Art & Design

Elements of art

The elements are the parts used to make a piece of artwork. The art elements are line, shape, form, tone, texture, pattern and colour. They are often used together, and how they are organised in a piece of art determines what the finished piece will look like.

Line

Line is the path left by a moving point. For example, a pencil or a brush dipped in paint.

A line can take many forms. It can be horizontal, diagonal or curved. It can also change over its length, starting off curved and ending up horizontal, for example.

Line can be used to show many different qualities, such as:

  • contours - showing the shape and form of something
  • feelings or expressions - a short, hard line gives a different feeling to a more flowing one
  • movements

Just You Wait, 2006 by Tucker Schwarz

A line can also be created by edges - when two surfaces meet a line is formed.

Shape

A shape is an area enclosed by a line. It could be just an outline or it could be shaded in.

Shapes can be either geometric, like a circle, square or triangle, or irregular.

When drawing shapes, you must consider the size and position as well as the shape of the area around it. The shapes created in the spaces between shapes are referred to as negative space.

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky (1946) by Arnold Newman. © Arnold Newman/Getty Images

You should also consider the shape of the artwork. 2D work does not have to have the same proportions as the page. You could try square, circular or even irregularly-shaped works.

Form

Starck, Philippe (b. 1949): W.W. Stool, 1990. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Varnished sand-cast aluminum. 38 1/2 X 21 1/4 X 22 5/8 (97.8 X 54 X 57.5cm). Manufacturer: Vitra AG, Basel. David Whitney Collection, Gift of David Whitney. Acc. num. 72.2000.© 2011. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Form is a three dimensional shape, such as a cube, sphere or cone.

Sculpture and 3D design are about creating forms.

In 2D artworks, tone and perspective can be used to create an illusion of form.

Tone

Pyramid of skulls, 1898-1900 (oil on canvas) by Cezanne, Paul (1839-1906) Grand Palais, Paris, France / The Bridgeman Art Library

This refers to the lightness or darkness of something. This could be a shade or how dark or light a colour appears.

Tones are created by the way light falls on a 3D object. The parts of the object on which the light is strongest are called highlights and the darker areas are called shadows. There will a range of tones in between the highlights and shadows.

Shading

Shading is used to capture these different tones in a drawing. It helps to create an illusion of form in a 2D artwork. When shading it's important to think about the direction of the marks you are making as this can help to emphasise the form of the object.

Watch this video to find out more about shading.

Watch more art technique videos.

Contrast

Contrast means the amount of difference between the lightest and darkest tones. It should be combined with a range of mid tones. Contrast in tones can help create a dramatic artwork.

Texture

Walworth Ladies (2009) by Sokari Douglas Camp. © Sokari Douglas Camp

This is to do with the surface quality of something, the way something feels or looks like it feels. There are two types of texture: actual texture and visual texture.

Actual texture really exists, so you can feel it or touch it. You can create actual texture in an artwork by changing the surface, such as sticking different fabrics onto a canvas. Combining different material techniques can create interesting textures.

Visual texture is created using marks to represent actual texture. It gives the illusion of a texture or surface but if you touched it, it would be smooth. You can create visual texture by using different lines, shapes, colours or tones. Think about how different marks can be used to show texture.

Pattern

Chinese Whispers by Amanda Clayton.

A design that is created by repeating lines, shapes, tones or colours. The design used to create a pattern is often referred to as a motif. Motifs can be simple shapes or complex arrangements.

Patterns can be man-made, like a design on fabric, or natural, such as the markings on animal fur.

Colour

Red, yellow and blue are primary colours, which means they can't be mixed using any other colours. In theory, all other colours can be mixed from these three colours.

Two primary colours mixed together make a secondary colour.

 

PrimarySecondary
red + yellow= orange
red + blue= purple
blue + yellow= green

Tertiary colours are created by mixing a primary colour and the secondary colour next to it on the colour wheel.

Colour wheel

  • Colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel are called harmonious.
  • Complementary colours are colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel. When complementary colours are used together they create contrast. Adding a colour's complimentary colour will usually make a darker shade. This is often preferable to adding black.
  • Warm colours are colours on the red side of the wheel. These are red and include orange, yellow, browns and tans.
  • Cool colours are colours on the blue side of the wheel. These are blue and include green, violet and most greys.
  • Black, white and grey are called neutral colours.

Watch this video to find out more about mixing colours.

Watch more art technique videos.

Colour schemes

Monochromatic

Monochrome means one colour. Artwork can be created that explores the tone and intensity of a selected colour.

You can change the tone of a colour by adding its complementary colour or by adding black or white to it. Adding white to a colour creates a tint, and adding black creates a tone.

You can also alter the tone of a colour with saturation techniques. This means adding either more paint or more water. The more water that is added the lighter the tone and the more paint the darker.

Limited colour

Fairey, Shepard (b. 1970): Barack Hussein Obama. Hand-finished collage, stencil, and acrylic on heavy paper, 2008. Washington DC, National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian Institution. Sheet: 175.3 x 115.6cm (69 x 45 1/2'). Frame: 187.3 x 127 x 5.1cm (73 3/4 x 50 x 2'). Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection in honor of Mary K. Podesta. © 2011. Photo Nat. Portrait Gall. Smithsonian/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

You can select a limited number of colours and use these to represent different tones. For example, you could pick two complimentary colours, or you could use only the three primary colours. This can create a striking image.

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