Discover how to analyze the formal aspects of a work of art by learning about the elements of art and principles of design that are used by artists working in various media.

Students who can identify the elements and principles and evaluate their role in the composition of a work of art will be better able to understand an artist's choices. They will be equipped to address whether a work of art is successful, and why.

The list below describes each element of art. Learn about the principles of design here.

Elements of Art

The elements of art are components or parts of a work of art that can be isolated and defined. They are the building blocks used to create a work of art.

Download a student handout containing a list of the elements of art and their definitions. (PDF, 168KB)

Line


A line is an identifiable path created by a point moving in space. It is one-dimensional and can vary in width, direction, and length. Lines often define the edges of a form. Lines can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, straight or curved, thick or thin. They lead your eye around the composition and can communicate information through their character and direction.

A Storm / Vernet
 
Horizontal lines suggest a feeling of rest or repose because objects parallel to the earth are at rest. In this landscape, horizontal lines also help give a sense of space. The lines delineate sections of the landscape, which recede into space. They also imply continuation of the landscape beyond the picture plane to the left and right.

 

 

 

Saint Bavo Church / Saenredam
 
Vertical lines often communicate a sense of height because they are perpendicular to the earth, extending upwards toward the sky. In this church interior, vertical lines suggest spirituality, rising beyond human reach toward the heavens.

 

 

 

 

Cabinet / Weisweiler
 
Horizontal and vertical lines used in combination communicate stability and solidity. Rectilinear forms with 90-degree angles are structurally stable. This stability suggests permanence and reliability.

 

 

 

Storm / Vernet
 
Diagonal lines convey a feeling of movement. Objects in a diagonal position are unstable. Because they are neither vertical nor horizontal, they are either about to fall or are already in motion. The angles of the ship and the rocks on the shore convey a feeling of movement or speed in this stormy harbor scene.

 

 

 

Pool, St-Cloud / Atget
 
The curve of a line can convey energy. Soft, shallow curves recall the curves of the human body and often have a pleasing, sensual quality and a softening effect on the composition. The edge of the pool in this photograph gently leads the eye to the sculptures on the horizon.

 

 

 

Shape and form


Shape and form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions–height and width–and are usually defined by lines. Forms exist in three dimensions, with height, width, and depth.

Studies for a Ceiling / de la Fosse
 
Shape has only height and width. Shape is usually, though not always, defined by line, which can provide its contour. In this image, rectangles and ovals dominate the composition. They describe the architectural details for an illusionist ceiling fresco.

 

 

 

 

 

Rearing Horse / de Vries
 
Form has depth as well as width and height. Three-dimensional form is the basis of sculpture, furniture, and decorative arts. Three-dimensional forms can be seen from more than one side, such as this sculpture of a rearing horse.

 

 

 

 

Commode / Oeben
 
Geometric shapes and forms include mathematical, named shapes such as squares, rectangles, circles, cubes, spheres, and cones. Geometric shapes and forms are often man-made. However, many natural forms also have geometric shapes. This cabinet is decorated with designs of geometric shapes.

 

 

 

 

Gold Wreath / Unknown
 
Organic shapes and forms are typically irregular or asymmetrical. Organic shapes are often found in nature, but man-made shapes can also imitate organic forms. This wreath uses organic forms to simulate leaves and berries.

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Space


Real space is three-dimensional. Space in a work of art refers to a feeling of depth or three dimensions. It can also refer to the artist's use of the area within the picture plane. The area around the primary objects in a work of art is known as negative space, while the space occupied by the primary objects is known as positive space.

Age of 98 / Goya y Lucientes
 
Positive and negative space
The relationship of positive to negative space can greatly affect the impact of a work of art. In this drawing, the man and his shadow occupy the positive space, while the white space surrounding him is the negative space. The disproportionate amount of negative space accentuates the figure's vulnerability and isolation.

 

 

 

 

 

Saint Bavo / Saenredam
 
Three-dimensional space
The perfect illusion of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional work of art is something that many artists, such as Pieter Saenredam, labored to achieve. The illusion of space is achieved through perspective drawing techniques and shading.

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Color


Light reflected off objects. Color has three main characteristics: hue (red, green, blue, etc.), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright or dull it is). Colors can be described as warm (red, yellow) or cool (blue, gray), depending on which end of the color spectrum they fall.

Christ Crowned / Honthorst
 
Value describes the brightness of color. Artists use color value to create different moods. Dark colors in a composition suggest a lack of light, as in a night or interior scene. Dark colors can often convey a sense of mystery or foreboding.

Light colors often describe a light source or light reflected within the composition. In this painting, the dark colors suggest a night or interior scene. The artist used light colors to describe the light created by the candle flame.

 

 

 

Annunciation / Bouts
 
Intensity describes the purity or strength of a color. Bright colors are undiluted and are often associated with positive energy and heightened emotions. Dull colors have been diluted by mixing with other colors and create a sedate or serious mood. In this image the artist captured both the seriousness and the joy of the scene with the dull gray stone interior and the bright red drapery.

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Texture


The surface quality of an object that we sense through touch. All objects have a physical texture. Artists can also convey texture visually in two dimensions.

In a two-dimensional work of art, texture gives a visual sense of how an object depicted would feel in real life if touched: hard, soft, rough, smooth, hairy, leathery, sharp, etc. In three-dimensional works, artists use actual texture to add a tactile quality to the work.

A. Pallavicini / van Dyck
 
Texture depicted in two-dimensions
Artists use color, line, and shading to imply textures. In this painting, the man's robe is painted to simulate silk. The ability to convincingly portray fabric of different types was one of the marks of a great painter during the 17th century.

 

 

 

 

 

Desk / Unknown
 
Surface texture
The surface of this writing desk is metallic and hard. The hard surface is functional for an object that would have been used for writing. The smooth surface of the writing desk reflects light, adding sparkle to this piece of furniture.



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