Understanding Art as Art

How does one define art? Merriam Webster defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects”, yet who determines what is visually pleasing to the eye? Art is subjective. What one would consider beautiful, another might feel horribly offended by. So how do we determine what is art and what is not? We look to the basic elements and principles of art. Knowing these, help us understand the criteria by which art is judged.

Art Elements
The elements of art are the basic components. These elements are line, shape, form, value, space, color, and texture. Art is not art without at least one of these elements. Let’s look at each element and define it.

Line is the most basic element of drawing. Line can be thin or thick, horizontal, vertical or diagonal. It can be zigzag or curvy, long or short, rough or smooth. Line is defined as the mark that spans between two points.

Shape or form is defined as the space created by edges that set one space apart from another. Shapes can be geometric or organic.

Value is lightness versus darkness; shadows versus highlights. Is there a full range of value in the piece?

Space refers to the areas around, below, above, or between the objects. There is positive space; the shapes of the objects and negative space; the areas created in the empty space between the objects.

Color is one of the more intricate elements and needs a whole article of its own to define. To keep this article brief, I will just say that color is the use of hue in a work of art. Color has three properties, hue being the first and referring to the name we give to a color (i.e. red, blue, yellow). The second property is saturation, which refers to the intensity of the color (i.e. bright, rich, dull, or vibrant). The third property is its value; the lightness or darkness of a color. Tint would refer to color with light additives, shades would refer to color with darker additives. Mastering color requires great skill and often is the key factor in determining the greatness of the piece.

Texture is the way the object feels to the touch or appears like it might feel. Did the artist make the animal’s coat feel like you could touch it? Do you sense that that piece of crumpled paper is real?

Art Principles
Next we have the principles of art. The principles determine how the piece is composed. These principles and how well they are executed, determine the skill of the artist. The eight basic principles are balance, proportion, unity, harmony, variety, emphasis, contrast and rhythm/movement. The creation of great art not only requires skill and imagination, as defined above, but it requires knowledge. It rarely happens by chance. Has the artist displayed this knowledge in their art?

Let’s examine these principles so we have a better understanding of what good art is:

Balance is arranging the elements in a way that no particular element is overpowering. There are two types of balance. Symmetrical, where each item has exactly the same spatial relationship (equal in weight) and asymmetrical, where the items have equal dominance, but may be in differing shapes and sizes. If you imagine an image of two watermelons, both equal in size and shape. The one would balance the other. This would be symmetry. If you picture an image with a watermelon on one side, but a cantaloupe, grapefruit and small basket of strawberries on the other side, this would be considered asymmetrical; The cantaloupe, grapefruit and strawberries equaling the spatial weight of the watermelon, but different in amount, sizes and shapes. Does the art feel balanced?

Proportion is the relationship of shapes and sizes in the composition. If the proportion is correct, there will be a sense of unity and harmony. Proportion can also be used to make a statement. In ancient times, proportion was used to create the impression of importance. Proportion can also be distorted to create discord or confusion. How well does artist use proportion to emphasize the piece?

Unity is the concept behind the artwork. Do the individual elements create a whole coherent piece?

Harmony is the concordance of the elements in an uncomplicated manner; a pleasing arrangement. Are there similar elements that work well together? Cezanne stated, “When paintings are done right, harmony appears by itself. The more numerous and varied they are, the more the effect is obtained and agreeable to the eye”.

Variety is the use of differing elements such as size, shapes, pattern, contrast, or color. Is the artwork diverse? Does it capture your interest with its chosen elements?

Emphasis is the focal point of the piece. It is generally the place where the eye first lands. Has the artist correctly emphasized the main point to catch the eye and give the piece the dominance feature intended?

Contrast is created when one element conflicts with the other; the use of black and white, large and small, complementary colors, or juxtaposing objects that would not usually be found together. Contrasting elements create visual interest and draw the viewer in, often time triggering thought. Is the artwork visually stimulating?

Rhythm or movement is the flow of the eye throughout the piece. This can be done with the basic elements, with color, scale or proportion, or even the texture the brush strokes make across the canvas. Does your eye follow a path throughout the piece, creating a visual story?

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Art is the Queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.” Does this work of art communicate knowledge? Can you identify the principles the artist used now that you have a better understanding of what they are? Have they conveyed a sense of feeling through the use of these principles? Does the artwork evoke an emotion from the use of these elements? Is the work memorable? Visually, the artwork may not appeal to your sense of aesthetics, but if it meets the criteria mentioned in this article, it has done its job and can be considered art.