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The Artist's Vocabulary

mona lisa There she is in front of you - the Mona Lisa, and all that comes to mind when asked to describe her is: "ummm... ughh... umm.. it's a very nice portrait?" You've literally been left speechless. Ever wondered what artists mean by such terms as value, volume, form, planes, and texture in reference to art?

Visualize yourself in front of the Mona Lisa again - only this time when asked to describe her you reply: "...her smile seems ambiguous. The planes within the portrait are blurred. The dark values of the Mona Lisa's garments contrast with the light values of her face - creating a focal point from emphasized pale flesh. The clear, crisp folding texture of the garment stands out when placed upon the blurred background - creating distinction between the foreground and the scenery behind the Mona Lisa ..." You could almost picture it whether the portrait stood in front of you or not. You can almost understand how each element has come together to create this masterpiece. You start to wonder if these elements were purposely placed, exactly as they are, to achieve such an outstanding effect. They probably were.

Artists have been mixing creativity with an almost mathematical placement of such elements of design as light, shadow, and focal point, since the birth of art. They might not have been aware of it, until names were given to this structure of art - but the elements are evident.

What are elements of design?

Elements of art can be briefly defined as the devices used to compose a physical work of art. These devices include color, line, shape, texture, value, and volume. They are the pieces that come together to form the whole. Each element works with others to create a desired effect. Referring to the Mona Lisa again - the values (or brightness/darkness) of colors worked together with the texture of the figure's garment to create a foreground and a background.

The lines within this portrait also assist in defining the background and foreground. Flowing, blurred lines within the background create a sense of distance from the viewer. The focused angular lines within the foreground lead the viewer to believe this portion of the portrait is closer to the eye because it remains in focus, not blurred.

As mentioned in the description of the Mona Lisa, these elements can also be used to create a focal point. Most pieces feature a focal point bearing a value that contrasts with its surroundings. Color also has an important role in developing a focal point within a piece of art. Using color solely for the focal point and creating the rest of the piece in monotone will achieve an emphasized portion of the piece (the focal point).

It may take time to be able to spot the individual elements of a work of art. Many elements seem to work so closely together, they can often be confused with one another.

By simply viewing an art piece as a gathering of elements, you'll not only be able to describe the piece in depth, but you'll also be able to use the elements to create your own unified work. Art will no longer appear simply... beautiful. It's aesthetic!

For a more detailed description of the elements of art and other art terms, see our resource section on Understanding Art Terms