Whether it’s a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a collage, or a photograph, every work of visual art is made up of some basic building blocks. These are called the elements of art and principles of design.
Under Kentucky’s education standards for arts and humanities, by the end of 3rd grade, students are expected to be able to describe art works in terms of the elements of art and principles of design.
Elements of Art
A line is a mark made on a surface by a moving point. The element of line has a wide range of qualities and expressive possibilities: curved lines, diagonal lines, dotted lines, straight lines, etc. Lines can vary in width as well as length; they can be thick or thin.
A shape is an enclosed space formed by other elements such as lines or colors; shapes can be geometric or organic. Geometric shapes can be measured and defined, such as squares, circles, and ovals. Organic shapes are the more free-flowing shapes that occur in nature, such as clouds, puddles, and leaves.
A form is a three-dimensional shape. Cones, spheres, and cubes are geometric forms; waves and tree branches are examples of organic forms.
This term refers to the real or perceived surface quality or “feel” of an object; its roughness, smoothness, softness, etc.
Whether we see an object as red or brown or yellow is the result of the reflection or absorption of light.
One tool for organizing color is a color wheel. It shows the visible light spectrum organized in a circular format. The color wheel is based on three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue (or, more precisely, magenta red, yellow, and cyan blue)—spaced equidistantly on the circle. Between the primary colors are the secondary colors that can be mixed from the primary colors—orange (a mixing of red and yellow), green (a mixing of blue and green), and purple (a mixing of red and blue). Tertiary colors are made by mixing a secondary color with a primary color that is adjacent to it on the color wheel (such as red-orange or blue-green). A wide range of colors is possible by mixing adjacent colors.
Colors are thought of as warm, cool, or neutral. Warm colors are those that lie between red-violet and yellow on the wheel. They are associated with the sun and fire. Cool colors range from blue-violet to yellow-green and are associated with water, leaves, and shadows. Neutral colors are black, white, and gray.
Principles of Design
These terms have to do with the organization of visual art works.
Emphasis (focal point)
This principle of design is concerned with the dominant feature or center of interest of an art work. It’s what your eye is drawn to first. Artists use placement, color, shape, proportion, and contrast to create emphasis and catch your eye.
Pattern is the repetition of an element such as lines, shapes, or colors.
Balance refers to the arrangement of the elements in a work of art to create a sense of visual stability. Balance can be symmetrical (the same on both sides), asymmetrical (different on both sides but still in balance), or radial (branching out from a central point).
This design principle emphasizes differences between the art elements. For example, a painting may have bright colors that contrast with dull colors or angular shapes that contrast with rounded shapes. Sharp contrast draws attention and can direct a viewer to a focal point within a work of art.