The Elements of Painting

Artist palette with oil paints.
John Burke/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The elements of painting are the basic components or building blocks of a painting. In Western art, they are generally considered to be color, tone, line, shape, space, and texture.

In general, we tend to agree that there are seven formal elements of art. However, in a two-dimensional medium, form is dropped, so we really have six basic elements of painting. We can also bring four additional elements—composition, direction, size, and time (or movement)—into the equation to round it off at an even 10 elements of painting.

01
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Color (or hue) is at the heart of every painting. It is arguably the most important element because it sets the tone for how viewers feel about the work. It can, for instance, be warm and inviting or cold and stark. Either way, color can set the mood for a piece.

There are endless ways that painters can play with color. Quite often, an artist may be drawn toward a particular palette that tends to define the style of their entire body of work.

Color theory is one of the keys to working with color, especially for painters. Each new color you introduce to a canvas plays a vital role in the perception viewers have of the piece.

Color can be broken down further into hue, intensity, and value. Also, many artists choose to work with a mother color when painting. This is a particular paint hue that is mixed into each paint that touches the canvas and it can bring uniformity. More »

02
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Tone and value are used interchangeably in painting. It is, essentially, how light or dark a paint is when you strip away the color. Understanding how to use it can greatly affect the way your art is perceived.

Every color of paint has an almost endless variety of tones available to it. You can mix it with mediums and neutral paints to adjust its tone however you like. Some paintings have a very limited range of tones while others include stark contrasts in tones.

At its most basic, tone can be best seen in grayscale: Black is the darkest value and white the brightest. A well-rounded painting often has both of these, with highlights and shadows adding to the overall effect of the piece. More »

03
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While we tend to think of lines when drawing, painters must also focus on it. After all, every brushstroke you make creates a line.

Line is defined as a narrow mark made by a brush, or a line created where two objects or elements meet. It defines the subject of paintings and helps us imply things such as movement.

Painters should also be aware of different types of line. Among these are implied lines, those that are not actually drawn but are instead implied by the brushstrokes around it.

Landscape painters, in particular, are often concerned with the horizon line. Painters of all styles can add dimension to their work by employing the orthogonal and transversal lines found in drawings. More »

04
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Every piece of artwork includes the element of shape, which ties into line and space. In essence, a shape is an enclosed area that is made when lines meet. When that shape takes on a third dimension (as in sculpture or some mixed media), we then also have form.

Artists often train themselves to see the shapes in everything. By breaking down the basic shapes of a subject, it creates an accurate representation of it in paintings and drawings.

Additionally, shapes may be either geometric or organic. The former are the triangles, squares, and circles we're all familiar with. The latter are those shapes that are not well-defined or those found in nature. More »

05
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Space (or volume) is another crucial element in any art and it can be used to great effect in paintings. When talking about space in art, we think of the balance between positive and negative space.

Positive space is the subject itself while the negative space is the area of a painting around it. Artists can play with a balance between these two spaces to further influence how viewers interpret their work.

For example, a landscape with a smaller tree and horizon (positive space) that allows the sky (negative space) to take up most of the canvas can make a very powerful statement. Likewise, painting a portrait in which the subject (positive) looks in the direction of the negative space can be just as intriguing as it is when they were looking straight at the viewer. More »

06
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Paintings are the perfect medium to play with texture as well. This can be interpreted as a pattern within the painting or the brushstrokes themselves.

Some paints, particularly oils, are thicker and the way in which they're applied on the canvas or board can give the work more depth because of the texture. For instance, if you take the color out of a painting by Van Gogh and view it in black and white, the texture of his brushstrokes stands out dramatically. Similarly, impasto painting relies on very deep textures.

Texture can also be a challenge for painters. Replicating the shiny surface of glass or metal or the rough feel of a rock can be difficult. It is in objects like these that a painter can rely on the other elements of art—line, color, and tone, in particular—to further define the texture. More »

07
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The elements above are essential to paintings, though quite often we also add four more elements to the list. One of the most important for any artist is composition.

Composition is the arrangement of the painting. Where you place the subject, how the background elements support it, and every little piece that you add to the canvas becomes part of the composition. It is critical to how the work is perceived.

There are also "elements of composition" to consider. These include unity, balance, movement, rhythm, focus, contrast, pattern, and proportion. Each plays an important role in every painting, which is why artists focus so much of their time on composition. More »

08
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In art, the word "direction" is a broad term that can be interpreted in many ways. You might, for instance, consider the format of a painting part of its direction. A vertical canvas can work better than a horizontal one for certain subjects and vice versa.

Direction may also be used to refer to perspective. Where you place objects or how they're used in proportion to others can direct a viewer through the art. In this sense, it's related to movement as well and direction is an important aspect of design, no matter the medium.

Painters are also concerned about the direction of the light in their paintings. All of the painting's elements must have light falling on them from the same direction or viewers will be confused. They may not realize it, but something will disturb them if highlights and shadows change from one side of the painting to another. More »

09
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"Size" refers to the scale of the painting itself as well as the scale of proportions within the painting's elements.

The relationship between objects can also unknowingly disrupt a viewer's perception and enjoyment. For instance, an apple that is larger than an elephant is not natural. In less dramatic fashion, we expect someone's eyes, lips, and nose to have a particular balance in size.

When it comes to determining the size of any piece of art, painters also have many things to consider. Oversized paintings can be just as dramatic as a very small piece and both have their own challenges. Plus, artists must consider what the intended buyer might have room for.

On many levels, size is one of the biggest considerations for any artist. More »

All of the other elements affect how the viewer perceives and looks at a painting. This is where time and movement come into play.

Time can be viewed as the amount of time a viewer spends looking at a piece. Are there various elements that continue to capture their attention? Is it intriguing enough so they stop and don't keep walking past your art? Admittedly, this is one of the elements that concerns many artists.

Movement is also one of the elements of composition, though its importance should not be overlooked in that grouping. This refers to how you direct the viewer's eye within the painting. By including various elements in strategic places and incorporating the other elements of art, you can keep viewers moving around the painting. This, in turn, increases the time they spend looking at it. More »