In the field of visual arts, it’s essential to learn to use the elements and principles of art harmoniously. Armed with this knowledge, you can successfully convey your artistic message to your viewers, and also analyze, understand, and evaluate the works of other artists.
The elements and principles of art work together successfully by forming a unified whole in the composition. As an artist you need to choose which visual elements can express the thoughts, impressions or feelings you want to communicate. You also have to decide what composition principles, materials and techniques will help you achieve the desired effects. Like any spoken language, visual language has its own means of expression. Just as we learn the vocabulary and grammar of a spoken language, it is necessary to master the elements and principles of visual language to understand it. Spoken languages use words and sentences, the visual language communicates with pictorial elements.
Artists express their thoughts, impressions, passions, and feelings through their works of art. To accomplish this, the expressive elements of visual arts must be organized into a unified whole following the principles of artistic composition.
Whether you work with traditional techniques or digital tools, knowledge of visual elements and artistic principles is necessary.
The process of creating a work of art
- The creation of a work of art begins with the idea, feeling, impression, or thought that the artist wishes to convey to his or her viewers. As an artist, you can draw inspiration from your imagination or the surrounding world. The object of a work of art can represent the physical or living world, ideas, experiences, cultural, religious, or historical themes.
- Once you have formulated the idea you want to portray, the next step is to choose the principles of the artistic composition according to which you will arrange the visual elements in your artwork. By applying the principles of composition, you can create an aesthetic order.
- The third phase of the creation of a work of art is the selection of materials and techniques. You can realize an artwork with both traditional and digital tools and techniques.
What are the elements and principles of art?
According to some experts, the basic elements of visual language are the dot, a line, a surface in a plane, a shape in space, and color. Others include size, texture, tonal value, and spatial direction.
1. The dot
The dot is the smallest, most elementary graphic element. It is rarely on its own, but many dots together form a shape or line. We consider an element to be a dot due to its small size. The dot can appear in various shapes. For example, the flowers in a field appear as dots when viewed from a distance.
Impressionists, and later Neo-Impressionists, began to use the dot as a unique element. The paintings of the pointillists were made up of dots. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed the pointillist technique in the 1880s.
Pointillism has discovered the kind of color mixing that occurs in the eye when you look at adjacent dots of different colors. With dots painted in different colors and at different densities, you can also represent a tonal value and the depth of space.
2. The Line
The line can be straight, broken or curved, thick or thin. You can include a line in a work of art in the following ways:
- An outline defines the shape of an object and is usually a closed line.
- A structural or contour line defines the internal structure of an object.
- A boundary line separates two or more objects.
Prehistoric artists have already used the line as an expressive tool in making their cave paintings. Lines can express spatial effects, they can be dynamic or static, soft or rigid. Within a composition, the lines may be symmetrical, rhythmically repetitive, or contrasting with each other.
During the Renaissance, as the demand for realistic representation increased, artists built their works of art from surfaces with different tonal values instead of lines. The line mostly appeared on the sketches that they used as a study for paintings and sculptures.
Renaissance artists also used the linear perspective and created geometric schemes to create their compositions. Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer represented the human body geometrically.
The Impressionists rediscovered the line as an independent expressive element.
3. A surface in a plane or a shape in space
A flat shape is a surface within a defined outline that has a two-dimensional effect. The flat shape has been used in prehistoric cave drawings and ancient Egyptian paintings.
If we apply shading within a form, we can perceive the depth of space by depicting light and shadow. The great masters of the Renaissance developed such a representation of space to perfection.
The shapes can be geometric and rigid, or irregular and soft. Surfaces and shapes can also be symmetrical, rhythmically repetitive, or in contrast with each other.
Rays of light are either reflected from an object or absorbed by it. We see the reflected rays of light as color. By using colors in our artwork, we can evoke feelings and emotions. Through colors, we can express light and shadow, depicting the depth of space and the distance between objects.
Artists have used colors in their works of art since the earliest eras of art history, including the Paleolithic. Renaissance artists started to use color to depict the depth of space.
The colors in a work of art contrast with each other when there is a striking difference between them. According to Swiss artist and art teacher Johannes Itten, there are seven types of color contrast.
5. Tonal value
Tonal value is what makes colors appear darker or lighter. Value is the brightness of the colors.
Value is a visual element with a big impact. We can express a spatial effect with it by creating soft transitions or sharp contrasts. This was the basis of the chiaroscuro technique developed in the Renaissance, which makes objects appear three-dimensional when illuminated from the side.
The tonal value affects the mood of the work of art, and the feelings it evokes from the viewer. It can be bright and cheerful, peaceful, dramatically sharp, or dark and sad.
Rembrandt masterfully applied the effects of light and shadow in his paintings.
The direction helps to determine the position of the object in space, it provides a basis for spatial orientation.
The spatial location of an object is relative, it can always be determined by measuring it to another object, which is the reference point. The two main directions are horizontal and vertical. The horizontal direction can be the surface of the Earth or water, and the vertical direction is determined by gravity.
An important property of a shape is its size, which is also relative. The size of an object can only be interpreted in comparison to another object. With size, we can also express spatial depth. Larger things seem closer to us in space, and smaller ones are distant.
In art history, size was not always determined by a position in space, but by a position in the religious and political hierarchy. Thus, in ancient Egyptian paintings, the pharaoh was depicted as the largest figure. The same applies to some medieval works of art.
Proportion is the relation of the sizes of different parts compared to each other. Proportions play an important role in the representation of the human body as well as in architecture.
In different eras of art history, the proportions of the human body were determined by different canons influenced by the beauty ideal of that age.
These canons are mostly based on the dimensions of one body part to which the other dimensions within the human body are compared. This can be the length of the head, feet, or finger.
The depiction of oldest beauty ideal is depicted in the Paleolithic Venus statuettes. The best known of these is the Venus of Willendorf which is approximately 25,000 years old.
The ancient Egyptians created the first canon of proportions, but the Greeks and Romans also developed their systems.
Leonardo da Vinci created the famous Vitruvian man based on the canon of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. Albrecht Dürer’s system of proportions is also significant.
Texture refers to the quality of the surface of an artwork, which includes the applied materials and the artist’s unique style of handling the brush, pencil, or other tools.
The texture of various materials, such as wood, metal, or textiles, can be expressed visually with colors or lines. The representation of texture is an important element of architectural and sculptural works.
Principles of composition in the visual arts
Composition means the placement of visual elements according to certain principles and systems within a given work of art. It is in human nature to strive for aesthetic order. The compositional principles and systems developed during the history of art help us achieve this.
I have already described the visual expressive elements in the previous section. Let us now look briefly at the main compositional principles and systems.
Rhythm is the repetition of elements evenly and in a certain system. If the repeating elements are uniform, the result is a monotonous rhythm.
If the repeating elements are different in something, such as size or color, we get an alternating rhythm. The alternation of rhythm is repetition with change.
Symmetry means visual balance. It can apply to lines, shapes, and geometric bodies.
By drawing an axis, you can divide any symmetrical element into two identical sides, which will be mirror images of each other.
Symmetry creates harmony in a work of art, but overall symmetry is not as visually appealing. Every artwork also needs a certain degree of asymmetry, making the composition dynamic. Complete asymmetry or disharmony, on the other hand, can be confusing.
Contrast exists between elements with very different or opposite properties. The greater the difference between the properties, the sharper the contrast.
For example, there may be a contrast between small and large or dark and light elements, between cold and warm colors. If a work of art contains uniform elements, it will be visually uninteresting.
The dominant element is the visual center of the composition. The other elements of the composition are organized around the dominant element and play a subordinate role. An element can dominate in size, color, and shape.
- Depending on the orientation, a composition may be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, central, or symmetrical.
- Depending on its shape, a composition may be rectangular, square, or circular. The proportions of the composition may also be according to the golden ratio.
- Based on spatial depth, the composition may be in a flat plane, linear or atmospheric perspective, or in a pyramidal form.
- A composition may be closed or open.
Techniques and materials in the visual arts
Material and technique are the first things a viewer encounters when viewing a work of art. Therefore, you have to combine them with visual elements and compositional principles to successfully express your artistic message.
Drawing tools can be graphite pencils, charcoal, pen and ink, or a brush. Painting tools can be dry and oil pastels, watercolor, tempera, oil paint, gouache, or acrylic paint. In addition to traditional techniques and materials, you can also work with digital devices.
As an artist, you strive to communicate a message to your viewers. You can successfully convey your artistic message if the elements and principles of art are in unity in your artwork.
My name is Debora, and I’m the founder of Drawing Fundamentals. I work as a civil engineering technician. I acquired the basic knowledge necessary for freehand and technical drawing during my school training, further developing and perfecting these skills throughout my years in the profession. Through my blog, I aim to assist anyone interested in learning to draw.