Design Elements in Art

Going through my previous posts on art, I noticed that I have written a lot about the narratives and symbolism that are concealed under various forms: I almost never touched upon the aesthetic; visual elements of art. Yet, in order to understand and feel art fully, one should observe. One should pay attention to the composition, all the tiny details that make the picture whole. Art is all about noticing, and, in order to be able to the meticulous scrutiny of artworks, it’s necessary to understand the visual elements which comprise these fascinating pieces that we can marvel and strive to demystify.

Regardless of media or narrative, each artwork contains the elements of line, mass, value, color, space, and movement.


Line can be used as an outline, profile, contour or silhouette. Simply, it can define the basic fundamentals of the object represented. Alternatively, line can function to define interior details.

Line can be used in two styles: analytic or expressive. Analytically, line is used to define shapes, as disegno esterno- that is,  a duplicate of something existing in the real world. Expressive lines, rather than defining objects, express movement, elation and air currents.

The direction of lines can have an impact on the reading of the artwork. At the end of the 19th century, as a result of an increased interest in human psychology, artists realized that certain directional movements can complement the tone of the narrative. Thus, they started to experiment with various types.

  • Horizontal lines: are read as relaxing, peaceful, and calm.
  • Vertical lines: have a sense of stability. Verticality also translates to strength.
  • Diagonal lines: being off-balanced, they imply movement and energy.
  • Organic lines: are more free form as is appropriate to the representation of the world around us.

When lines of varied directions are superimposed within the same composition, their psychological impact can become more pronounced. Used efficiently, very few lines can convey much information about the objects represented.

Mass and Value

Mass is the volumetric form of an object. For artists, it is necessary to develop the interior definition of objects so that the viewer recognizes that such objects exist in real three-dimensional space. In a two-dimensional work, there is no definition/distinction between figure and ground, whereas in a three-dimensional work, the figure seems to assert an independence from the flatness of the canvas and appears to protrude outward.

Value is the term used to describe the amount of relative light received by an object. “High value” translates as brightly lit; “low value” translates as in darkness. Subliminally, our eyes are immediately attracted to high value areas before low value, that is, darker areas.


The colors of the prism are arranged around the color wheel. There are three primaries from which all other colors are derived: red, blue, and yellow. Equal parts of these primaries create the secondaries (red and blue create violet, red and yellow create orange, blue and yellow create green). If 75% of one primary is mixed with 25% of another, then tertiaries are produced.

As with line, color can be applied analytically (naturalistically) or expressively. Analytic color clearly matches the true perception of the objects by the human eye. Expressive color, on the other hand, can be used to enhance the narrative or create feelings, emotions.

Red, orange, and yellow are warm or hot colors. They expressively radiate heat and energy. Cool colors are subtle; warm colors are vibrant therefore visible from a distance.


Artists have developed techniques to imply three-dimensional space even when their medium is flat.

  • Overlapping: one object overlaps another suggesting that one is closer to us than the other.
  • Objects at Baseline, Scale Adjustment: objects at the bottom are read as closer (conversely, objects up toward the horizon are further). Objects are seen as larger at the bottom of the picture and smaller toward the top of the picture. That is true to visual perception.
  • Variation in Details of Focus: things close up are sharp and detailed. Objects further away are fuzzy or out-of-focus.
  • Perspective: a mathematical structure defining a box-like space which goes backward into the distance, developed in Italy in the 15th century.
  • Color and Value:  high value and warm colors appear closer; low value and cool colors appear further away.
  • Foreshortening: angled, partially distorted, views of bodies (or other objects) in space.

Time and Motion

Most works of art are static (they don’t move), Illusionistically, they attempt to capture the moment, an elapse of time or bodies in motion. Depending on the narrative, artists apply some of these tools.

  • Body Language: muscles contraction, expansion, twist or turn appropriate to the action being portrayed. The positioning of the head, arms, and legs reinforcin the artist’s intention.
  • Creases and Folds in Clothing: the linear pattern of creases reflect the movements of the arms and legs underneath. Clothing becomes tightened or loosened. The more creases or tension lines, the more movement is suggested.
  • Blurred Edges: objects are perceived as blurred or fuzzy as they move quickly before the eye.
  • Light Effects: natural light varies depending on the time of day suggesting passage of the time.


After mastering these elements, artists arrange the lines, shapes, masses, colors, and spatial elements into coherent, harmonious images that work as a whole. This is called composition and has certain features.

  • Balance: the left and right sides of the image being in balance.
  • Symmetry: for every object on the left, there is a matching object on the right. This is formal balance. Objects need not be identical; they can vary in shape or color, but they need to match up in a believable fashion.
  • Unity/Repetition: objects in a composition should share elements of design such as line, shape, form, texture, value, color. There should be a repetition of basic shapes.
  • Variety: objects in a composition should be distinctive.
  • Rhythm: objects should be well spaced across the surface of the composition, a unity in movement.

2 thoughts on “Design Elements in Art

  1. Pingback: Briefly About Design | The Bizarre Mind

  2. Pingback: Color Theory In Practice | The Bizarre Mind

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