Art Term Tuesday: Elements & Principles

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

If you’re an avid Art Term Tuesday reader, you know all about line, shape, color, balance, and all the other elements and principles of art…but what is an element and a principle? Most simply, the elements are the visual building blocks of an artwork while the principles are the way they’re organized. The elements and principles included on a given list vary depending on the source and context: they apply not just to the “fine art” that is our focus but to all branches of design. Even time itself is sometimes an element. Together, the elements and principles make up an artwork’s composition, or its formal properties. While we can complete a formal analysis of any artwork, whether it was made in the last year or the last millennium, looking at and discussing art in this way is largely an invention of the 20th century. The development of the elements and principles of art runs parallel to the development of modern art itself; so, to understand their origins, we have to take a quick dive into art history.

A color woodcut of a landscape with Mount Fuji towering in the background. In the foreground, a dirt path cuts between two green hills, and people walk along it toward a body of water.
Utagawa Hiroshige, Japanese, 1797-1858. Misaka Pass in Kai Province (Kai Misakagoe), from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjurokkei) series. Color woodblock on paper, 19th century. Grant of Mrs. Ora Brant, 1965.69. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In Western art history, the shift towards formalism begins in earnest, like so much else in modern art, with Impressionism. Although Renaissance artists developed systems like linear perspective for composing their work, subject and story were paramount. A few centuries later, the rise of photography and influence of Japanese printmaking led the Impressionists to experiment with unusual points-of-view and cropped compositions. Their work was still representational, but in striving to capture the “impression” of a scene, their subjects were not just figures and landscapes but also color, light, and form. During the second half of the 19th century, artists across different movements furthered these ideas. Post-impressionists like Paul Cezanne paved the way for Cubism. James McNeill Whistler (below) described his works as problems to be solved. Maurice Denis and his fellow Nabis embraced painting as decoration, rejecting the Renaissance idea of it as a window into a fictional world. Denis enumerated these ideas in an 1890 manifesto, which opened with an oft-quoted statement: “Remember that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order.”

A black-and-white etching of two men on a dock with boats and the harbor in the background.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834-1903. Rotherhithe. Etching on paper, 1860. Gift of the Franklin B. Mead Memorial Collection, 1951.36. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
A woman in a white dress stands with one arm propped against a window ledge. The curtains are pulled back slightly to reveal a wintry garden.
William Forsyth, American, 1854-1935. In the Little Room. Oil on canvas, ca. 1896. Gift of Miles J. and Lorraine H. Davis, 1991.26. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The concept of a flat picture-plane was groundbreaking, and it was against this backdrop of new ideas and the rise of abstraction that another artist first applied the terms “element” and “principle” to art. Arthur Wesley Dow was an American artist and educator whose pupils included Charles Burchfield, two of the Overbeck sisters, and Georgia O’Keefe. Dow’s philosophies gained notoriety, not just because his students became famous, but because he published them. The first edition of his Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the use of Students and Teachers was released in 1899 and outlined three elements of art (line, notan, and color) and five principles (opposition, transition, subordination, repetition, and symmetry). So influential was Japanese art on Dow that one of his elements is a Japanese word, notan, which translates to “light-dark harmony,” referring to the balance of values in a work. Dow’s original list morphed in the century since, but his teaching methods, using compositional elements rather than nature to achieve beauty and self-expression, endured. The Bauhaus in Germany operated on a similar philosophy, so when many of its teachers fled to the United States in the 1930s and ‘40s, the practice of teaching the formal properties as the foundation for artmaking became further engrained in visual art education in this country. 

A picnic blanket composition of color: a white stripe, blue strip, white strip, vertically and then brown, red, orange, yellow descending horizontally.
Paul Reed, American, 1919-2015. Coherence XV. Acrylic on canvas, 1966. Gift of Thomas and Jean Reed Roberts, 1998.01. Image courtesy of FWMoa.

After World War II, Formalism became the prevailing art critical theory, emphasizing the purely visual and material aspects of a work above all else. The outspoken critic Clement Greenberg helped promote Abstract Expressionism, and, later, color-field painters and Washington Color School artists like Paul Reed, above. Whether you agree with Greenberg that painting and sculpture should be devoid of subject, Formalism as a lens for understanding the structure of an artwork is now an aspect of all art criticism and appreciation. 

Let’s see the elements and principles in action as we take another look at the painting below:

William Forsyth, American, 1854-1935. In the Little Room. Oil on canvas, ca. 1896. Gift of Miles J. and Lorraine H. Davis, 1991.26. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

What elements most stand out, and what types are used? I notice a lot of rectangular shapes, and mostly horizontal and vertical lines that divide the image into a grid. The colors are mostly warm and dark in value except for the figure and her bright white dress with cool blue shadows. Her gaze forms an implied line to the view through the window. What about the principles? Forsyth seems to be experimenting with balance. The left side of the painting is much busier and brighter than the right, but is offset by the larger, darker expanse and the figure’s pose facing the right. The contrast of the figure’s pale skin and dress against the dark wall establishes her as a clear focal point. 

The elements and principles provide a visual language and system for looking at artwork, which adds a teaching structure to a slippery, subjective subject. In discussing the impact of her teacher Arthur Dow, Georgia O’Keefe gives us another way to think about the formal properties: “it could be used to make every aesthetic decision. It also provided an alphabet, so to speak, that could be arranged and rearranged, resulting in a great deal of individualism.” 

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