The elements and principles of art and design are used both in the creation and assessment of art. Continue reading to develop a new way to appreciate and dissect artworks through new vocabulary and ideas.
How Do We Examine Art?
Have you ever looked at a painting and wondered what it was that set it apart from the rest? How do critics figure out what is good? How do artists know when their own work is good? To start with, they consider the visual elements and principles of design. This includes looking at the line, shape, color, scale, and balance of the piece. In this lesson, you probably won't learn many new words, but you will learn new ideas behind them and how to use them to assess a work of art.
Line, Shape, and Space
Everyone knows what a line is. We use it every day. You're looking at several lines right now as you read this lesson; but how would you define it? A line is a continuation of a point, or the recording of the movement of said point. Think about your pen when you're writing notes. The point moving is the tip of the pen, and the line made shows the history of that point. Artists use line in a variety of ways: to define shape, or to express texture or emotion. They also create line with a variety of tools, including pens, pencils, and paint.
The line is the one of the earliest artistic elements, starting with cave painting around 15,000 BC. Looking at the cave paintings, you notice how early humans used line to show the shape of various animals. In the instance of the Lascaux Caves, the painters used moss or chunks of raw pigment to make their lines, attempting to define the shape of the animals.
M.C Escher. Sky and Water I. 1938.
Shape is another aspect of art, and it is defined by the outline or edge of an object. Shape can be two, or three, dimensional. Think about how children draw the world around them. They do not consider the form, or the full three-dimensional volume, of an object. They draw the outline, or the simplified shape. Artist M.C. Escher uses shape to his advantage in his work Sky and Water I. He plays with the shapes of fish and birds, the white background becoming the white fish, and the black background becoming the black birds.
What elements are in use for this piece to be effective? For one, he's using the shapes of both creatures, but he is also using another element: space. How would you define the black and white areas before they morph into the creatures? It is called negative space. Negative space is the area around the subject matter of an artwork. Artists often use negative space as a method of adding interest to a subject matter. This is not the only way artists make use of space. They use actual space with architecture and sculpture, three-dimensional objects that interact with the world through which we move. Artists also create space in two-dimensional works, such as paintings, and this is called implied space.
Let's look at the painting Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. You feel as if you are looking through a window into a huge, empty landscape. Dali tricks our eye with his painting to imply a larger space beyond the surface of the canvas by chopping the landscape up into the background and foreground (the part of the painting closest to us). Realistic space has existed in the earliest paintings, and artists continue to use this trick today.
Salvador Dali. Persistence of Memory. 1931.
Salvador Dali used another element of art to create a specific mood in his work: color. In science, color is a component of light. In art, we use pigments (a coloring material) to control and work with color, mixing pigments to make new colors or make colors lighter or darker. Pure color, such as yellow, red, and green, is known as hue, as seen on the outer edges of the color wheels. Making a color lighter or darker is known as value. Artists work with a variety of hues and values to create their works, either attempting to create a realistic image of the world, or imply a feeling with the use of abstract shapes and hues.
Let's go back to Dali's Persistence of Memory, and examine his use of color. The painting uses browns, blues, yellows, and oranges to lead our eyes around the piece. Where does your eye go first? Do you tend to go to the areas with the warmest colors, such as the yellows and oranges? Artists often choose warmer colors, such as yellow and orange, to draw attention to objects.
Principles of Design
We've just considered some of the more important elements of art, but what we did not discuss is how the artist chose to assemble these details. This process of assembling the elements is design. Artists design a strong artwork in a variety of ways, and we dissect these ways through the principles of design. One way is through the use of scale and proportion. Scale refers to a subject size in relation to the world around it, while proportion deals with the size of parts of a subject in relation to itself. If someone has unusually large hands, this would be considered a reflection of proportion.
Scale deals instead with the size of the subject in relation to the rest of the world, as in Francisco Goya's The Colossus. When he designed this painting, Goya made the figure huge in relation to the tiny town below, giving us the sense of a giant storming through the countryside. Goya chooses to not only make the figure large, but the buildings very small. These are all conscious choices of the artist when designing the piece, attempting to tell us a specific story through his art.
Francisco Goya. The Colossus. 1812.
Consider some of the other ways Goya designs his piece. He highlights the giant in warm, lighter colors, whereas the town, landscape and background are all very dark. By doing this, he is using contrast, placing highly different things beside one another. Contrast attracts our attention quickly, and allows the artist to create a focal point (center of attention) in the picture.
Balance is another method for an artist to design his or her work of art. This can be done either through the use of symmetry or asymmetry. In Philips Butterflies by Damien Hirst, he uses perfect symmetry for his balance: exact matching left and right sides. This method of balance is the least common in two dimensional art, but it is often seen with sculpture and architecture. Asymmetry is much more common with photography, painting, and drawing because it reflects a more natural world. Let's look at an example. Do you feel that the scale or proportion is unusual or unnatural in this painting? Edgar Degas uses asymmetry in Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers to show a more realistic scene on the stage, but he still needs to create a fluid looking work of art. He considers the placement, scale, and contrast of the objects in his work to create a perfect balance.
Damien Hirst. Philips Butterflies.
Edgar Degas. Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers. 1878.
The elements and principles of art and design allow us to interact with artworks in a deeper, more intelligent way. When looking at a work of art, don't just look for the story, but instead consider the line quality or how the piece creates the illusion of space. Line and space can both create shape, and knowing that an artist deliberately chose the quality of these elements allows you to figure out more about the artist's intent. Color, similarly, reflects intent from an artist, and artists use color to reflect emotions and thoughts, as well as reality.
The artist's use and organization of these elements is known as design, and the methods for this organization include scale, balance, and contrast. Next time you look at a work of art, consider why the artist put the piece together the way he or she did.