Elements and Principles of Art & Design

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  • 0:00 How Do We Examine Art?
  • 0:38 Line, Shape, and Space
  • 3:54 Color
  • 5:17 Principles of Design
  • 8:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ryan Hultzman
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.
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. 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.

Color wheels with various values. Wilhelm von Bezold. 1874

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.

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