The terms “elements of art” and “elements of design” are often used interchangeably: they both refer to the fundamental building blocks of visual composition in both art and design.
What are the Elements of Art?
The elements of art — color, line, shape, space, form, texture, and value — serve as the backbone of all visual and written compositions. They are indispensable tools for artists, graphic designers, and writers alike, enabling them to create compelling and communicative works. By understanding and skillfully manipulating these elements, you can significantly enhance your ability to craft effective, engaging, and visually pleasing creations.
Color, an element resulting from reflected light, is a potent tool for stirring emotions. Artists might use color to set the tone of their works, designers can use color to guide viewer perception, and writers can invoke specific scenes and feelings through descriptive language. As F. Scott Fitzgerald vividly portrays in “The Great Gatsby”, “In the blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
Lines, the fundamental element of art, can define space, contours, and outlines, or suggest mass and volume. Artists and designers use lines to shape their compositions and guide viewer attention. In writing, think of the ‘line’ as a through-line, or main thread, guiding your narrative or argument. A well-crafted through-line is like a hand-drawn path on a map, leading your reader through your work.
Lines, the most basic element of art, are used to define space, contours, and outlines, or suggest mass and volume. For example, Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” features expressive, swirling lines, creating a dynamic, dreamy, and emotionally charged scene (Lauer & Pentak, 2011).
Shape, an enclosed space defined by other art elements such as color, line, and texture, can be geometric or organic. Shapes can express different moods and feelings, add depth to compositions, and convey complex ideas without using words. Artists, for example, often experiment with the use of shapes to create new interpretations of reality. A classic example is Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which uses geometric shapes to challenge conventional representations of the human form. In design, a logo like the universally recognized Apple Inc. logo uses a simple shape – an apple with a bite taken out – to embody the brand’s identity. For writers, shaping your narrative or argument effectively is like building a house, where each part contributes to the whole, and the shape of the whole provides context and meaning to the parts.
Space, the breathing room between elements, is a silent but powerful player in any creative work. It’s like the pause between beats in your favorite song, creating rhythm and guiding your experience. In visual arts, consider the cinematic universe of the “Star Wars” saga. It isn’t just the captivating characters or epic battles that make it compelling; it’s the vast, infinite space they move in, a silent backdrop that underscores the grandeur and drama of their struggles.
For a moment, think about a website you recently visited and enjoyed scrolling through. Perhaps it was a favorite online store or a trendy blog. That delightful user experience owes a lot to space. The well-executed use of negative space, often filled with white or a solid color, made the content digestible, inviting, and balanced.
Space is also the invisible, yet tangible force in writing. Remember those suspenseful chapter breaks in “The Hunger Games,” holding you on the edge of your seat and forcing you to turn the page? Space in writing, whether it’s a dramatic pause in a dialogue or a thoughtful division of paragraphs, adds rhythm, creates tension, and allows the readers’ imagination to wander.
Form, the shape and structure of something as distinct from its substance, is like the secret sauce that turns flat ideas into three-dimensional experiences. It adds depth and realism, engages the senses, and captures the imagination. For a tangible example, think about the iconic Coca-Cola bottle. Its distinctive, curved form is recognizable even in the dark – a triumph of product design that transcends the mere function of holding a beverage.
In the sphere of writing, form can refer to the structure or genre of a piece, such as a sonnet in poetry or a mystery in fiction. A thriller novel, for instance, typically uses a form that includes suspenseful build-up, climactic revelation, and a quick denouement. Remember the last time you binged on a Netflix series like “Stranger Things”? The form of each episode, with its own micro-arc within the broader season arc, hooks you in and keeps you clicking “Next episode”.
Form also comes to life in graphic design and digital media. Take video games like “Super Mario Bros,” where the form of the game – the levels, obstacles, and game mechanics – creates a captivating, immersive experience. Each level has its own form that complements the overall narrative of the game, making your journey as Mario engaging and dynamic.
Whether you’re designing, writing, or creating in any other medium, form gives your work dimension, direction, and distinctive character. It’s an essential tool in your creative arsenal, and mastering it can take your projects to new heights.
Texture refers to the tactile qualities of a surface, actual or implied. Texture is like the secret ingredient that adds depth and authenticity to our experiences. It’s the crispy crust on a warm slice of pizza, the softness of a fluffy cat, or the rough grain of an old wooden table. In visual art, texture is the feature that makes us want to reach out and touch a painting, like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” where the heavy brushstrokes create a palpable texture that adds to the swirling, dream-like quality of the piece.
Think about the last graphic novel you read or an animated movie you watched. The textures in the visual elements – the wisps of hair on a character, the crumbly bricks in a dilapidated building, or the rust on an old car – added a sense of reality and depth to the visual narrative, making it more immersive and believable.
Texture in writing is subtler, but no less powerful. It’s the way J.R.R. Tolkien weaves intricate descriptions and complex histories in “The Lord of the Rings” to create a textured, vivid Middle Earth that feels real enough to step into. Or how F. Scott Fitzgerald layers his narrative with rich symbolism and detailed observations in “The Great Gatsby,” creating a textured portrayal of the Roaring Twenties.
While typography is not traditionally considered part of the “Elements of Art,” it is a critical element in the field of graphic design and other visual arts disciplines that incorporate text.
Value, referring to the lightness or darkness of a color, is integral in creating an illusion of depth and form. Ansel Adams, renowned for his black and white photography, masterfully used value to depict the dramatic landscapes and the nuanced interplay of light and shadow in his works.
Additional Resources on Principles of Art
The Elements of Art may also be referred to as The Elements of Design.
Why Do the Elements of Art Matter?
Writers, artists, graphic designers, and other creatives employ their knowledge of design elements in combination with their knowledge of design principles to entice audiences to read their texts, enjoy their compositions, and use their products.
Additionally, these elements provide the vocabulary you need to discuss your visuals or the visuals of others. Knowledge of these elements can help you better understand why a composition works or why it may need a bit of revision.
While the elements of art concerns the basic units of visual language, principles of design refers to the theories, conventions, and artistic traditions that inform how artists, writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . use design elements in their texts (aka compositions).