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Art to Heart

Visual Arts Basics and Terms

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.

Exploring the Elements and Principles

  • Even before your child begins to talk, you can help him or her become familiar with the elements of art by talking about what you see and do. Point out examples of different kinds of lines, shapes, forms, colors, and textures. (In the “Playing in Paint” segment in Program 1 of Art to Heart, for example, teachers let infants touch bubble wrap and aluminum foil and point out that they are bumpy and smooth, respectively.)
  • As your child’s language ability grows, ask him or her to point out types of lines, shapes, forms, colors, and textures. Make a game of it: “Can you find a curved line?” “Let’s count how many red things we see on the way to the grocery store.” Or have a “shape meal.” For example, for a triangle meal, cut sandwiches into triangles and serve triangular-shaped crackers. Take a walk with a camera and let your child take photographs of everything of a particular color.
  • Make exploring the arts basics physical, in keeping with your child’s gross and fine motor skills development. Have your child hop or march in a straight line, then a curved line; make shapes with his or her body.
  • Allow lots of open-ended arts experiences. Let children mix Play-doh or paint to create secondary colors. Play different kinds of music and let your child paint or draw lines to the music. Make collages using construction paper cut into a variety of shapes and yarn to make lines. (See Program 2 of Art to Heart for an example of this activity using a Stuart Davis painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Gather together empty boxes and containers that represent a variety of forms and allow children to create creatures, robots, spaceships, buildings, or whatever else they can imagine. Make rubbings (by placing a white piece of paper over an object and rubbing it with the side of a crayon) to create different textures on paper.
  • Ask your child to point out elements and principles in book illustrations or works of art you see at the museum. Again, keep it light and fun. “Do you see a curved line in this picture?” “What color is the bird in this painting?”
  • Do these kinds of activities alongside your child. Practice together seeing objects and art works in terms of the elements of art and principles of design.

Back to Program 2 »