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A Primer on Art

All Factfile Articles

See below for more posters that will help you study art.

Art Concepts: A Primer on Art

by Mark Lamendola

See Fine Art Reproductions, below this article....

It helps to think of art as a language. It helps to think of math that way too, and for similar reasons. Despite what the uninitiated often think, there's logic to art.

Just as language has its components (nouns, verbs, phrases, sentences) that build on each other, so does art. If you understand the components of art, then you can begin to study art with a trained eye. Or at least an informed one.

Artists "speak" using color, space, form, shape, line, and texture. These are the "words" of art. Have you ever listened to someone babble meaninglessly? Words without structure are gibberish. The main elements of structure in art are:

  • Balance. It's the feeling of stability. The three types of balance are symmetrical (e.g., your face is symmetrical if both sides look the same), asymmetrical, and radial (balance within an object that has a radius, such as a circle or ellipse).
  • Emphasis. Think of contrast or, using speech as a metaphor, the accent on a syllable. Artists use emphasis to direct the viewer's attention to a particular spot. A shadow or light on a figure in a painting can create a sense of emphasis on that figure.
  • Harmony. When elements go together, they are in harmony. Think of a barbershop quartet singing together. The four elements make a melody. If one of the singers is off key, you lose harmony.
  • Gradation. Open any photo editing program, and you have a tool for working with gradients. Gradation is the gradual (get it?) transition from one theme, color, etc., to another. The opposite is an abrupt change (which shows a clear border or boundary, rather than a gradient).
  • Movement. Obviously, the intent here is to convey action. But how do you create movement in, for example, a still painting? Artists do this by placing elements in such a way as to guide the user's eye down a desired path. Web designers also do this (or are supposed to). An element for this purpose might be a curved line, or one that goes from thicker to thinner. Shapes, colors, and contours can also create a sense of movement.
  • Proportion. It's the relationship of elements to each other, and to the whole. They may have proportion in size, color, depth, or some other attribute.
  • Rhythm. It's the pace or "tune" of the movement. A repetition pattern is one way to establish rhythm.
  • Variety. This is related to harmony, and often works with it. Again, think of that barbershop quartet. If they all sang tenor, you'd have harmony with no variety. But if each has a different range (tenor, bass, etc.), you have variety and harmony working together to make an interesting piece (assuming you like barbershop music).

Given the seeming lack of standards in art, is there such a thing as bad art? Good art? Yes. While this is generally a subjective area with a wide range of opinions, the following concepts can help you sort the wheat from the chaff:

  • Bad art exists primarily to offend and communicates little, if anything. Examples of this abound. While it's not necessarily bad art to misuse a religious symbol, it is bad art if such misuse is the point.
  • Good art does something to lift the human spirit, portray beauty, communicate a message (which might be communicating something ugly for example it's a painting about life in a concentration camp), or express an idea.
  • Bad art uses sloppy technique or no technique at all.
  • Good art uses specific techniques. This is why, for example, an art dealer can spot a Monet even if he has not see that particular Monet previously.
  • Bad art tries to imitate, while good art is original (quite a bit of leeway, there).


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