Chapter 2—Visual Elements

Introduction: The first four chapters of Understanding Art, including this one, are very important chapters to your progress in learning about art. Chapter 2 presents the plastic, or visual, elements of art. These are elemental components used by artists either intuitively or by planning, to create art. This chapter is complemented by many quotations by artists, supplementing ideas about how artists use the visual elements. Compare and Contrast – Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon with Colescott's Demoiselles d'Alabama: Vestidas provides deeper insight into specific works of art and their dynamics based on the elements at play. Another Compare and Contrast section invites comparison between two works by the same abstract Ecpressionist or Color Fileld painter, Mark Rothko: ROTHKO’S Number 22 and Rothko’s Black and Gray.  This is a longer chapter than most, and it's full of many important vocabulary terms and visual examples to enhance your learning experience about the visual elements.

Chapter Two – Why Read It? Line, shape, light, value, color, texture, space, time, motion. These are just words, but they represent an entire vocabulary for visual artists. Perhaps you have never been asked to critique or visually appraise a work of art. This chapter provides you with tools as a viewer of art, and perhaps as a writer about art. You know what line is, but did you ever have to consider the aspects of line, such as its length, width, or direction? Line creates handwriting, which we all use without thinking about it, a very expressive element indeed.

Reconsider  how line, along with other elements, might be used in a work of art. The text gives examples of works of art that emphasize or have one or more of these elements as prominent features. Find a work in this chapter that has more than one element visibly present.

Example: Elizabeth Murray’s Tangled (image 2-24) is a painting on shaped canvas and wood. Name three elements of art that appear to interact closely in this work (ex: shape, value, color). Can you find an example that has all of the elements at play? Which one(s) are predominant?

In searching the Internet, you might never run across a work by Robert Colescott and associate it with a work by Pablo Picasso. Your text brings these two works together to reveal some of the events that led to Picasso’s proto-Cubist work, and also compares and contrasts Picasso’s work with Colescott’s humorous revision. Why has Robert Colescott chosen to create a work of art that emulates, and would surely be compared to, Picasso’s famous transitional work? Has Colescott made other such works? Try to find out more about this artist and see more of his works. Are they compared to works by other artists?

Understanding Concepts: The visual elements, because they are plastic, comprise a vast vocabulary and language for the artist to use in creating works of art. Your creative participation in this language means you are in a dynamic dialogue with the artist whose work you observe.

Artists use elements or components as a language to create a work of art. Understanding a work of art on a formal level means understanding what components the artist used, in what combination, in what amount of each, and of course, how they have a profound effect on the thoughts and emotions of the viewer. These elements are line, shape, light, value, color, texture, mass, space, and time and motion.

Though many visual elements may be combined by the artist in a single work, usually one or two elements predominate. This characteristic helps the viewer see what the artist saw, and find a sense of order in the work itself, or at least, a place to begin.

1. Search through the rest of the text and find examples of art in which certain elements seem to predominate. List three works and their dominant elements:

Art work                      Element of art that predominates           Other elements present


Merode Altarpiece                  space (linear perspective)                      color and light

(image 15-2)




2. Look for works where several of the visual elements seem to collaborate in a subtle way. For example, color and shape, or texture and space. Record your observations here:

3. Implied and Actual Elements: By becoming more observant of the things surrounding you on a daily basis, your awareness of artistic elements will become more acute. Many of these elements have the potential to be used in a work of art in diverse ways. For example, line, texture, space, or motion can be implied in a work of art rather than used actually.

     Search for an example of art in another chapter of Understanding Art that reveals implied elements at play. (Example: Michelangelo's David (Chapter 15) regards his powerful foe, Goliath, across an implied space).

Title of example from another chapter:

Implied element:

     Look for these art elements in items in your everyday environment, such as a desk that has wood texture implied, but is smooth plastic, or a waiting room or reception area keyed around one color. Even today’s film arts, with all their special and virtual effects, imply a sense of movement and time passage to the moviegoer! Record your observations below.

Implied elements:

4. Drawing in perspective: Study the perspective lines and vanishing point techniques explained and shown in images 2-62 through 2-65. Try drawing simple objects around you such as a book, a building shape, or a hallway with objects in it at different distances.

         Draw in a horizon line on your paper below.

         Place a vanishing point or two on the horizon line.

         Sketch in the object, using orthogonal lines to define the basic rectangular shape.

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5. On a separate sheet of paper, sketch a background similar to the one in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (image 2-13), placing the horizon about two-thirds up the page. Compare this type of “space” with that created by Fang Lijun in No. 2 (image 2-33), or Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow created by Piet Mondrian (image 2-15). Which creates a sense of depth even though all are two-dimensional? Notes:

6. A look at perception: If you haven’t recently taken a psychology class, borrow a basic book or find a website on it and investigate how much study has been focused on the senses and perception. Many studies have been conducted to better understand the developmental stages when babies and children begin to distinguish certain of these elements. Studies in psychology and art overlap because they are both concerned with creative development and the individual's responsiveness to his or her environment. (See the For More Understanding section of this study guide chapter for ways to look up art-related psychological resources on the Internet.)

     Look for studies devoted to the psychology of shape recognition, responses to color, depth perception, creativity, and problem solving, all elements so fundamental as to form a basis for hundreds of theories about how humans perceive and interact with their environment and each other!

         In discussing color, psychological dimensions are emphasized. What effects or feelings do you recall from certain colors? Do you have a favorite color? Or a color you avoid wearing?

         From any chapter of Understanding Art, find a work of art that appeals to you or attracts you based on the colors used. Evaluate how color has been used in this piece in terms of warmth or coolness, the color wheel, and other optical and psychological effects of which you might be aware. Record your impressions here:

     Read about how research into each sense or perceptual skill has been conducted. How much of it is related to visual skills? How does this connect to how artists manipulate the elements in a work of art? What are some of the conclusions drawn about how we see? How does this relate to you as a viewer of art? Notes:

Making Connections: This chapter focuses on the visual elements as componentry, giving insight into an artist’s method of thinking. Each artist utilizes these elements in combination, creating what we experience as their unique art forms. Let’s look at some of these artists in particular.

1. Review Chapter 2 and, using the Internet, research two of the people quoted: Alexander Calder and Nancy Holt. How were the visual elements important to them? Look up their works featured in other art sources.

     Alexander Calder: Why would a sculptor say, “I paint with shapes”?

     Nancy Holt: What does her mentioning the desert have to do with art elements?

2. Look up two more artists who are quoted in this chapter: Georgia O’Keeffe—one of her works is shown in Chapter 20—and James Rosenquist—a billboard painter turned Pop artist. Notes:

     Georgia O'Keeffe:

     James Rosenquist:

3. Spend some time considering Compare and Contrast – Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Colescott’s Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas. You have probably heard of Picasso, but had you ever heard of Robert Colescott before?

Look through the book and find other examples of art works that demonstrate a sense of humor, like Robert Colescott's, on the part of the artist. Can you find another artwork that plays off the previous work of another artist?


         Title of artwork it is based upon:

The Compare and Contrast – Rothko’s Number 22 with Rothko’s Black on Grey takes into consideration the changes in palette and format the artist made in his work over a twenty year span of time. What events might have caused the artist to make these subtle yet dramatic changes in his work?

Taking Notes: This is one of the longer chapters in your text, with over 70 key terms in bold type and 81 images, exemplifying or making reference to the visual elements. That may seem like a lot until you realize many of them are closely related. Some of the terms refer to aspects of the same concept, such as implied line, hatching, and directional line.

Your challenge will be to take note in class of which examples are used or emphasized by your instructor and to get down the distinctions between different types of an element and the elements themselves. This is no easy task, since multiple elements exist within most, if not all, works of art. But as you will see, certain elements predominate and therefore are good examples for learning about the elements.

While you are creating your note-taking template, as you did for Chapter 1, leaving a few lines between each title, or preparing the SlideGuide pages for class, keep in mind that these works of art are dynamic. Each has meaning and is a complex and historical object, but for now, you and your instructor are basically looking at only a few formal or plastic elements, such as the texture or the use of color, of each work. You will have to focus on which aspects of each work are being emphasized; otherwise, you will have a difficult time separating other information about the work of art from what is being examined about it in this chapter.

Review the vocabulary terms and define those unfamiliar to you, relating them to images seen in class. Why might some of the art movements such as Impressionism, Op art, and Futurism be mentioned in relation to the elements of color or motion? What are the differences between geometric, organic, or amorphous shapes?

Give yourself visual references in your notes—create small diagrams or sketches next to your notes illustrating concepts, such as contour line, implied line, or hatching. (See the Enhancing your Observational Powers exercise in Chapter 3 to learn quick useful diagramming and sketching skills.)

Preparing for Tests: Chances are your instructor will feel the material in this chapter is important, since it is part of a foundation you will use for the rest of the course for discussing art. Test questions will target your ability to discern certain elements at work in a specific example.

An essay question might ask you to write a formal "critique" of a single work, exploring one or more of its most active elements, or it might involve your going more into depth about a certain artistic movement, such as Les Fauves, of which Matisse was a part, with an emphasis on certain formal considerations, such as the use of color.

Multiple-choice questions could easily be based upon identifying individual or predominant visual elements, defining vocabulary terms, such as "stippling," or choosing the correct artist or movement for a work of art. Review sample questions at the Understanding Art website (, in the Student Test Packet, or on the ArtExperience Online for Understanding Art. Answers to the following sample questions are found at the end of this chapter.

     Image 2-43 (Color Wheel diagram)

As shown in the text, the colors on the green-blue side of the color wheel are considered:

A. cool                         B. warm

C. achromatic               D. primary

     Image 2-78 (Dynamism of a Soccer Player, Umberto Boccioni)

The primary sensation for the viewer of this work is of the element of:

A. color            B. mass

C. motion         D. line

Enhancing Your Observational Powers: Deepening your experience with art in your environment means participating in the rich visual world around you. Of course, you may not like everything you see, but you will have begun to be more observant on a daily basis. Because there is so much imagery around us, most of us have learned to ignore what is not essential to getting through the day. Allow just a few more pieces of visual information in than you have to; it may make your day more intriguing!

1. Visit a local art specific site: a gallery or museum on campus or in town. Ask the curator or docent present if you may sketch and take notes on a work of art. (Some galleries or exhibits restrict sketching and photography, so it's best to ask first.)

         Select a work of art and focus on its most prominent visual elements. (You may use the space provided below, or a small sketchpad of your own to create your notes and a sketch or diagram)

         Write down the name or title given the artwork:

         Record any date given for its creation:

         Note the creator(s) and any personal history of the artist(s):

         List the material(s) or medium (media) from which it is made:

     Note and sketch its visual elements. Pick two or three prominent ones, such as where certain colors occur, shapes that predominate, or perhaps lines that imply directional movement to your eye. Put your notes and diagrams on the following space provided:

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For More Understanding: All the images in your text can be looked at from a formal view, examining the visual elements. Looking at various works in this manner will give you some practice at understanding the visual elements at work.

In addition, visit the website for Understanding Art,, which features a glossary and audio pronunciation guide, sample test questions, and more.

As before, you can search online using keywords and artist names to search for reviews of art by critics in the field, look up topics such as Color Theory, or locate psychological studies on shape recognition in brain function in infants. Many full text articles in art journals contain images of artists' works, so you can see more examples of how artists have turned their ideas into works of art!

ArtExperience Online for Understanding Art: Go online and access the Visual Elements section under Foundations; here you will find interactive exercises on line, shape/volume/mass, light and value, color, texture, space, and time and motion.

Be sure to check out flashcard section to study some of the artwork that appears in Chapter 2 and the Compare and Contrast interactive modules.

Notes and Links to Remember:

(answers to sample multiple-choice questions: a, c)