Take Command of the Language of Art

One of the most difficult parts about writing in art and art history is commanding the language. Many of the terms have extremely specific and intertwined definitions. Therefore, using the correct terminology is important to building an accurate analysis of any piece. Below is a list of critical terms to get you started. The Elements and Principles of Art are the building blocks of any critique or analysis in art. Be sure to pay close attention to the subtle differences in each definition. If you are stuck on where to begin, try looking at the subject of your paper and describe it using the Elements and Principles of Art.

Elements of Art

  • Line: Lines define the edges of objects in art pieces. Take note of their shape and thickness.
  • Shape: Shapes are formed from the meeting of lines and the enclosing of areas in two-dimensional space.
  • Form: Form is the three-dimensional partner to shape. Essentially it is shape with value in order to give it a third dimension. (The art object does not need to be three-dimensional in order for form to be discussed.)
  • Space: Space is an empty place or surface in or around a work of art. Space can be two-dimensional, three-dimensional, negative and/or positive. Negative space is the space which no object is occupying (e.g. a blank background in a photograph). Positive space is the space that an object occupies (e.g. the space an apple occupies on your counter).
  • Color: Color refers to the hue and intensity of the colors of the art object. It may also refer to the value, or the darkness, or the color. Note that tint and saturation are also to be considered. Hue is the name of the color on the color wheel. Value is the lightness or darkness of the color present, how black or white it is. And Intensity is the brightness or dullness of a color.
  • Value: The lightness or darkness of the color. Value is often used to denote form and space.
  • Texture: The use of, or illusion of, different textures, such as metal, wood, or fabric, in an art object.

Principles of Art

  • Rhythm: This is the creation of visual rhythm by repeating specific elements throughout a piece, even using patterns.
  • Movement: This is the flow through a composition. Look to lines and contrast in the piece. Focus on how the viewer reads the visual aspects of the art object.
  • Pattern: The repetition of a line, shape or color over and over again.
  • Balance: This can be symmetrical or radial. It is created through visual weight in the piece. Balance can be both formal and informal.
  • Variety: Often used to draw your eye to a focal point, variety is created by something that differs from the rest of the composition.
  • Emphasis: This is used to make certain parts of the artwork stand out. This can be done with techniques with line, value, shape, and pattern. This can also be interpreted as a focal point.
  • Harmony: Brings together a composition through similar elements.
  • Unity: How all of the parts of a piece function together to create a whole.