The 7 Essential Elements of Art
A Guide for Teachers
The elements of art are the basic building blocks that make up any picture. Using these elements in different combinations will create a unique feeling for your piece. Have fun and experiment with these!
Want more in-depth versions of these elements? Check out our other blogs on each of these elements in our resources for teachers section! Not much of a reader? Check out more in-depth explanations of these elements on our YouTube channel!
The first element is Line! Line is meant to define shapes and contours, sometimes to imply volume and perspective. Line is utilized in multiple different ways, such as with leading lines, crosshatching, and just good old line art! There are also tons of different styles of line -- broken up, thick, thin, zigzagged, diagonal, horizontal, vertical -- the list goes on. Learning to be smart with how you use your lines is how you can really push your artwork to the next level!
The next element is Shape! Shapes are two-dimensional and can be divided into two categories, geometric and biomorphic/organic. Geometric shapes are shapes that are more "regular" or precise. These are the shapes you're probably more familiar with since they're also very mathematical, such as squares, triangles and circles. Biomorphic shapes or more commonly called organic shapes are considered everything else, from the weird shape that a t-shirt is supposed to be, to the shape of the bush in your garden.
All organic shapes can be broken down into more simple geometric shapes, and learning which geometric shapes to use to build up your organic shapes are key to illustrating objects and characters.
The third element is Form! Form is almost like shape, except now the shapes are three-dimensional. Instead of working with circles, triangles and squares, we now work with spheres, pyramids and cubes. Forms are the next level to building up proper structure when we illustrate objects, and follow the same rules as shapes.
Geometric forms are the more mathematical and precise ones, like rectangular prisms and cylinders. Organic forms are less mathematical, don't usually have a name attributed to them, and are more irregular. These forms are still usually built up of geometric forms first, and then are given the needed details afterwards. For instance, a human arm can be seen as a couple of cylinders and a sphere for the elbow, but then adding more details on top of that give you the organic form of the arm.
The next element is colour! Colour, scientifically, is different kinds of light that we've put into categories to understand them better. Primary colours are colours that you cannot get by mixing any other colours together. Instead, you mix them to create more colours. Primary colours mixed together get secondary colours, which are orange, purple and green. You can mix secondaries and primaries together to get tertiary colours, which are blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, and blue-purple.
There are also different kinds of colours depending on what art medium you're using. When it comes to light, you're using additive colour. When you add all additive colours together, you get white, which is why when you aim light at certain prisms, a rainbow comes out the other side. When it comes to pigments like paint or ink, you're using subtractive colour, which is what you use in art class most of the time. When you add all these colours together, you get black, or a dark brown.
The fifth element is space! Space is the element that determines the areas around the main objects within a scene. In a scene, the main figure and objects are called positive space, while all the area around the main figure and objects is called negative space. The amount of negative space you have within a piece determines how full or empty an overall piece looks.
Space is often used to help a viewer interpret the piece in front of them. For instance, an object may be drawn larger to show that it's closer to the individual looking at the piece, or objects may be placed strategically around the main figure or object to bring attention to it.
The next element is texture! Texture is either the literal or implied feeling of a work of art. If a fluffy dog was illustrated, but upon touching the canvas it doesn't feel fluffy at all. That's called implied texture, where the object or subject in question is just illustrated to look like it has texture. Implied texture is usually done with shading or strategic line work to give the perception of texture when there isn't any at all.
On the other hand, if the artist actually used fabric or cotton to illustrate the dog, that would be literal texture, as the dog actually feels fluffy to the touch. Literal texture is sometimes done with a painting technique called impasto, which is done by layering thick strokes of paint on top of a canvas. It can also be done by mixing paint directly on the canvas, which was done most notably within the impressionist movement.
Value / Tone
Last but not least, our final element is tone, more commonly called value! Value is how light or dark a colour, tint or shade is within a piece. For instance, navy blue or forest green are dark values, whereas baby pink or yellow are light values.
Having a wide range of values means that there's a lot of contrast within a piece (which is actually a principle of design! It's usually lumped in with value, but it isn't technically an element of art). That means the values go from light all the way back down to dark. Having a wide range of values is usually recommended because it makes it easier for the viewer to differentiate objects from one another within an art piece.
This doesn't mean that it's always necessary -- having a small range of values means that there's less contrast within the piece, but then this means that the artist is most likely relying on the colours to differentiate objects in a scene from one another.
If you want to learn more about the basics of the elements of art, check out our drawing foundations classes, designed to get you started on your artistic journey! Be sure to check out the Winged Canvas YouTube Channel as well, where we post free tutorials and art resources for all levels of artists!