The Elements of Art (and of Life)

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A lot of things in life can be distilled to their most basic elements. Take, for example, the wildly popular (and totally delightful) cookbook and Netflix docuseries Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which breaks down the many complicated and nuanced aspects of cooking and reduces them (cooking pun intended) into their most essential, foundational building blocks.

Humans have had this desire to unearth the basics for thousands of years. Ancient traditions from disparate parts of the globe share beliefs and practices around the elements: earth, wind, fire, water, air. These elements are enjoying a resurgence in our collective consciousness, as people increasingly connect with Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and other traditional healing modalities. As we work to rebuild our relationships with the world’s Indigenous peoples, we also have the opportunity to learn their generations-old traditions and beliefs, many of which centre around profound elemental understandings. This is a remarkable time as well for the elements of human experience, with expanded understandings of gender, identity, sexuality, mental health, and personality.

Basically, everything good (like food, the earth, our bodies, etc.) is a complicated, beautiful mixture of essential elements. You can dig-dig-dig until you’ve figured out what the elements are, or you can start at the bottom and layer-layer-layer until you have… well… life.

Art is Elemental

A lot of people are intimidated by the fine arts because they don’t know where to start. Others are put off by the whole thing because they don’t see the benefit for them, or perhaps they think that because they didn’t start as children that their arts ship has sailed. Well, I can tell you that none of that is true, and it’s time to shut down those limiting beliefs. The arts were literally made for you. People make art for themselves, and they make it for other humans. Are you a human? Ok, good. Let’s get started.

In the visual arts in particular, one of the basic pieces of knowledge budding artists need are the Elements of Art. All visual art can be distilled down to these seven elements; conversely, all art can be built up by piecing different elements together. Just like cooking. These are primarily used in teaching and discussing visual art, and while we might not use the same terms exactly the same way across all the art forms, these are equally applicable to all of the fine arts I talk about here: classical music, dance, theatre, and the visual fine arts. 

The Elements of Art

Just like with everything about the fine arts, there’s a bit of debate here. Don’t let that turn you off – debate is what makes subjects interesting! For the Elements of Art, some people believe that certain elements can be grouped with others, and some believe that certain ones are or aren’t truly “elemental.” Whatever. You’ve gotta start somewhere, so here are seven usually-agreed-upon Elements of Art, and a little tidbit of what each one is to get you started.  

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Element #1: LINE

Sometimes called “the moving point,” line can mean either: literally, a line (straight, curvy, diagonal, horizontal, vertical, broken, solid, repeated, etc.); or, the central gesture or sense of movement within a piece of art. For example, if you look at a painting and feel your eye pulled from one place to another (like from the person in the painting’s extended hand down to their foot in the opposite corner of the frame), that’s line. Or, if you’re listening to an orchestra play, and the melody gets passed from one instrument to another, but you’re able to follow it with your ear because it’s otherwise unbroken, that’s line as well. Don’t think of a line as stagnant – think of movement. Hence, “the moving point.”

Element #2: COLOUR

You remember colours, right? Those things that are all around us, make a box of crayons way more interesting, and enable us to match our lipstick to our outfit? As you likely recall from elementary school, all colours are built up from the three primary colours: red, yellow, and blue. Then, as you might also recall, you can mix those to get the secondary colours: orange, green, and purple. Then you can pair all six colours in interesting ways to get different effects, depending on where they lie relative to one another around the colour wheel (remember those? I bet it’s all flooding back to you, like so much muddy brown paintwater in art class). Musicians, actors, and dancers all also talk about “colouring” notes, words, gestures, and phrases, which essentially means imbuing them with different mixtures of emotion. 

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Element #3: SHAPE

More childhood flashbacks! I’m hoping public school didn’t totally fail you, and you remember circles, squares, triangles, and all their buddies… right? Just like with line and colour, you can go ahead and combine those basic building blocks into interesting combos, you can mash them together, you can contrast them against one another, you can repeat them, you can remove parts of them, you can distort them, etc., etc., etc. Like line, you can also have overarching shapes that kind of “sum up” a work of visual art. For example, if you squint at a lot of paintings from the Renaissance, the people versus the background ends up looking like a triangle (one main figure in the middle, people kneeling or children on either side of him or her, then nature in the background). Shape is obviously muy importante in dance, but it’s also important in theatre (like in stage design and staging) as well as classical music (mostly in terms of forms and balance). 

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Element #4: FORM

Basically, shape + volume. For three-dimensional visual art (i.e., sculpture), we talk about form. We can also talk about form for things that appear to be 3D (like lifelike paintings of people, or visual representations of cubes, spheres, or pyramids). Again, we obviously talk a lot about form in dance, given that people tend to be three-dimensional. When people talk about form in music, choreography, or theatre, they mean something totally different. There, they’re talking about compositional form, as in, “first this happens, then this, then this big thing happens, then we return to that first thing.” You very likely covered something like this in high school English class, and I promise I’ll help you find it in the dusty corners of your brain because it’s really, really interesting and extremely helpful for examining and mapping your own life experience. 

Element #5: TEXTURE

Texture, in visual art, can have its usual, everyday meaning (as in, “boy I wish I could touch that ancient vase, because the carved texture on it looks amazing”), or it can mean the visual representation of texture through 2D techniques (as in “wow, the grass in that painting looks soft enough to lie down in”). In music, texture essentially means the feeling our ears and brain get when we hear different lengths and colours of sounds in interesting patterns or combinations (for example, orchestral works are made up of wonderful textures created by mixing disparate instruments like drums and strings). 

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Element #6: VALUE

Value is essentially about intensity and light. It’s about how much light is let in or denied to any colour (on the spectrum from white to black). Think about a paint chip that has lighter and darker versions of the same colour. You can have darker, more intense colours (they have more black in them)… or you can have lighter, softer colours with more white in the mix. You can create high contrast through value, by having colours from the black end of the spectrum against whiter ones; or, you can have low contrast by picking from a narrow range of bands. Artists can also create value through lines and patterns (for example, by crosshatching in pencil drawing to make a dark feeling area out of just lines).

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Element #7: SPACE

Space has a couple of different meanings (like pretty much all of the elements). It can mean the visual depiction of actual physical space – as in, if the painting was a diorama (remember making those out of shoeboxes in school?), where would the figures in the painting be, relative to one another? Now you have not only the horizontal plane (where figures are side-by-side to one another), but you also have the miracle of depth. Space is what artists use to make it seem like you could step into the painting and keep walking. Or grab the main subject’s hand and pull him toward you. Space can also mean the use of negative space – as in, where is there nothing happening? Or, in a sculpture, where is there… well… no sculpture?

We’ll dive into one element per week to really get you grounded… and get you thinking about the elements in your own life.

Wait. What?

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Your life is a work of art, too.

I’ll break this down one element at a time in the coming weeks, but for now, let me say this. Can you see ways in which your own life might have Line? Could you reflect and think about ways in which you might need to balance out your own “composition” with more Space? Are the Values not deep enough or rich enough? Or are they so intense that they are overwhelming other elements? 

See what I mean? The wonderful thing about the Elements of Art is the same as the wonderful thing about the arts as a whole: they’re a guide to living. So, not only will you learn how to talk about a painting, or a sonata, or a ballet through the Elements of Art, you’ll also learn how to examine your own life using them, and to perhaps pull your life into better composition through their balance, proportion, and emphasis.