Do you know an answer to a question What are the elements of art exactly? Traditional way of looking at art, namely the visual arts, suggests that there are five basic elements of an art work – line, shape, color, texture and space. You might find form singled out as a separate category, defined as a three-dimensional alternative to shape. Some also mention value, which is described as a parameter that determines the intensity of color, and pattern, which refers to repetition. As you can already imagine, these are supposed to be the basic units deployed to constitute a visual arrangement, ultimately perceived as a whole.
Thanks to the way our brain functions, we rarely interpret these units individually, unless we deliberately choose to focus on each of them in particular, or in case the artist aims to emphasize a single element in order to achieve a certain effect or to make a statement. The latter is a phenomenon more common for modern art, which emerged at the turn of the 19th century when the visual representation was challenged by an endeavor to deconstruct the existing assumptions which determined the way we understand the role of art and culture. Even if most of today’s art is not essentially based on the traditional forms of visual arts anymore, the elements of art continue to build our ocular perception. Hardly anything that belongs to the domain of the visual can be achieved without at least one of these elements.
Saying that the line is the most essential of all art elements somehow comes naturally. After all, it is usually the first and the most pristine outcome of our contact with writing tools, pens, pencils, crayons, etc, and typically the first thing we choose to use in order to represent the reality around us. Even the occurrences that do not have strictly outlined edges, such as the sun, the clouds or water, are depicted with lines rather than smudges of color in young children’s drawings. What this means is that lines are, in a way, our most valuable companions when it comes to expressing our feelings or thoughts, both for artistic and practical reasons. It is also a very interesting thing to observe and analyze, given that a line is, in general, an abstract phenomenon basically invented by humans.
A line is mathematically defined as a path that connects two dots or a path of an imagined moving dot. In reality, we tend to simplify all elements that are greater in length than in width, depth or diameter, and to perceive them as lines. This includes the things we see in everyday life that exhibit linear features, but also the phenomena we perceive as lines due to our vision, which is instructed by linear perspective. The way objects are arranged in space offers an image that usually consists of an endless number of various lines, even if these lines do not exist in physical space. An object adjacent to the surface of another, the outline of a figure against a distant landscape, the edges of mountains facing the sky – all of them present themselves as “lines”, while in reality, they are much more or less complex. Nonetheless, the human capacity to translate these visual stimuli into something as simple as a line attests to the significance of abstract thinking, and basically sums up the reasons why we are able to create something as artificial, albeit nature-like, as art.
The line is particularly important for one other reason as well, and it is its potential to convey the personal touch of an artist. As discussed above, lines are the primary tools of artistic expression, and therefore analogous to handwriting in terms of expressing individuality. A freeform line drawn by a single individual is generally inimitable, which ultimately helps us recognize the author of a painting or a drawing when there is no name attached. A style of painting, brush-stroking, drawing or dripping is something each of us does differently. It makes a Picasso differ from a Braque.
Once we are able to recognize that a line is not just a line, but that it has a certain shape, it becomes, well – a shape. Shapes are defined as two-dimensional figures that we can discern as familiar. These include geometric shapes (deployed by cubists, for example), organic (which you may find among the examples of Art Nouveau posters and paintings), abstract, etc. Form, on the other hand, is a three-dimensional figure, meaning that it occupies a certain amount of space. The characteristics of shapes apply to forms as well, and the only difference is represented through the engagement of the third dimension (usually denoted as depth).
This means that even when a painting aims to illustrate a single form, such as a cube, for example, it actually depicts the shape taken up by the form, as seen from a certain angle. It represents the cube’s perceived volume (which, from the front angle, turns out to be the square). Obviously, form is much more frequently deployed in plastic arts, sculpture and architecture than in painting and drawing, however the communication between the two – the shape and the form – is the crucial aspect of many art genres. Most of today’s architecture would have never been built if there wasn’t for it. Even more obviously, the ability to transfer forms into shapes on paper makes the most of the entire painting process.
There is one interesting observation that examines the way we perceive certain shapes and why we perceive them as such, for that matter. While the reference to the organic and the geometric ones should be obvious – the former we see in our natural surroundings, the latter was invented by humans themselves – our ability to recognize the abstract is not as easily explained. While growing up and building experience, we learn to detect or dismiss objects and their forms in time, meaning that our brain organizes the percept in our memory. This helps us identify those that cannot be named or attributed to the organic ones, and perceive closed or almost-closed lines as shapes, and not lines. The principle to organize particles into a whole, and to prefer the whole to a “sum” of units is what psychologists call Gestalt, which we will get back to later in this article.
All art is placed within a certain space (aren’t we all, in the end). But when it comes to visual arts, there are several ways in which we tend to use the term space. Space is often illusively recreated in a painting or a drawing, realistically or in a distorted manner. As much as the representation of space is an important part of all visual arts, especially when being trained for painting or when studying architecture for example, it is the least engaging way to refer to the term as an art element at this point, since it functions on the same principle as shape/form analogy does. At times, the word-space is used conditionally, to refer to the two-dimensional negative space left in the piece of canvas or paper. A “blank”, or simply negative space, is sometimes a constituent part of an artwork, but rarely in an explicit manner. The intact part of the paper is very often deliberately left that way, in order to create the desired context and to suggest the right scale for observing the subject matter, which thus occupies the so-called positive space.
Of course, this analogy is derived from the real, physical space that we inhabit as well. Consequently, a piece of art, be it a sculpture, an assemblage, an installation or even a painting, occupies a particular physical space with a certain purpose. More often than not, the decision to surround a work of art with certain elements or to position it against a particular backdrop is intentional and integral to the artwork. The distance from which we may be able to observe a painting and the possibility to circle around an exhibit are almost as relevant as the content of the artwork itself. This is specifically important for art installations, since the concepts behind them are usually site-specific, or at least site-suggestive, meaning that the venue is dictated by the character of the installation. The idea of negative and positive space applies here as well, but it tends to create confusion when it comes to large-scale pieces and art installations. One of the masters of this inversion of negative space is Anish Kapoor, whose pieces often literally become the space itself.
“Sculpture isn't simply an object in space. It lives through the processional or returning view. In a normal-scale object-a[n Auguste] Rodin or [Donald] Judd for example, the living process is the walking around its three-dimensionality. We're accustomed to the mise en scène in which the first view is the whole view, but you have to keep reviewing the medium, just as you do with Rodin because the front of Balzac is not the same as the back." - Anish Kapoor
Finally, two qualities that strike us in everyday life and serve as an inexhaustible source of inspiration are color and texture, both of which have been studied, both in arts and science, for centuries. Color is the light reflected off objects, perceived in different hues depending on the wavelength. Thanks to the so-called cone and rode cells, our eyes are able to absorb the light and to distinguish three channels of colors that consequently burst into millions of tones, which makes our world appear so beautiful and vivid. Allegedly, colors are able to induce the widest range of emotions out all the visual art elements, which is why they are often seen as enigmatic and cryptic as if they truly possess a power to affect our emotional state.
The use of colors in contemporary psychology is therefore numerous, as both through our experience and our innate physical responses each color becomes associated with a variety of feelings, and lately even with certain social and political significations as well. The list of artists who researched color and its implicit language is quite a long one, and it involves the Bauhaus mystic Johannes Itten, the color-field painters Rothko, Newman and Klein, the minimalist Frank Stella and the Op Art pioneer Bridget Riley, the aforementioned Anish Kapoor… This could basically go on for hours, given that the significance and impact of color is crucial for arts, meaning that even when there is no color, it becomes a subject of why there is no color. Similarly, when the colors are not imitating the ones from real life, they express the creator's own assessment of reality, given from a specific standpoint. For this reason, it was frequently incorporated as an element most apt to deliver a sentiment, either intuitively or intentionally. As the fascination goes beyond art, people have been struggling to recreate pigments from nature, to synthesize unnatural values and tones of color, and even to see the "forbidden colors" that cannot normally be seen in nature.
Texture is the quality of a surface, which is a sensation perceivable by the skin rather than the eyes. However, we have been able to build a knowledge of how particularly looking surfaces and materials feel, thanks to their palpable qualities and our experience with them. This means that translating the characteristics of a surface onto a plane makes us experience texture through vision, as the painters exhibit their skill in representing the texture truthfully. Texture can also be a special quality relating to the body of painting itself, one that displays the visible brush strokes as an integral part of the painting, like the one of Wayne Thiebaud below. Nonetheless, the concept of a material's roughness, softness or hardness is also frequently seen in other media, such as sculpture. The illusion of the material's original quality is often achieved by manipulating crafted materials, such as clay or wood. On the other hand, the artwork might be playing with our expectations from it, since various materials are commonly used to create illusions of a texture that they do not possess - such as the increasingly popular marble-looking foam rubber in furniture design, or the transparent stone in the architecture of Kengo Kuma.
Before we conclude this article, it would be useful to reflect on the basic art elements and their relevance to today’s art and art education. At some point, the difference between arts and crafts became drastic, and this “intellectualized” approach to art is a trend that remains to this day. However, the means of expressing an idea are still based on the capacities of human senses, which haven’t changed significantly since the beginning of humanity as we know it. The digitally informed environment might bring some improvements to our senses, or even some decreases for that matter, but until that happens, everything we are able to feel and experience is still going to be served for the same receptors, our eyes, our skin, and ears.
The subject matter and the way we explore each of the elements of art changed over time, which led to an altered approach to these features. Gestalt psychology was mentioned in this text, due to its main principle that points out how human perception acknowledges the whole as other than a sum of parts. It recognizes the anthropological tendency to group similar traits and to categorize information, to connect parts and to deduce meaning rather than merely observe without contemplation. It could be said that visual representation functions according to this theory, but so does our cognitive ability to consider different ideas and phenomena.
Hence, it is important to mention that modern art was a time of exploration, a time of departure from tradition, and also a moment to abandon everything we know and to grasp the uncanny, which at times meant separating each of these elements and challenging the Gestalt. We can see the outcomes of these intents through many historical movements, such as De Stijl, the Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and so further. The elements were finally reduced to their essential notions in abstract art. Finally, now that we've overcome the modern era, and probably the postmodern as well, we are beginning to find new purpose for each of the classic elements of art, aware of how they were reinvented in the era of modernism. This means that everything can be brought into question, and the possibility of a single meaning no longer exists, just like the post-structuralist philosophy suggests. Our beautiful visual world is richer than ever, and so are the ever-progressing means of representation.
Editors’ Tip: Eyes Of the Skin
Juhani Pallasmaa wrote The Eyes of the Skin in 1996, and it has become a classic of architectural theory. However, even though the book mainly centers around the question of why has one single sense – sight – become so predominant in architectural culture and design, it may also be perceived as a guidebook to understanding the power and nature of our five senses. Furthermore, it explains the principles on which our sight is based, and how we managed to evaluate and visually approximate the phenomena that do not speak to our eyes.
Featured image: Henri Matisse - La Danse (1909); Study of Two Dancers by Edgar Degas, charcoal, High Museum of Art. All images are for illustrative purposes only.