Formal Elements of Art

“A line is an identifiable path created by a point moving in space. It is one-dimensional and can vary in width, direction, and length. Lines often define the edges of a form. Lines can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, straight or curved, thick or thin. They lead your eye around the composition and can communicate information through their character and direction.” – The J. Paul Getty Museum

Durer. Mein Agnes, 1494.

“Shape has only height and width. Shape is usually, though not always, defined by line, which can provide its contour.” The J. Paul Getty Museum

Pablo Picasso. Nous Autres Musiciens, 1921. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Real space is three-dimensional. Space in a work of art refers to a feeling of depth or three dimensions. It can also refer to the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane. The area around the primary objects in a work of art is known as negative space, while the space occupied by the primary objects is known as positive space.”

Morandi. Large Still Life with Coffeepot, 1933. Museum of Modern Art.

“The surface quality of an object that we sense through touch. All objects have a physical texture. Artists can also convey texture visually in two dimensions. In a two-dimensional work of art, texture gives a visual sense of how an object depicted would feel in real life if touched: hard, soft, rough, smooth, hairy, leathery, sharp, etc. In three-dimensional works, artists use actual texture to add a tactile quality to the work.”

Anselm Kiefer. Waldsteig (for Adalbert Stifter). 2017.

“Light reflected off objects. Color has three main characteristics: hue (red, green, blue, etc.), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright or dull it is). Colors can be described as warm (red, yellow) or cool (blue, gray), depending on which end of the color spectrum they fall.”

Color Wheel
Monet. Grenouillère, 1869. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Monet. The Houses of Parliament, 1903. National Gallery of Art.

Composition is the arrangement of formal elements within a work of art

Titian composition by Christopher P Jones

“Take Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (below) which has a basic three-tier structure. There is the terrestrial setting in the lower third; the intermediate stage of Mary’s assumption into heaven; and the divine realm of God in the upper part. Mary is literally being lifted upwards by the rising clouds. Our eyes move with the upward motion of the image, not only because the figures are depicted in various modes of animation, but also because of the manipulation of the visual elements. In this case, a triangular composition points upwards, beginning with the two red-robed men on the ground and up through the red dress of Mary.” Christopher P Jones, Art Fundamentals: How Composition Works

Tintoretto. Miracle of the Slave, 1548. Gallerie dell’Accademia.


Stokstad, Marilyn, et al. Art History. Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.

John William Bailly  15 November 2022

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