The Elements of Visual Art
Elements are the basic building blocks of any artform. All art can be broken down into
its elements or component parts. However, it is important to remember that in any
successful work of art, the elements work together.
The Arts combine a wide variety of different techniques, methods and mediums. The
different types of art share elements but some have unique elements. For example, music
has the elements of actual sound and time that can only be suggested in a painting.
The Visual Arts include: Sculpture, Drawing, Painting, Photography, Printmaking,
Collage and any combinationa. The visual arts are usually static. That means they don't
move by themselves. The artist makes a painting and then hangs it on the wall. The
painting might have lines that imply action, but they don't move. We can spend as much
time as we like with static art. We can view it for five seconds in a gallery or we can
purchase a print, hang it on our wall, and look at it for hours on end. Static art does not
have the elements of sound, motion and time.
Theater and Film Making combine sound, motion and time with the visual art elements
to usually tell a story. It is rare that a movie or theater production does not have a story,
however, a newer artform, the performance piece, will often work with just an idea.
Music lacks the visual elements but uses sound and time. The visual elements can only
be suggested. Dance combines the elements of music with motion. It can also use the
visual elements such as shape, line, color and form.
Photography lacks the elements of line, shape or texture. It has mark, because it uses a
process that when viewed under a magnifier reveals dots called grain. Photography has
value, light and dark, color and form. Line, shape and texture can only be phographed or
implied because the viewer sees them. The camera only "sees" light and dark and
records it as a point. Special high contrast films used by printers, called lith films, record
the shape made by light. Points must be added with specialized screens. They cannot
Filmmaking uses the visual elements. If you look at the individual frame it has most or
all the elements of a painting, photograph or drawing. Because they are in motion and
because we are distracted by the story, we tend not to look closely at the individual
elements that create the image. We look at the picture and not into the picture. To look
into the picture you need to "freeze the frame."
The Elements of Visual Art
Mark - Spot - Point - Dot - Grain - Pixel
Spot, also called Mark, Point or Dot is the simplest visual unit in any art work or
composition. It is the most basic of the elements. Marks, spots and points are made by
hand, dots are produced mechanically on printing plates, grain is formed chemically in
photography and pixels are generated by computers. They are all the basic unit for
Most often the mark is used to create another image and the artist will want to hide the
mark. It is rare to find artwork where the the mark is the dominate feature.
Many students who are learning art attempt a technique called pointillism. It is usually
taught as the first project of a beginning art class. The students make an image using the
mark made by the very tip of the pen or pencil, called a point. All too often though they
grow impatient with the process and tap away rapidly, losing the shape of the point in
the process. Those students that are careful and patient can produce very impressive
works with the technique. Professional artists work slowly and carefully with the
technique using a mechanical pen that makes a consistent dot.
The images below show different ways that basic image units are used.
In the image above the pixel "mark" is too small to see. It is hidden.
If the resolution is greatly reduced, we see the individual pixels.
Photographic images are formed from grain. If a photo is greatly enlarged, we see the
Images from printers are formed from dots.
The dot is the smallest unit. Four colors of ink are used: cyan, magenta, yellow and
A painter uses strokes of a brush to make each invdividual mark.
Video uses scan lines.
If we touch the surface of paper only once we make a mark. When we continue to move
the mark without releasing the drawing tool we are drawing a line. When the artist picks
up the drawing tool the line ends.
In geometry we connect the two marks to make a straight line, but in art, the straight line
is only one type of many different lines that are possible. In art we are more interested in
how the line might make us feel, or in what shape the line will eventually produce.
Perhaps you have heard the statment, "I could never be an artist, I can't even draw a
straight line." However anybody can draw a straight line with a ruler. It takes very little
skill. Lines can be straight, curved, curled, twisted, nervous, and excited. Lines can
wander aimlessly over the page or they can precisely describe a shape or form. Lines can
be carefully drawn to create the illusion of a real object or they can wander randomly to
let the artist see new forms.
Lines can be thick or thin. Lines drawn mechanically are given a size in points (a point
is equal to a pixel, 72 per inch.) When a line becomes too thick it becomes a shape.
The drawing below is made completely with lines, however shapes are formed. It is rare
that a line does not make a shape. Notice that the shape of the head does not have a line
drawn around it. The shape is made where the lines end.
The drawing below is made from one continuous line. Although the beginning does not
touch the end, many shapes are still created. Most people cannot see the drawing below
as one shape. They will see it as many similar, joining shapes .
The drawing below is a pencil sketch by French artist Eugene Delacroix. Notice how
active the line are. They were drawn quickly. The erasor was used to make a mark and
not to correct a mistake. Many students make the mistake of using the erasor to correct a
"mistake". It is better to draw right on top of a line that you think is wrong.
Lines can be made with pencils, pens and brushes. Many students begin exploring line
with a technique called contour drawing. The edge of any shape is also a line; this is
important in photography and filmmaking. A line could be described as a long, thin
mark. You could also say that it is a sequence of adjoining points. Most people, when
looking at art can easily identify a line.
Filmmakers will use a type of invisible line called a vector. Vectors lead the eye to what
the director wants you to see. When a character looks at another character she creates an
eyeline. This is an invisible line however the audience will unconsciously follow it.
The edges of shapes are also lines that can be used to direct the viewer to the center of
attention or the next shot. Good filmmakers understand how to use the elements to move
the eye of the audience.
When a line touches itself it become a shape. Although the word shape has many
different meanings we want to define shape as an area that is filled with a flat color,
pattern or texture. For example, if you draw a circle with a crayon and fill it in
completely you will have the shape of a circle.
It is not necessary to fill the area to create a shape, however, psychologically, if it is
closed, it is probably perceived as filled.
The image below uses a variety of shapes.
Any color or grey has many different shades or values. Value is the darkness or lightness
of a color or grey. Value can give us the light of light on a surface. The image above
looks more three dimensional because of the varying values of grey.
Greyscales are used to measure the darkness or lightness of a grey.
The more levels of grey in a scale, the more difficult it is to tell the difference between
adjacent levels. The pryamid below is composed of grey squares. The further down the
pyramid, the more greys, but it is more difficult to discern a difference in the values. The
squares appear to have a gradient, that is, they vary in value appearing lighter on one
side. This is an optical illusion. All the squares are filled with a flat grey that has no
variation in tone.
Color also has value. The image below show different shades of orange.
Color is the result of the reflection or absorption of visible radiation (light) by a given
surface. We are able to differentiate areas of the visible spectrum and identify them and
name them as separate regions called colors. This may sound complicated, however it is
often difficult to define what is most obvious to us. We can easily define things we make
or do, however color is always with us and we could hardly imagine a world without
color. How different our art might be if we could only see shades of gray.
Of all the elements, color has the greatest psychological impact. Color can make us feel
different emotions, whether we want to feel them or not. Fast food companies use the
color orange so we will eat faster and leave the restaurant more quickly. Red attracts our
attention and food companies use the color of the foods they sell on their packaging. It is
rare to have a blue wrapper on a candy bar, but you will commonly see two or three hues
Colors can calm or irritate us. They can make us feel happy or gloomy. They can make a
Learning how to use color requires study and practice. Most art schools require a class
or two in color theory to earn a degree.
The individual color is called "hue." Many different names are given to hues, for
example, chartreuse, a yellow-green.
The primary colors are red, yellow and blue
By mixing the primary colors we obtain the secondary colors, orange, green and violet.
We can continue to mix the colors obtaining a third level called "tertiary"
The color wheel shows the primary, secondary and tertiary colors. The colors opposite
each other are the complements.
Complementary colors are opposite. Mixing them together results in gray.
Mixing white with any pure color results in a tint. Mixing black results in a shade. This
is what we mean by color value or light and dark. the image below shows different tints
and shades of red. Notice the three dimensional look.
Color also has intensity. A pure hue is said to have full intensity. When it is mixed with
gray or its complementary color, it loses intensity. Below shows a full intensity green
diminishing to a gray. The greenest area if full intensity.
The study of color is called "color theory".
Surface or Texture?
When we describe the surface of an object we often use the word texture. Most
definitions of the elements usually name texture as the element instead of surface.
However in reality objects have a surface on which the texture is applied. Often there is
no texture or the texture is purely illusion. For simplicity we will use the two terms
interchangeably and defer any discussion concerning semantics for a later time.
Texture thus is the quality of the surface, whether it be rough, smooth, shiney, hard, and
soft. Texture appeals to our sense of touch.
Many art supplies have an inherent texture (their own texture). Water color and drawing
paper can have a rough texture, canvas for painters has different weaves. Metal, clay,
stone, and wax all have their own textures. Various tools can be used to create texture on
The two paintings above use the texture of the paper. Notice how the black is
"scumbled" to bring out the surface texture.
Music has an equivilant to texture called timbre (pronounced tamber). Narrators are
often chosen because of distinct vocal textures (timbre).
Film, video and photography because they are all recording of light, do not have true
surface texture. Touching the surface of a television screen tells you nothing about the
film while touching the surface of a sculpture gives you information about the piece.
The grain of film however could be considered a textural effect. Digital video has many
different filters that give the image a textural look.
Photographic media allows you to record any texture from rust and rock to rabbit fur
with the click of a button. The texture however is purely visual.
In film we speak about the overall quality of the piece in terms of texture. For example,
"gritty" is used to describe the feel of a film. We do not touch the film, however texture
can be applied to how we feel about a film.
All objects occupy space. All objects are surrounded by space. Whenever an artist
creates a mark, she also creates the space around the mark. We are drawn to a work of
art partially because of the space that it created. When we see a rendering of a figure, we
also see the space around the figure, however, most viewers are not conscious of all the
spacial relationships and focus only on what is familiar to them.
Sculpture has real space. You can walk around a sculpture and view all sides of its
surface. The space surrounding a sculpture is called the negative space. The shape of
negative space is as important as the positive space. Experienced artists are very aware
of negative space and use it deliberately. Some arts, when drawing from life, will draw
the negative space before focusing on the positive space.
The illusion of space is created in visual art thought the relationships of shape. Two
dimensional art occupies space, for example, the rectangle hanging on a wall or the
surface of a television screen, however it is the illusion of space that the artist wants to
create. It takes no skill to hang a piece of cardboard on the wall. Yes it has positive and
negative space, but it has little or no aesthetic value.
When a shape is drawn on a surface, it automatically creates a space. We call the total
space "the picture plane," we call the space around the shape or form "the ground." The
relationship between a shape or form and its background is called "the figure ground
Remember, the space in two dimensional art is an illusion (it is not real). Your mind
creates the space. You are really looking at a flat object with marks. It is our mind that
creates the space. In cultures that have not been exposed to spacial illusion, it is difficult
for them to see the illusion of depth and three dimensions when looking at a picture. The
perception of space below is created through illusion. In actuality it is flat.
The illusion of space and depth can be created using perspective, size, overlap, color and