Art Definitions

  1. Visual Elements (the basic things that can be seen)
  2. Design and Composition Principles (arranging the basic things in the best way)
  3. Visual Effects (ways to fool the eye – make an impression)

Elements of Design


An element is one of those basic visible things.  In science, the elements are on the periodic chart (hydrogen, iron, oxygen, gold, sulfur, etc.) and are what everything thing on the earth has been created from.  In art, it is an element if it is visible and there is nothing more simple or basic to define it.


Line – is a mark on a surface that describes a shape or outline.  It can create texture and can be thick or thin.  Line can be actual or implied, such as the horizon line in a Landscape.

  • Five basic line types – horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved, and zig zag
  • Line quality refers to the description of a line – thick, thin, dotted, etc.

Shape – is a two-dimensional outline with no thickness or form.  Shapes are flat and can be grouped into three categories, geometric (square, triangle, etc.), organic (based on nature), and freeform (non-objective).

Form – is a three-dimensional object having volume and thickness.  It is the illusion of a 3-D effect that can be implied with the use of light and shading techniques in a 2-D work of art.  Form can be viewed from many angles.

Color – refers to specific hues (another word for color) and has properties of Intensity and Value.  The color wheel is a way of showing the chromatic scale in a circle using all the colors made with the primary triad (red, blue, and yellow).  Secondary colors (orange, purple, and green) are mixed from the primary colors.  Intermediate (tertiary) colors are a combination of a primary and a secondary color (found next to each other on the color wheel) mixed (blue-green).  Black and white can be added to produce tints (add white), shades (add black), and tones (add gray).  Complimentary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel (yellow, purple).

Intensity – the brightness or dullness of a color.

Value – is the degree of light and dark in a design.  It is the contrast between black and white and all the grays between.  Value applies to colors as well, with all the tints, shades, and tones between the primary, secondary and intermediate colors.

Texture – is about surface quality, either actual (tactile, you can feel it) or implied (visual only).  It is the degree of roughness or smoothness of objects.


Space – positive and negative space describes the areas created by shapes and forms in a composition.  Positive space refers to the objects in a picture.  Negative space is the area surrounding the positive space, usually the background.

Contrast – the extreme changes between values, such as black and white.  Contrast offers some change in value, creating a visual discord in a composition.  Contrast can accentuate the differences between shapes and can be used as a background to bring objects forward in a design.  Contrast can also be used to create an area of emphasis or dominance.

Principles of Compositional Design

A principle is something that can be repeatedly and dependably combined and used with the elements to produce some visual effect in a composition.  The principles of design are the recipe for a good work of art.  The principles combine the elements to create an aesthetic placement of things that will produce a good design.  Principles of design help artists carefully plan and organize the elements of art so that an artwork will hold interest and command attention.  This is sometimes referred to as visual impact.  Principles of design successfully “glue” the artistic elements together.


Balance – a feeling of visual equality in shape, form, value, color, etc.  Balance can be symmetrical (evenly balanced) or asymmetrical and unevenly balanced.  Balance can also be radial, moving outward from the center point of a circle.

Center of Interest/Emphasis – area that first attracts attention in a composition.  This area is more important when compared to the other objects or elements in an artwork.  Emphasis can be created by placement in the format, contrast of values or more colors.

Directional Movement – is a visual flow through the composition.  This could be the suggestion of motion in a design, causing the eye to move from object to object by placement and position.  Directional movement can also be created with a value pattern.  The placement of alternating dark and light areas can draw attention through an artwork.


Rhythm – a sense of movement in which some elements recur regularly.  Like a dance, the work will have a flow of objects (shapes), lines, or colors that will seem organized similar to the beat and rhythm of music.

Pattern – repetition of an element or several elements in a composition (color, shape, etc.).  Pattern can be repeated, alternating, or random.

Harmony/Unity/Variety – A composition brought together with similar units or elements.  If an artwork were begun using wavy lines and organic shapes, it would need to be finished with the same types of line and shapes.  A single geometric shape or a single straight line would disrupt the harmony and unity.  Using the combination of wavy lines as well as organic shapes creates variety in the composition.

Aesthetic – having a sense of beauty, involving or concerned with pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality


Composition – An orderly arrangement of artistic elements brought together using the principles of design.  (A work of Art)

Symbolic Meaning – Knowing the cultural/historical roots of a work of art adds meaning to the work.  A composition can still “work” aesthetically but it may lack heart and soul because we don’t know the artist’s cultural/historical background.  Culture and History are tools of the time used to express an idea that is uniquely the artist’s.

Types of Paintings

There are many different types of paintings.  Some of the most common are:

Landscape: An outdoor view of nature, such as mountains, rivers, sky desert, fields or forests.  Some Landscapes include people, animals, buildings (barns, houses, or sheds), quiet roads or streets.  If people or animals are included, they are not the focal point.  In a Landscape, Seascape, or Cityscape, an artist creates the illusion of a three-dimensional world on a flat canvas or paper.


Seascape: A scene at sea (a ship on the water) or a scene including a portion of the sea, like waves along the beach.  The water (ocean or sea) is the focal point, or a larger part of the scene.


Cityscape: A scene including city buildings, bridges, streets or traffic lights.  A Cityscape might include a river or a park surrounded by skyscrapers.


Interior and/or Genre (jon-ruh): These are scenes set indoors.  If people are present in the picture, they take less space and are not as important as the interior itself.  Genre scenes depict ordinary people doing everyday things, according to the historical times in which they live.


Portrait: View of a person, several people, or an animal.  Portraits might show only the face, but may include part, or all, of the body as well.  Portraits may be set inside or outdoors.  The subject usually fills most of the picture.  Some artist’s portraits do not look realistic.  A portrait may be a painting, a photograph, or even a sculpture.


Still Life: A picture showing an arrangement of objects, usually set on a table.  The objects themselves are the focal point.  In general, almost any object can be included, as long as it is inanimate (nonliving) and small enough to fit on a table.  Occasionally, a live animal that can be “still” is included (goldfish in a bowl, bird in a cage, sleeping cat).  A Still Life is usually set indoors and contains at least one man-made object, such as a vase or bowl.  Flower arrangements are a popular object found in Still Life paintings.  Cut flowers no longer growing in the garden are considered inanimate.  Artists use many, many traditional objects in a Still Life painting arrangement.  You might see some of these objects in a Still Life painting:


  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Other Food (cake, muffins, eggs, feast)
  • Vines or Houseplants
  • Cut Flowers
  • Baskets
  • Pottery
  • Vases
  • Jugs
  • Bottles
  • Ceramics
  • Dinnerware (plate, bowl, teacup, pitcher)
  • Glassware (goblet, wineglass)
  • Kitchen Utensils
  • Cookware
  • Hats, scarves, mittens
  • Books
  • Bookends
  • Decorative Tablecloth
  • Crumpled Fabric
  • Cloth Napkins
  • Decorative Boxes
  • Toys (ball, rattle, doll)
  • Artist’s Tools (paints, brushes, canvas)
  • Writer’s Tools (computer, paper, eraser, pencils)
  • Student’s Tools (books, ruler, scissors, notebook)
  • Fisherman’s Tools (pole, lures, bait, tackle box, vest)
  • Carpenter Tools
  • Garden Tools
  • Candlesticks
  • Musical Instruments
  • Sheet Music
  • Wild Game (tracked by a hunter or fisherman)

Comments are closed.