VISUAL ELEMENTS OF ART
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I
couldn’t say in any other way – things I had no words
The Visual Elements of Art:
The Language of Art
Instead of using symbols and words to
communicate, the language of art relies
on visual elements and principles of
design. The composition of these
elements forms the style, form and
content of the work. Learning the visual
elements is learning the vocabulary of
the language of art.
Visual Elements of Art
• Also called the plastic elements of art.
• Artists use visual elements to express themselves in any
given medium (i.e. drawing, painting, sculpture,
architecture, photography, textiles, ceramics, etc…)
Principles of Design:
Unify, Balance, Rhythm, Scale, Proportion, etc..
the simplest and the most complex of the elements of art
serves as the basic building block for all art
has the capacity to evoke thoughts and emotions
is thought of as a moving dot
can be used to measure distance
Line may be perceived as delicate, tentative, elegant,
assertive, forceful, or even brutal with its various
Fig 2.2, p.29 JACKSON POLLOCK. Number 14: Gray (1948). Enamel and gesso on paper. 223/4” x 31”.
Types of Line
• Contour Lines - created by the edge of things. They
are perceived when three dimensional shapes curve back
• Actual lines - Are connected and continuous.
• Implied lines – a discontinuous line that is completed
by the viewer due to the context of the piece.
• Psychological lines - A line created by a mental or
perceptual connection. (Ex: When a character points
towards and object.)
Fig 2.4 A, B, and C, p.30 Actual line (A) versus two kinds of implied lines, one formed by dots
(B) and the other formed by psychologically connecting the edges of a series of straight lines
More about line…
• “Edges are perceived because the
objects differ from the background in
value, texture or color.”
• Shading creates or models roundness.
• “One of the hallmarks of Renaissance
painting is the use of implied lines to
create or echo the structures of the
Figure 2.3, p.28: EDWARD WESTON. Knees (1927). Gelatin silver print. 6-1⁄4” x 9-3⁄16”.
Figure 2.5, p.31: LEONARDO DA VINCI. Madonna of the Rocks (1483). Oil on panel, transferred to canvas. 781⁄2” x 48”.
Figure 2.6, p.31: The pyramidal structure of the Madonna of the Rocks.
Figure 2.7 p.32 EMILY MARY OSBORNE. Nameless and Friendless (1834 - ?) Oil on Canvas.
34” x 44”.
Functions of Line
Outline and Shape
Create Depth and Texture
Suggest Direction and Movement
What Lines Imply
• Horizontal lines - suggest stability
• Vertical lines - defy gravity and
• Diagonal lines - imply movement and
Outline and Shape
Figure 2.8, p.33 RIMMA GERLOVINA AND VALERIY GERLOVIN. Madonna and Child (1992).
Depth and Texture
Figure 2.9, p.33 ELIZABETH CATLETT. Sharecropper (1968). Color linocut. 26” x 22”.
Ways to create Texture
1. Modeling - the creation of the illusion of
roundness or the third dimension
through the use of light and shadow.
2. Stippling - the use of a pattern of dots
that thickens and thins.
3. Hatching - using a series of closely
spaced parallel lines to achieve shading.
4. Cross-Hatching - a series of lines that
run in a different direction and cross
Fig. 2.11, p.34 Illusion of three-dimensionality.
Direction and Movement
Figure 2.11, p.34 SANDRO BOTTICELLI. The Birth of Venus (c. 1482). Oil on canvas. 5’8-7⁄8” x 9’1-7⁄8”.
• The areas within a composition that have
boundaries separating them from what
surrounds them; shapes make those areas
• Shapes are formed when intersecting or
connected lines enclose space.
• Shape can also be communicated through
patches of color and texture.
Fig. 2.12, p.35 JACOB LAWRENCE. Harriet Tubman Series, No. 4 (1939 - 1940). Casein
tempera on gessoed hardboard. 12” x 17-7/8”.
The word FORM - is often used to speak about shapes in
sculpture and architecture - 3D works of art.
Figure 2.13, p.36 HELENE BRANDT. Mondrian Variations, Construction No. 3B with Four Red Squares and
Two Planes (1996). Welded steel, wood, paint. 22” x 19” x 17”.
Volume refers to the mass or bulk of a 3D work. It is the
amount of space it contains.
Fig. 2.14, p.36 GERRIT RIETVELDT. Schroeder House, Utrecht (1924).
Mass - In 3D art, the mass of an object refers to
Fig. 2.15, p. 37 RACHEL WHITEREAD. Holocaust Memorial, Vienna (2000).
Actual Mass versus
• Actual mass occupies three-dimensional space and
has measurable volume and weight
• Implied mass creates the illusion of possessing
volume, having weight and occupying threedimensional space
Fig. 2.16, p.37 MARK TANSEY. Landscape (1994). Oil on Canvas. 181.6 cm x 365.8 cm.
Types of Shapes
• 1. Geometric shapes - regular and precise, have
an unnatural mathematical appearance. Example
rectangles and circles.
– Straight (rectilinear)
– Curved (curvilinear)
• 2. Organic shapes – resemble organism found in
nature and thus have a natural appearance.
– Biomorphic shapes
– Amorphous shapes
Compare and Contrast
Picasso and Colescott
Rectilinear forms versus
curvilinear forms presented by
Figure 2.19, p.39 PABLO PICASSO. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Oil on canvas. 8’ x 7’8”.
Fig. 2.20, p.38 ROBERT COLESCOTT. Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas (1985). Acrylic on canvas. 96” x 92”
• Are said to have a form like a biological
• From the Greek word morphē.
• These shapes are not forced into being
defined by nature or the laws of geometry,
they ebb and flow as if directed by an inner
Fig. 2.21, p.40 ELIZABETH MURRAY. Tangled Fall (1989–1990). Oil on canvas. 83-1/2” x 66” x 19”.
Positive and Negative
• Positive shapes - the object(s) or figure(s) that
the viewer focuses on.
• Negative shapes - the empty space (or the
space filled with other imagery) left over in
figure - ground relationship - the
relationship between the positive and negative
shapes in a piece.
figure - ground reversals - when the positive
and negative shapes in a piece can be reversed or
“We tend to perceive things in context.”
Shape as Icon
• Certain shapes carry with them immediate
associations that resonate within a culture.
– Christian Cross
– Jewish Star of David
– Chinese Yin Yang
“Shape is a powerful visual element, and the
representation of shape is a powerful design
Fig. 2.27, p.43 EDWARD STEICHEN. Rodin with His Sculptures “Victor Hugo” and “The Thinker” (1902). Carbon
LIGHT AND VALUE
• Visible light is the part of the spectrum of
electromagnetic energy that we can see.
• Light enables us to see lines, shape and
texture, as well as the visible spectrum
through wavelengths of energy that we
recognize through color.
“Without light there is no art.”
• The value of a color of a surface is its
lightness or darkness.
• Value contrast - the degrees of
difference between shades of gray.
• Drawing objects or figures with a high
value contrast makes them easy to see.
• Value pattern describes the variation in
light and dark within a composition.
The gradual shifting from light to dark
through a successive gradation of tones
across a curved surface.
Fig. 2.34, p. 46 PIERRE-PAUL PRUD’HON. La Source (c. 1801). Black and white chalk on gray paper. 21 3/16 x 15 5/18 in.
Descriptive and Expressive
Properties of Value
• Values - blacks, grays and whites
• May be used to describe objects
• May be used to evoke emotional
response in the viewer.
Fig. 2.36 p.47 LORRAINE O’GRADY Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Goes to the New Museum (1981).
• Language connects emotion with color.
• Color can trigger emotional response in
Dimensions of Color: Hue,
Value, and Saturation
Hue - a term for the family of color.
Cool - colors on the green-blue side of the color wheel.
Warm - colors on the yellow-orange-red side of the color
Saturation - the pureness of the color. The purer the
color, the greater its intensity.
Shades - adding black to a hue.
Tints - adding white to a hue.
Additive and Subtractive
Additive color - mixing lights.
Subtractive color - mixing pigments.
Primary colors - Color that can not be derived from
the mixing of other colored light.
Secondary colors - created from the overlap or
mixing of 2 primary colors.
• In pigments, the primary colors are red,
yellow and blue.
• They can not be produced from mixing other
• Tertiary colors - created by mixing pigments or
primary and secondary colors.
• Analogous colors - hues that lie next to each other on
the color wheel.
• Complementary colors - colors that lie directly
across from one another on the color wheel.
Local versus Optical Color
• Local Color - the hue of an object as created
by the colors its surface reflects under normal
• Optical color - our perceptions of color, which
can vary with lighting conditions.
Color as Symbol
• We link mood with color.
• Feelings and behavior can be
symbolized with colors
• The symbols and meanings of colors are
– Derived from the Latin word for “weaving”
– Used to describe the surface character of things
through the sense of touch.
– An artist can emphasize or distort the texture of an
object in order to evoke emotional response in the
• Impasto - a thick buildup of paint on the surface of
Fig. 2.47, p.53 LEON KOSSOFF. Portrait of Mrs. Peto No. 2 (c. 1972-73). Oil on board.
Types of Texture
• Actual Texture - is tactile, texture you can touch.
Example: impasto, which is the most common
type of texture used in painting.
• Visual Texture - simulated texture. It looks like a
texture but can’t really be felt.
Example: trompe l’oeil, a French word and style of
painting, that means to trick the eye.
• Subversive Texture - texture chosen or created by
the artist to subvert or undermine our ideas about the
objects they depict.
Fig. 2.50, p.54 RACHEL RUYSCH. Flower Still Life (after 1700). Oil on Canvas. 29-3/4” x 23-7/8”.
• Objects exist in three-dimensional space.
• Some art is truly 3D, such as sculpture and
• Other art tries to depict space on a 2D surface,
such as painting.
You can create the illusion of depth by
Fig. 2.56, p. 56 Overlapping circles and arcs.
Relative Size and Linear Perspective
• The further objects are from the viewer,
the smaller they look.
• Things that are closer to us look larger
and things that are further away look
• Artist use different techniques like
relative size and linear perspective to
create the illusion of depth in a piece of
The Illusion of Depth
Vanishing point - the point at which parallel lines cone
together, or converge.
Horizon line - the line where the line of sight stops and on
which the artist often places the vanishing point.
Vantage point - where (or the height) the viewer is looking
One-point perspective - when parallel lines in a picture
come together at one point, the vanishing point, on the horizon
Two-point perspective - when parallel lines in a picture
come together at 2 different points on the horizon line.
Fig. 2.64, p.61 RAFFAELLO SANZIO (CALLED RAPHAEL). Philosophy, or School of Athens
Fig. 2.65, p.61 Perspective in School of Athens.
Fig. 2-66, p.62 GUSTAVE CAILLEBOTTE. Paris Street: Rainy Day (1877). Oil on Canvas. 831/2” x 108-1/4”.
Fig. 2.67, p.62 Perspective in Caillebottoes’s Paris Street: Rainy Day.
• Also called aerial perspective.
• Texture gradient - closer objects are
perceived as having rougher or more detailed
• Brightness gradient - distant objects are less
Fig. 2.69, p.63 SYLVIA PLIMACK MANGOLD. Schunnemunk Mountain (1979). Oil on canvas. 60” x 80-1⁄8”.
Time and Motion
– Kinetic Art - art that moves.
Fig. 2.70. p.64 ALEXANDER CALDER. The Star (1960). Polychrome sheet metal and steel wire.
35 3⁄4” x 53 3⁄4” x 17 5⁄8".
• Stopped Time - a style of art that “stops time”
in order to imply motion.
• Time Implied & Motion Implied - some
works try to imply that motion or time has
Fig. 2.72, p.65 GIANLORENZO BERNINI. Apollo and Daphne (1622–1624). Marble. 7’6”.
The Illusion of Motion
• There is a difference between implied motion and the illusion of
• One implies that the motion has already occurred and the other
implies that the motion is happening right now.
• Early photographic experiments of multiple exposures of
• The blurring of shapes and the repetition of linear patterns
blurring the contours of a figure.
• Blurring outlines to create the illusion of motion.
• Op Art !
• Cinematography and video
• Stroboscopic motion
Fig. 2.73, p.66 THOMAS EAKINS. Man Pole Vaulting (c. 1884). Photograph.
• Op Art - Optical Art, is based on creating optical
sensations of movement through the repetition and
manipulation of color, shape, and line.
• Afterimage - when we look at a color for a long
period of time and then look away you may briefly
see the opposite color due to fatigue of the cornea in