Artists "design" their works by controlling and ordering various elements of art.
Understanding some basic art terms can help you to 'read' a painting and see how they used these elements and techniques to achieve different results. Even abstract artists plan how they will place various elements in their work.
Some Art Terms Explained
Paul Gauguin, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont Aven, 1888
Composition is the plan, placement or arrangement of the visual elements, to make a complete work of art. The way in which the artwork is composed will define the hierarchy within the work, telling the viewer the relative importance of the images and elements included.
Mondrian lozenge Composition with Red Grey Blue Yellow and Black 1924 25
A sense of balance is achieved through colour and the way in which objects are placed. Symmetrical compositions convey a sense of stability and asymmetrical compositions tend to convey a sense of movement because the elements of the composition are unbalanced. Radial or rotational balance is based on a circle with a design extending from or focused upon its centre.
Alexander Calder, Stabiles, 1963
Contrast is the arrangement of opposite elements (light vs. dark colours, rough vs. smooth textures, large vs. small shapes, etc.) in an artwork so as to create visual interest, excitement and drama. The colours white and black provide the greatest degree of contrast.
Complementary colours also highly contrast with one another.
Objects absorb certain wavelengths (light) and reflect others back to the viewer. We perceive these wavelengths as colour. Those we (humans) see are the colours of the visual spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple/violet.
Colour Comprises Hue, Value and Intensity
The golden ratio describes a rectangle with a length roughly one and a half times its width. Many artists and architects have fashioned their works around this proportion.
Lines, Shape and Form
Lines provide direction for the viewer's eye through the picture. They will be straight, curved or in a 'zigzag'.
Shapes are forned when lines meet, that is, as shape is an area enclosed by one or more lines.
Forms are similar to shapes but are three dimensional.
Marc Chagall I and the Village 1911.
Jean Ingres, Princesse de Broglie, 1851 - 53
Harmony is the visually satisfying effect of combining similar, related elements - for example, adjacent colours on the colour wheel, similar shapes etc.
Ernest Meissonier, Campaign of France, 1814
Mood is the emotion that is evoked through the choice of subject matter, pose of the figures, composition and colour.
Pablo Picasso, Maya with a Doll, 1938
Perspective is the way in which objects appear to the eye, based on their dimensions and the position of the eye relative to those objects. Smaller objects appear to be in the distance and larger objects appear to be closer and in the foreground.
William Michael Harnett, Still life, Violin and Music, 1888
The picture plane is an imaginary plane (flat surface) which corresponds to the surface of the canvas (but sitting above it), directly at the viewer’s line of sight. It's commonly associated with the foreground of a painting, just at the viewer's line of sight.
In most representational paintings, all the elements in the picture appear to recede from the picture plane (ie behind it), while trompe l'œil effects are achieved by painting objects in such a way that they seem to project in front of the picture plane. However, a number of modernist painters deliberately chose to present three dimensional objects as having the same flat surface (picture plane) as the canvas itself.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Vitruviun Man, Study of proportions
Proportion refers to the relative size and scale (ratio) of the various elements in a work of art. This creates a relationship between objects, or parts, of a whole particularly in relation to size or quantity.
George Seurat, Bathing at Asnières, 1883-84
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a compositional tool that makes use of the belief that the most interesting compositions are those in which the primary element is off centre.
Francoise Gilot, Composition, 20th Century
Space refers to the use of the surface area on a work of art. In any work of art there will be a single object or a number of primary objects. These spaces are known as positive space. The space between the primary objects, or around a single object, is known as negative space.
Paul Cezanne, Compotier, Pitcher, and Fruit (Nature morte), 1892-94
Tension is a controlled dramatic or dynamic quality in an artwork. There is a balance between and interplay of conflicting elements.
Jean Arp, Shirtfront and Fork, 1922
Texture refers to the surface quality or "feel" of an object, its smoothness, roughness, softness, etc.
Gustave Courbet,Good Day, Monsieur Courbet, 1854
Theme is the meaning or idea that the artist wishes to impart to the viewer. This will be achieved through the use of visual clues and relationships, which may or may not be obvious unless the viewer understands the clues.
Unity is the sense of wholeness or oneness within the artwork, so that the various parts of a work of art appear as a complete, cohesive whole. A composition is unified when there is a sense that no portion of the composition could be changed without altering the aesthetic integrity and meaning of the artwork. Unity will assist to create a sense of harmony.
Vasily Kandinsky, On white II, 1923