.


Shape is a fascinating aspect of art since it plays on animalistic aspects of our psychology. A round shape can make us feel a soothed emotion, while a sharp shape can make us feel tense.

Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi by Gustav Klimt

Eugenia Primavesi by Gustav Klimt shows the power of shapes in toying with our psychology. The long, rounded shapes in this painting almost make me feel swaddled in a blanket. All the floral shapes also create a sensation of natural clutter.

One of my favorite books on this subject is Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang.


Form is an element similar to shape, but isn’t quite the same. While shape is much simpler, form makes everything three-dimensional with shading and/or detail.

Painting by Yoshitaka Amano

Yoshitaka Amano’s painting for Vogue Italia is a spectacular starting point for understanding the similarities and differences between shape and form. You can see him use many basic shapes here to form the painting, such as circles, triangles, and rectangles.

He then adds wrinkles, value shifts, and bright and dark colors to give the illusion of three-dimensionality.


What you don’t put in your work is just as powerful as what you do. Space refers to how strategically you place – or don’t place – subjects or objects into a work.

Positive space refers to the subject of your painting, such as a person or an animal. Negative space refers to everything that surrounds your subject, which can be complex or simple.

Dancing Shoes by Helene Schjerfbeck

Dancing Shoes by Helene Schjerfbeck is a remarkable portrayal of positive and negative space in a painting. The positive space is the little girl putting on her shoes, while the negative space alternates between detailed plants and a smooth wall.

The result is a balanced illustration that draws you in and makes you feel the subject’s serenity and focus.


The subtle nuances of value are among the best-known ways to create a mood in a painting. A lighter color or dark shade can quickly change how someone feels.

Out Into The World by Maria Wilk

Out Into The World by Maria Wilk uses dark colors and light to great effect, painting a mundane scene that feels emotionally authentic. The emotion isn’t a negative one, but it’s not positive either, existing in an ambiguous limbo.


Another well-known aspect of evoking emotions is through color usage. Indeed, there are entire books dedicated to the psychology of color.

However, it’s important to understand that generating different emotions isn’t a matter of picking a slot on a color wheel. The feeling a color can invoke in a viewer changes depending on context, harmony, culture, and even time period.

For example, Westerners tend to associate the color red with passion, anger, or love. However, red is associated with purity and marriage in India.

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While white technically isn’t a color, for simplicity’s sake, let’s take a look at how white is portrayed in media as part of color symbolism. In The Last Unicorn, the ethereal glow of the white unicorn symbolizes purity, innocence, and grace.

Her darker and cooler surroundings contrast her as a – metaphorical and literal – beacon of light and hope.

color in art
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Now let’s look at the villain of Kung Fu Panda 2 – Lord Shen. His predominantly light and white color scheme is a harsh, bleached-out contrast to his more richly colored surroundings, symbolizing his pursuit of death and control.


Last but not least, texture goes a long way in injecting life into a painting. It can make your piece feel erratic, soothing, lifelike, stale, or somewhere in between.

You’ll have a stronger ability to convey mood when you understand how art plays into our five senses. Texture draws on our sense of touch and, by association, our memory of certain sensations. For example, scent is a sense closely tied to memory, while touch follows close behind.

Flight To The Ford by John Howe

Flight To The Ford by famous Lord of the Rings concept artist John Howe is a brilliant example of texture in a painting. The swirl and spray of the water is only matched by the smooth, yet crinkled surface of the river rocks.

How to Create Mood With the Principles of Art 

The principles of art also play into mood, perhaps a little more obviously than art elements. However, they’re still intertwined and work much better together than separately.


Balance is an art principle that seems tricky to achieve at first, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It’s a vital part of a painting because it creates a feeling that everything has fallen into place just right.

This sense of ‘just right’ can convey emotions such as contentment, ease, and appreciation. Likewise, a lack of balance in a painting can create a feeling of discomfort or frustration.

Illustration by Tran Nguyen

Tran Nguyen is an illustrator I’ve adored for years and one of her (many) strengths is how she crafts impeccable balance into her compositions. Light and dark, warm and cool, large and small – she uses a little bit of everything to make a painting feel balanced out.


Contrast is how you take one element in a painting and visually compare it with another element. This principle of art encourages you to be thoughtful about why you choose certain subjects or elements over others.

For example, you can go about contrasting warm colors and cool blues to enhance the differences between the two subjects. You could also use the difference between dark and light to create a sense of intensity. Let’s look at an example to understand this better.

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If you want to become an expert in the power of visual contrast, look no further than Dreamworks’ Prince Of Egypt. This film regularly uses this principle to show the emotional differences between its characters and, thus, communicate the same feeling to the audience.


Emphasis is how you direct the viewer’s attention to one detail over the other. This is a vital part of constructing a painting that’s communicative and emotional, not confusing.

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Let’s use another example from the Prince Of Egypt again (and I’m definitely biased since this is one of my all-time favorite films). Look at how cleverly the animators use visual emphasis to draw the viewer’s attention to the mother and her basket.

While the background painting behind her is bright and should technically draw our attention, it also surrounds her head like a halo. As such, the emphasis still remains on her and keeps us firmly within her emotional world.


Movement in a painting can do wonders for making your mood more striking and intense. Many elements of art go into invoking mood through movement, such as space and form.

The Fox Hunt by Winslow Homer

The Fox Hunt by Winslow Homer is a painting that uses movement to create a general atmosphere of danger and immediacy. The viewer’s attention immediately snaps to attention to see the fox in bright snow attempting to flee the crow’s dark shadows above.


Rhythm is how you use visual repetition to help the viewer’s eye travel naturally. You can convey the textures of the natural world or use patterns to draw the eye in your painting.

Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Water Lilies by Claude Monet uses rhythm to recreate lilies floating on a serene river. Likewise, these patterns naturally invoke our curiosity and make us look up and down and all around the painting.

Rhythm also has some overlap with the next painting principle on our list.


Patterns aren’t just lovely to look at – they’re literally rooted in our developmental psychology. Psychological studies have found patterns teach us about our environment and help us make predictions.

Patterns have a way of making us feel curious, comfortable, or adventurous. A lack of patterns can make us feel restless or confused, though it can also invite intrigue, too.

The Conversation by Camille Pissarro

Conversation by Camille Pissarro is a striking example of using patterns to create a feeling of relaxation and predictability. There’s something about the mundanity of a fence and rows of trees that brings to mind lazy summer days or quiet neighborhood walks.

Unity and Variety

Last but not least, you can craft a powerful mood in a painting by respecting the two-sided coin of unity and variety. Unity ties everything together into a balanced whole, while variety shakes things up with different elements.

unity and variety
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What better way to explore the fascinating duality of unity and variety than with the visually spectacular Across The Spider-Verse? In this shot, you see unity portrayed by a mixture of repetitive elements and bright contrast.

The horizon line and ledge the two characters are sitting on use repetition for a harmonious effect. The different colors and values between the character’s dark and light suits also make everything feel balanced out.

Thanks to this smooth and level composition, the emotion here feels content and serene.

mood art
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Now let’s look at another scene in the movie meant to disorient the viewer. You see a slew of variety in the bright colors, rough textures, and angular shapes surrounding our protagonist as he falls into another world.

The feelings you could go through run the gamut of confused, delighted, energized, and shocked.

Questions to Ask About the Mood in Your Next Work 

Improving the mood in your next painting or drawing is as simple as asking targeted, meaningful questions.

What Does This Piece Currently Make Me Feel?

Whether you’re in the thumbnail phase or blocking in your colors, ask yourself this question. What is your painting currently making you feel and why?

Let’s say you’re painting a self-portrait to explore your own emotional inner world. The different colors you use could be a reason why the painting makes you feel lively and whimsical. The bright background could also contribute to why you feel more positive.

what does this piece currently make me feel?
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What Does This Piece Not Make Me Feel?

Now it’s time to ask questions in the opposite direction. When looking at your work, catalog the emotions that don’t crop up during your viewing session.

When your art generates a certain mood you’re going for, it’s a huge personal success. However, give yourself a pat on the back when you don’t feel certain moods you’re trying to avoid.

What Do I Want the Viewer to Feel?

Last but not least, consider the mood you want viewers to feel when they look at your painting, drawing, or design. What do you hope people will walk away with after seeing your craft?

While you can’t predict every viewer’s reaction, you can increase the chances of them feeling a certain mood by understanding the tools at your disposal.

Does Art Boost Mood?

Absolutely. In fact, art is scientifically proven to create positive health benefits in viewers such as reducing anxiety symptoms and lowering stress levels.

does art boost mood?
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A 2018 study found that art therapy significantly reduced physical pain and stress levels in patients hospitalized for medical issues.

Why Does Art Trigger Emotions?

Many factors are involved in why art triggers emotions in humans, such as personal experiences, personality traits, and culture. However, ongoing studies are being conducted on how art ties in with our senses to impact our memory and perception circuitry.

Mood in Art is How You Craft Pieces That Stick With People Forever 

When you learn how to create a certain mood in your painting, you craft a piece that sticks with people forever. I certainly can think of a few pieces that have stuck with me for years due to the powerful emotions of nostalgia, warmth, or horror they inspired in me.

If you need a little help creating authentic emotions in your art, Evolve Artist has an online course ready to level you up. Check out their Pro-Art Mini-Skills Course to learn how to create a more impactful and interesting painting.

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