The elements of a work of art. Which ones are they?!? How many times do we happen to walk through the halls of a museum and to be captured by a particular work. A work that attracts us like a magnet, that captures us for the shape, color or material with which it was made. Each work of art is unique, but as happens with music and notes, visual works also have recurring elements that compose them. And today we discover the 7 elements of a work of art.
The elements of a work of art. How many? 7
Each artist finds his own personal way of expressing himself, of telling his story and involving us in his works. Some artists paint pictures, others cut them, some transform them into three-dimensional objects. Some artists then prefer to give a perfect shape to the material, or use the objects around them. Finally, some create large-sized works, while others decide to create tiny ones.
However, while it is more common to know the rule of thirds in photography or to assume that all the music we love basically comes from 7 notes, it is not as well known what the elements of a work of art are and how to identify them. Getting to know them will not change our taste or the artist’s initial intention but it could make us discover a little more about his history and why we were captured by his works.
The first element is the most immediate to understand is color. Color is actually produced when light bounces off an object and then reaches our eye, it does not exist in nature. All objects around us have a certain color in our brain and we ourselves naturally associate a mood with them. There are many theories that have developed over the centuries, including for example those of Goethe in the 19th century or Kandinsky in the 20th century.
But according to the main theory of colors yellow, red and blue are quite famous, we call them primary. By mixing them, the three secondary colors green, orange and purple are obtained and from there to follow the tertiaries. Having said that, what we are interested in understanding is how our brain associates color with mood. And all of this is based on our culture. The sun is yellow and is a symbol in the West of energy, light and therefore positivity in turn. The fire is red but also hot and makes us think of anger. Blue is the color of the sea and sky, so it should give us a sense of peace and serenity. These are not feelings that must necessarily be universal, but often they are because they depend in part precisely on the culture.
The elements of a work of art | Examples of color
A realist artist like Courbet in the middle of the 19th century always shows us a blue sky and a green lawn. He is looking for the truth of science and the reality of facts so he must represent the world with the colors we all know to get closer to his purpose. And so far everything is ok. If it weren’t for the fact that artists like Van Gogh or Gauguin or Munch arrive. For them, color and its intensity don’t necessarily have to be like in reality, but they have to send their own message.
2. The color value
For this reason the second element is closely related to the first and it is the color value. That is , the level of brightness or darkness in a color. The works of the Impressionists for example use a very wide range of intensities of the same colors to give the illusion of light. And in order to change this intensity, the color mixes with either white or black. In the first case we are talking about tint, in the second case of nuance.
3. The line
The next element is absolutely abstract but we always look for it in reality. It’s about the line. Scientifically , the line is the union of two points. In general, the lines in a work can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal. Or they can be curved, thick or thin. Each is used for a specific purpose:
- to draw the shape of an object to
- suggest a movement
- to lead the viewer’s eye in a certain direction
- to suggest an emotion.
Some of these lines will be precise and recognizable, while others will be created through fields of color. In any case, they will help us to identify the components of an image and thus to understand its structure or shape.
And structure and form are precisely the fourth and fifth elements. They may seem the same at first glance, but they are not.
Let’s start with the structure. We find this in any two-dimensional work of art therefore in oil paintings, watercolors, tempera but not for example in sculpture. The structure of a work in this context is in fact obtained from the union of width and length, but not depth.
The structure of both a figurative and an abstract work is almost always based on the geometry of the elements and their union. This structure can be geometric thanks to the use of square, rhombus, circle or rectangle.forms organic: a leaf, a cloud and so on.
Some geometric rules are therefore applied by great artists to create their works. I am sure you will know the most famous of these: the golden section. Used both in painting by Leonardo for example and in architecture by the Greeks. The structure, however, may not follow an exact mathematical formula and in any case be captivating as in the works of Van Gogh.
5. The form
Now let’s talk about form, which is applied as a concept to all three-dimensional works. A shape in fact has width, length and depth. These three elements combined together allow the artist to create a work that gives us the idea of the thickness and sometimes of the shadow. There are two main forms of form in sculpture: the all-round and the relief. All-round it means that materially we can go around the work, we see every part of it, we go around it. In the relief, on the other hand, both high and low, the sculpture is three-dimensional but remains attached to the wall that acts as a background.
Obviously , a contemporary art installation is often a three-dimensional work, which can be seen in the round or even crossed over or experienced. This concept therefore evolved in the 1900s and still continues to change.
Finally, obviously the idea of three-dimensionality typical of sculpture can be abstractly applied to painting when the illusion of perspective in a work.
The sixth element of a work of art to be known is for me the most interesting of all and the one that determines the same work in contemporary art most of all. It’s about space. Space is literally the place where the work takes place. it seems a crazy definition but it is not, let’s understand it together. Space is a two-dimensional or three-dimensional area within which all other elements are located.
The elements of a work of art. Negative space and positive space
There are two types of space: negative space and positive space. The negative is what remains between the objects. Positive space is that occupied by objects. The most ingenious thing about all this is that it applies to a still life by Cézanne or Morandi, as much as to a sculpture by Michelangelo or to an installation of poor art.
Finally, some artists create space or rather the illusion of space through various techniques. You can use shadows, overlaps, difference in size, position on planes, color or perspective.
The built or real space is still the element always present in every work and as I said before more interesting because it allows us to understand the relationship between the artist and the world around him. It can be a space deformed by lines as in Munch, a space created by cuts as in Fontana or finally a space studied to perfection as in Masaccio. Each artist uses it as he wishes and to send a different message.
7. The texture
We have arrived at the last of the elements of the work. You will often have read the caption of a work while you are in a gallery, at a fair or in a museum. In any case, 99% of the time we find the title, author, year and materials with which the work was created. And the characteristic of these materials is our seventh element: the texture.
The elements of a work of art. Real and implied
texture By texture we mean the sensation we have of the material when we look at it or if we touch it. For example, a marble sculpture has a different texture than a work made of fur. And in this case it is easy to understand the relationship between the sensation to the touch and the material. In fact, we speak of real consistency. another example is the use of paper in the works to give a feeling of fragility of the work itself.
Then there is also the Implied Consistency. This is less intuitive, but very simple. It is the idea especially in paintings and two-dimensional works of a texture. Two examples to understand on the fly: the fabrics and the skin of the model in Ingres’s Grande odalisque or the fur of Durer’s hare or finally the skin of the cob in Arcimboldo’s Estate. They all give us the feeling of that element through the reproduction of its texture from nature.
The elements of a work of art. Conclusions
I hope this short introduction to the 7 elements of a work of art was interesting !! This is just one of the ways in which we can approach a work when we come into contact with art and it must certainly be associated with the knowledge of the artist’s history and the historical context. Maybe in the future I will tell you how I face a tour of an exhibition when I don’t know an artist or a movement and I discover it for the first time, what questions I ask myself and how I enjoy guessing certain messages or tackling certain themes.
And if you liked this post, take a look at my Youtube channel to not miss all my videos related to art, travel and the market. I also recommend my post on the 5 best books for art lovers or one of the dedicated posts from my series on art masterpieces.