Fine Art Techniques

Elements of Art

All pieces of art are constructed using several formal elements, or tools of creation, whether a painting, sculpture, or graphic medium. The following is a brief discussion on how these elements may be used in a particular piece with work examples sited.

Line: a drawn line is a creative device used to define a particular form in space. There are no lines in nature so they become expressive gestures in painting, drawing and sculpture, when describing line of movement, and in some cases, architecture- particularly Frank Lloyd Wright whose designs are characteristically linear. Twentieth Century artist Paul Klee described drawing as “taking a line for a walk”.

Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli illustrated form primarily by line in paintings such as La Primavera. In this instance, line is used to define form but also as a compositional device to carry the viewer’s eyes fluidly across the canvas. In Dove of Peace by Picasso the artist uses virtually a single line to express the dove. Notice the area where the line stops.

This is known as the Gestalt theory of closer, which states the mind will fill in the missing pieces if given enough information. This technique adds interest and mystery to a work of art, which allows the viewer the joy of discovery.

Tone: Another way to define form is through tonal values. Artists use the gradual tonal range from white to black to describe light as it forms an object. This is most obvious in photography. Shades and tints of color also have a specific value. The most dramatic effects of light are used in the Renaissance technique called chiaruscuro, most notably by Caravaggio.

Color: Of all the formal elements of art we respond to color with the greatest emotion. With this in mind, the Fauves, in the beginning of the 20th century, started to use color to convey emotion rather than giving an object its local, or natural color. This is evident in Femme au Chapeau by Matisse where the planes of the woman’s face are delineated by pure hues of green and red rather than traditional cool and warm flesh tones. The color field paintings of Mark Rothko evoke purely emotional responses. Color also has symbolic meaning. For example yellow in medieval times symbolized evil. Judas was often portrayed in yellow robes.

Shape: This refers to specific forms identified by color, line, gesture or negative space (areas of the composition not occupied by formal elements). In sculpture, mass and volume relates to the surrounding space and may establish special relationships outside the confines of the particular work.

Texture: John Singer Sargent is known for his ability to compare the textures of different fabrics, the sheen of satin versus the intricate texture of lace. Impasto techniques explore actual textured surfaces. Tactile texture is an important characteristic in the work of Jasper Johns who uses encaustic (hot wax) techniques to develop tantalizing surface in his signature flag and target paintings. An artist may also go to painstaking lengths to eliminate brushstrokes from the paintings to create smooth glass-like surfaces.

Composition: The organization, or statement, of the proceeding elements comes under the heading of composition and this can be achieved in various ways. There is a proportion known as the Golden Section that applies to a line so that when divided, the ratio of its shorter part to the longer is equal to the longer to the whole.

When this proportion is realized it is, theoretically, the most pleasing to the eye. Perspective is the technique of drawing a scene in three-dimensional reality.

The triangle, an expansion of this principle is a device used to compose objects in a two- dimensional space. It produces a dramatic effect while simultaneously creating balance in the composition. In the 20th century artist began to emphasize the canvas as a two-dimensional object.

One way to achieve this compositionally is to push the focal point of the work to the edges of the canvas thereby establishing tension in the work. In the western world, we have a tendency to read from left to right.

Color can also function as a tool to move the viewer’s eyes around the canvas. Movement, or rhythm, in a work can also be gestural and comes directly from the artist’s energy in the making of a particular mark.

An example of this is the German Expressionists, Kandinsky, Kokoshka, Emile Nolde, and Egon Schiele among them. Repetition of a particular element can organize a work into a unified whole. Andy Warhol used this compositional device to make a statement about pop culture.

Subjects: Historically, the subjects of art have included religion, politics and propaganda, preoccupation with nature, symbolism and art for art’s sake.

An artist will deliberately oppose and sometimes ignore these rules to evoke a particular response from the viewer. As an individual’s body of work progresses he begins to develop new methods of expression.

At no other time has the subject matter and range of creativity been so diverse as it is today.