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Elements of Art
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To talk about art we need to describe it precisely. One way to begin is to think about how the artist has created the forms we see. Color, line, shape, texture, and shading are some of the elements of form we can describe in two-dimensional arts. In three-dimensional works we might also think about mass, solids and voids, balance, and scale. Architecture has a specialized vocabulary related to structures, proportions, and patterns of decoration. Yet some of the formal elements found in the other arts, such as color and scale, also apply to architecture.


Of the formal elements in art, composition is probably the term most commonly used and most confusing. Composition is the arrangement of elements in a work of art. All works of art have an order of some sort determined by the artist: They may be balanced and symmetrical, swirling and dynamic, or even chaotic and seemingly random. We can describe some compositions by referring to a geometric figure - for example, figures may be grouped to form a triangle - but not all works are designed this way. It sometimes helps to squint at a work or step back from it to see its composition. Look for general patterns of organization, no matter what shape they may take.


With painting, drawing, and printmaking, people often speak of illusionism—that is, the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. The techniques of illusionism range from overlapping shapes, to using light-to-dark shading that models or rounds out a shape, to using full linear perspective. Perspective creates the illusion of three-dimensionality through lines that seem to extend back in space and meet at a single point known as the vanishing point. The history of Western art is more often than not a history of the quest to create perfect illusionism. At times, however, artists have turned their backs on this pursuit.


The terms realism and naturalism are used to describe how closely objects seen in a work of art resemble those we experience in everyday life. The terms are closely related but not quite interchangeable. Realism suggests a precise copying of the actual appearance of objects, warts and all. Naturalism is a way of depicting objects as they might exist - in other words, it implies a certain amount of improvement of the actual appearance.

Idealism refers to a perfected, or idealized, view of nature. Sometimes this idealized image comes from an idea in the mind, rather than anything actually observed in nature. Idealized works also may be naturalistic in that they are based upon nature, but at the same time they ignore imperfections. Idealized portraits, for example, show the subjects in flattering ways, whereas realistic portraits show them with more flaws, but also with more individuality.


Abstract and nonobjective are terms most often used in reference to modern art, although abstraction also commonly occurs in ancient art and in the art of many world cultures. Abstract art usually begins with a recognizable object, that the artist then simplifies to show some purer underlying form. Nonobjective, or nonrepresentational, art goes a step further and removes any references to recognizable objects. From a Western perspective, the elimination of a recognizable subject from painting or sculpture seems a radical development of the 20th century, but in other traditions people have long placed higher value on abstraction. In Islamic art, for example, elaborate patterns and calligraphic lines enrich the surfaces of book pages and places of worship.


No matter how realistic or abstract a work is, it can also be expressive. Clashing colors or rough brushstrokes often convey violent emotions, such as anguish or anger. Gentle curves and subdued colors can elicit quieter emotions, such as maternal love. It is easy to assume that artists express the emotions they are feeling when creating a work, but more often the artist chooses an expressive style appropriate for the subject matter, genre, or setting of the piece.


The works produced by an individual artist usually have in common distinctive and identifiable visual qualities. These qualities form what is called the artist's personal style. Because artists from a particular time or place share ways of working, it is also possible to talk about the style of a period - for example, a Renaissance style - or regional styles - Polynesian style, for instance.


All of the formal elements of art and the more general idea of style are separate from subject matter. Artists working in 16th-century Italy and 19th-century France may paint the same mythological subject, but their styles will be quite different. Literary sources, such as classical writings or the Bible, can help us understand the subjects of many works of art. Even when we recognize a work’s subject matter, further interpretation by experts often reveals additional messages about the work or the artist's time.

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