The 10 Core Elements of Painting Artists Should Know

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Accepted wisdom states that there are 7 key elements of art: line, colour, shape, form, space, value, and texture. When working in a two-dimensional medium like drawing and painting, form and value are disregarded. Instead, artists discuss tone, composition, time and movement, size, and direction. Thus, we are left with 10 core elements of painting that work together and help us create art. Indeed, these elements often interweave and influence each other.

Let’s find out more about each one.

Line

Lines are marks, either curved or straight, which span the space between two points. They are usually created when two objects meet. Lines can also be implied by the others around them. Painters must focus on the importance of lines just as much as people who draw and use charcoal or pencil as their chosen medium because you create lines with every stroke of your paintbrush. Lines are used to define and outline what it is you are painting and are used to suggest things like movement. It is vital that we painters are aware of the different types of line and how they can be used. There are 5 principal lines in art, which each have variations depending on the characteristics of the line, such as its thickness, style, and length.

These are:

  • Horizontal lines.
  • Vertical lines.
  • Zig Zags- are used to convey anxiety.
  • Diagonal lines.
  • Curved lines are good if you want to convey a feeling of peace.

There are other lines in art, including continuous, parallel, and gesture lines. Gesture lines can be particularly useful when drawing or painting human figures.

A line is often a kind of signature for an artist depending on the style and variations of line, as well as the type of line an artist favours. The most common functions of lines are identification, organisation, movement, 3-D space, and texture.

Landscape painters are often mainly concerned with horizontal lines, but painters of all styles use lines to add dimension to their work.

Colour

Colour is at the heart of painting, regardless of the type of paint you use. It sets the tone for how others feel about a work. Colour can be warm, mellow and inviting or harsh, cold, and stark. In this way, colour can set the mood. You can play with it in an infinite number of ways. You could be attracted to a specific colour palette. Indeed, many artists use the same colour palette in most of their work, and it becomes a mark of their individual style.

Remember, each colour added to a work affects the way the work is perceived and to use it well, you need to understand the basics of colour theory.

Three key categories of colour theory are:

  • The colour wheel.
  • Colour harmony.
  • The context in which colours are used.

Colour theory provides us with a logical way to use and organise colour to create the impact we seek. You can break colour down into hue (the name of the colour), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright it is). Many painters use a mother colour in some of their work. This is when a specific hue of paint is mixed into each paint to be used in a work and gives it a sense of uniformity.

Next, let’s talk about tone and how important it is to understand its role in the perception of art.

A flower shape composed of multiple colours.
Photo by Sharon Pittaway on Unsplash

Tone

Tone is essentially how light or dark a paint is when you take away the colour. When used effectively you can change how others view your work. There are multiple tones connected to every colour you can think of.

You can change a colour’s tone by mixing it with other mediums and neutral shades until you get a tone you like. Paintings can include a wide range of tones with a stark contrast between them, while other works use only a few tones that complement one another. Basic tones can best be seen in greyscale. Black is the darkest tone and white is the lightest. Most well-rounded paintings use both dark and light tones to create shadows and highlights and use them to good effect.

Space

Space is vital in any art form and can be used to help make an impact. In every work, there is a balance between positive and negative space. When we talk about negative space, we refer to the space around the subject. When speaking of the positive space we are talking about the subject or subjects of the painting.

If you experiment with the balance between both types of space, you will affect how others view and interpret your work. You can use space in your work to make a powerful statement. When painting a portrait, you might choose to have your subject turn their gaze towards the negative space rather than staring at the viewer to create a sense of intrigue.

You can use space to create powerful imagery in landscapes too. You could paint a tree on a hilltop in the distance and allow the sky — the negative space in this instance — to fill most of your canvas. It would make for a bold image and statement piece.

Shape

Every artwork uses the element of shape in some fashion. Shape ties in with line and space. A shape may be defined as the area enclosed when two lines meet. In painting, shapes don’t have form as form is created when shapes take on 3 dimensions.

Artists frequently break down the subjects of their paintings into a collection of basic shapes to help them paint an accurate representation of them.

Shapes can be organic or geometric. Geometric shapes are triangles, circles, and squares while organic shapes are found in nature and are less clearly defined.

It’s time to talk about composition.

Composition

Composition is all the placement of the subject, how the subject looks against the background and how the space and objects surrounding it complement that subject. How you arrange your paintings influences how you and others view them. Everything you add to the canvas becomes an aspect of your painting’s composition.

Arrangement of your subject alone does not the whole composition of a work make, however. There are also elements such as balance, focus, pattern, proportion, movement, rhythm, contrast, and unity. Each sub-component of composition can alter the feel, message and tone of a painting which is why artists spend ages thinking about the composition of their works.

Texture

Some consider the texture of a painting to be the pattern or patterns within the work. Others might think of it as being derived from the brushstrokes the artist makes. Some styles of painting are defined by the texture they rely on. Impasto painting is characterised by the deep textures you can see.

Thicker paints like oils can give works more depth depending on how it’s applied to the canvas. If you strip the colour away from a painting by Van Gough and look at it in black and white, you will still see the definitive texture of his brushstrokes.

Conveying and replicating certain textures in your work can be tricky, whether it be the shiny, smooth surface of metal, the ripples on a pond or the rough, uneven feel of rock. The good news is you can rely on elements of art such as tone, line, and colour to help achieve the desired effect.

Size

This element is all about the scale of a painting and the scale of proportions within that painting.

We expect someone’s facial features to be balanced, for instance. Nor do viewers expect to see an apple larger than an elephant, so unless the artists are aiming to disrupt a viewer’s perception, it’s important to pay attention to size and proportion in painting. If care is not taken over size, you might unintentionally spoil someone’s enjoyment of your work.

It is true that huge paintings can have just as much impact as a smaller piece, but both present different challenges. If you want to sell your art, it is worth thinking about what size painting buyers may have space for.

Direction

Direction can mean a few things in art. The format and layout of a painting may be part of its direction, such as whether you choose to paint a subject on a vertical or horizontal canvas. It can mean the perspective and how you place objects and how they’re used in relation to other objects and the main subject of your piece. Direction is closely tied to movement, which we will discuss next. Both are crucial elements of the design of a work, not just in painting, but in all artistic mediums.

The third way direction can be used is to talk about the direction of light and how it falls upon your subject and creates shadows. Viewers may look at your work and feel something is off. They may not realise what it is, but it may well be that the light isn’t falling on your subject from the same direction or that the position of shadows changes from one part of the painting to another.

Time and Movement

Each element I’ve gone through so far can influence how someone looks at your painting and feels about a piece. Enter time and movement.

Are there aspects of a painting that continue to draw attention? Do people spend time looking at your work, or do they glance at it as they walk by? You need to consider how you are going to capture and hold a person’s attention so that they take time to appreciate and view your work.

Movement is all about how you, as the artist, direct the viewer’s gaze when they pause to look at your painting. You can direct the eye by including elements in strategic places and using all the other elements of art, like direction to keep their eyes moving around the piece. If you can do this well, people will spend more time looking at your work, hence why time and movement are closely related.

Wrapping up

We’ve covered the core elements of painting – from line, colour, and shape, to tone, time and movement. We hope learning about these elements helps you create well-rounded paintings that have the desired effect on viewers and convey the message or express the emotion you wish to. These elements are useful as well as fun, so why not experiment with them all to see what wonderful paintings you can create? Don’t worry if something goes wrong at first. Cut yourself some slack and have fun as you learn to use these elements well to level up your skills as an artist.

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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