Elements of Art and Principles of Design (1/2)

Elements of Art

In this article we deal with some very fundamental aspects of visual art. The elements of art are building blocks used by artists to create a work of art. In nature we only find curves and dots, however artists use also lines and geometric shapes as an underlying structure of their artwork. They are created and arranged in order to imitate or interpret reality, building the illusion of two dimensional objects being three dimensional.


Lines are greater in length than width and can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal. A line can be described more flexibly as a path along a moving point and this path can vary in length, width, direction, curvature, value and color.

Formally we distinguish between horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved and zigzag lines. Sometimes we also need to deal with implied lines. When using lines in photography we also need to see the connection between lines inside the frame and the borders of the image frame.

The following emotional expressions are associated with the different forms of lines and should be kept in mind when composing an image. There are also further aspects of this element that needs closer attention in photography

Horizontal lines relate a calm, quiet, relaxed or placid feeling. They are often referred to as the baseline of a composition. The most common of horizontal lines is the Horizon.

Vertical lines are referred to as strong, powerful and balanced. They are used to build order in the frame and are the most important element of the human figure. Their direction is along the force of gravity and can imply the movement of escape. Very precise alignment with the edges of the frame is required. Single and dominant vertical lines work better in the portrait orientation of a frame, whereas several vertical lines mostly work better in the landscape format.

Vertical and horizontal lines are complimentary, they create an equilibrium or balance when used together. This is often associated with the human figure standing upright.

Diagonal lines are maybe the most powerful and dynamic features of a composition. They imply a sense of movement and speed. The direction and angle of the diagonal line is important. Perspective creates diagonal lines.

Curves are much more complex and harder to use in photography. They interact with the lines of an image. Their progressive behavior builds rhythm and the feeling of acceleration. We perceive them as gentle, flowing, graceful and elegant.

As we have seen lines are connected with our emotions. Compositionally it is recommended not to mix too many moods by combining too many directions in our work. The limited number of directions used in a design is referred to as gamut. A direction can be strength by introducing the perpendicular direction (90° intersection), but careful examination is required in order not to lose the dominant direction for the subordinate.

We need to be aware that two dots or two points of interest form a line even without a connection.


Shapes are the area enclosed by lines and can be either organic or geometric. It is two dimensional. Form however is three dimensional and in photography as it is a two dimensional medium it only shows shapes, but the illusion of forms can be achieved by using other elements of art and the principles of design. The most common and important shapes for photography are triangles, circles and rectangles. Triangles are very common in photography as they are the most basic geometric form. Organic shapes are often simplified by geometric shapes. Triangles are dynamic, due to their diagonals, but stable as well, provided that one side is a level base. Triangles can easily be formed many different ways, as only 3 prominent points are required to form the triangle. Often they are only implied to the viewer, as for example linear perspective creates a triangle when combined with the image border. Triangles are one of many devices that can bring order to an image. Circles and Rectangles are very rare in photography, but can be very effective. The introduce enclosure and holds other elements together. It is another form of ordering an images and building structure inside the frame. As triangles, circles, and rectangles are even more effective when implied, but this is much harder to accomplish with those two shapes. Circles also suggest movement to the viewer. Rectangles are often used as frames within the frame and are associated with gravity, solidity and precision.


Texture is referred to as the surface quality of an object, which can be seen and felt. Textures can be rough or smooth, soft or hard and do not always feel the way they look. In photography we deal mostly with implied texture as the real texture of an object cannot be felt. This implied texture is suggested to the viewer by changes in the surface. Real texture is added to an image during the print process and depends on the finishing of the used medium. In photography texture is revealed by light. Side or oblique light will define texture best. The extreme of a texture is reflection.


Space is the empty or open area between, around, above, below or within an object. There are two different kinds of space, negative and positive space. Positive space is the space filled by objects in a frame or the center of interest, while negative space surrounds those objects or the center of interest. Negative space has shape. Space is also referring to the feeling of depth. While real space is three dimensional we need to use special techniques to recreate this feeling in a two dimensional situation. This can be achieved by linear perspective (same objects closer to the viewer are bigger than same objects farther away), aerial perspective (objects farther away show less contrast, sharpness, brightness and color than objects closer to the viewer) and overlapping (objects closer to the viewer block objects in the distance). When this feeling or illusion of depth has been created we call it space.

Color and Value

The color theory and its impact on composition is rather complex. Basically color has three main characteristics: hue, value (luminosity) and intensity (saturation). White is pure light and black is the absence of light. The three primary colors for transmitted light are red, green and blue (RGB) whereas the three primary colors for reflective light are red, yellow and blue (RYB or painters primaries). The RYB model has later been adopted by printers and today it is more widely known as CMY (K). Complementary colors are located directly across from each other on the color wheel - they build the highest color contrast as they don´t share common colors.

Color Theory in a nutshell: The RGB model is based on transmitted light. An overlay projection of all colors will produce white light. Projecting only two of them will produce one of the primary colors based on reflective light. Red and Green will become Yellow, Red and Blue will become Magenta and Blue and Green will become Cyan. In printing, black ink (K) will be added to produce stronger blacks and this is why the subtractive color model is called CMYK. Adding cyan, magenta and yellow they will become black.

Strong hues are perceived in multi-level ways, with various associations that have much to do with culture and experience as with optical reality.

Red is perceived as the strongest and densest of all primary colors. It tends to advance and it is associated with heat and can connote passion, aggression and danger.

Yellow is the brightest of all colors and does not even exist in dark form. It is vigorous, sharp, insistent, sometimes aggressive and sometimes cheerful. It shows obvious associations with the sun and other sources of light, against a dark background it even seem to transmit light.

Blue recedes more than yellow and tends to be quiet and cool. The most obvious association is with water and the sky.

Green is the color of nature and associates with hope and progress.

Colors need to be examined in the relationship between each other. Those relationships can be pleasing and acceptable. We distinguish between complementary harmony and harmony of similarity. The term value corresponds to the brightness of a color or tone. Different values define contrast in an image. As we have no sketched a brief overview of what is called the Elements of Art we need to examine how these elements work together. Therefore we deal with the Principles of Design in the next part of this article.