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Vocabulary of Art

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

What do you see in the painting? "Bright patch of sunlight, opened door, ocean view." But of course it's not that—it's a painting by Edward Hopper of all those things. We need a vocabulary for talking about a painting in addition to what it depicts.


Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea (1951)

We can describe the painting as representational and naturalistic, but it also has some abstract elements, such as the rectangle of sky and the trapezoid of the ocean, the light on the white wall and the light on the yellow floor. It may also be recognizable as western art of the 20th century because of stylistic clues. Let's talk about the elements from which the painting is constructed.

1. Sharply defined shapes that the light creates as it enters the house that he depicts through abrupt shifts in value—dark yellow to pale yellow, dark green to light green, grey to white.

2. Subtler shifts in value also show the choppy texture of the ocean surface and the masses of the wall and the door.

3. Few colors: primarily red, yellow and blue

4. Almost no curves; straight lines dominate: vertical lines of doorjamb, horizontal line of horizon, diagonal lines of entering sunlight

5. We can gauge the depth of the interior space by the size of the sofa and the framed picture, but on the right the space collapses—there are no clues to help us figure out how far away the ocean or the horizon is.

LINE, SHAPE, MASS, LIGHT, VALUE, COLOR, TEXTURE AND SPACE are the eight ingredients an artist has available in making any work of art. They're called visual elements.

Line: a path traced by a moving point, its primary function is to record borders and to convey direction and motion

  • Flat, horizontal lines seem placid
  • Vertical lines may have an assertive quality as they defy gravity
  • Diagonal lines almost always imply action (runners, skiers, for ex.); the lines seem unstable

We talk about implied lines too, where our mind connects the dots. Look at Jean-Antoine Watteau's, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717). Look at Venus's extended arm, which directs our attention to the first couple below her, where the winding procession begins. Notice how some of the couples are looking back. The procession toward the shore is undercut by the tug of backward glances, giving the painting an air of melancholy.

Shape and mass:

Shape is a two-dimensional form; it occupies an area with identifiable boundaries, can be created by a line (square outlined in pencil on white paper), shirt in texture (a square of unmown lawn in the middle of a mown lawn) or shift in color (blue polka dots on a red shirt

Mass is a three-dimensional form that occupies a volume of space—a mass of clay, mass of a mountain, masses of a work of architecture. We can look at mass on paper but we can't fully understand it unless we walk around it.

Shapes and masses can be divided into two broad categories: geometric shapes approximate the shapes of geometry (squares, triangles, circles, etc.) and organic shapes evoke the forms of nature. We also talk about positive and negative shapes: what we see as figures in a painting are positive shapes; the shapes of the background are negative shapes.

We also talk about implied shapes which we often see in the way figures are grouped in a painting. Like implied lines help direct our eyes, implied shapes create a sense of order, so we see it as a unified and harmonious whole. Look at the triangle implied in Raphael's The Madonna of the Meadows:

Light and Value:

We look at light, literally, in a building—that is, where it comes in a window, or skylight. In art it's easiest to understand in black and white photography, where we can talk about the way light models—or gives figures a three dimensional appearance. We see color then just as value, the continuum of lightest to darkest. Before photography artists used chiaroscuro, Italian for light/dark. The artists employed values—lights and darks—to record contrasts of shadows and light, which then model mass for our eyes. Look at Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished drawing of The Virgin and Saint Anne with the Christ Child and John the Baptist:

Working on brown paper, he applied charcoal for a range of darks and white chalk for lighter values. The "figures seem to be breathed onto the paper, bathed in a soft allover light that comes from everywhere and nowhere" (Getlein, Living With Art).


Color is dependent on light; without light there is no color. We trace our present-day color theory back to Sir Isaac Newton, who observed that a ray of sunshine broke up or refracted into different colors. If we take the colors separated out by Newton's prism—red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet and the transitional red-violet and arrange the colors in a circle, we have a color wheel:

Primary colors: red, yellow, blue; cannot be made by any mixture of other colors

Secondary colors: orange, green and violet: each is made by combining two primary colors

Tertiary colors: product of primary color and adjacent secondary color

Complementary colors: those directly opposite each other on the color wheel; assumed to be as different as possible from one another

Color properties:

Hue: name of color
Value: relative light or darkness
Tint: a color lighter than a color's natural value (pink is a tint of red)
Shade: a color darker than the hue's normal value (maroon is a shade of red)
Intensity: relative purity of a color

Color Harmonies:

Sometimes called a color scheme, a color harmony is the selective use of two or more colors in a single composition.

Monochromatic harmonies: variations on the same hue

Complementary harmonies: involve colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel (red and green, violet and yellow, blue and orange). They set up tensions, dynamic bond of opposites.

Analogous harmonies: combine colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel (red, red orange, orange). Look at Renoir's Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary from 1878. The painting is composed almost entirely in tints and shades of yellow-orange through red, hues that can all be found on the upper-left third of the color wheel.

The French painter Georges Seurat was fascinated by optical color mixture and developed a style called pointillism. He laid down his paints by placing may thousand of tiny dots—or points—of pure color next to each other. From a few inches away a Seurat painting looks like a jumble of color dots, but as the viewer moves back, the dots merge to from a texture of subtly varied tones. Look at his painting A Sunday on the Grand Jatte:

Emotional Effects of Color

Look at James Whistler's Nocturne in Blue and Gold (Old Battersea Bridge) from the early 1870s.

Except for the distant spangle of fireworks and the reflection of a few lights in the water, the painting is entirely monochromatic. Blue contributes significantly to the subdued emotional mood of the painting, although it has help from the strong, stable vertical lines of the pier, the reassuring horizontals of the bridge and its lone boatman silhouetted on the prow of his ship.

Texture and Pattern

Texture refers to surface quality—a perception of smooth or rough, flat or bumpy, fine or coarse. It makes us want to touch things.

Actual texture is literally tactile—we experience it in sculpture or architecture.

Visual texture is less literal; it is texture conveyed by markings our eyes associate with texture; in Raoul Dufy's Regatta at Cowes (1934) the brushstrokes and closely placed forms create "rough patches" that you wouldn't feel if you touched the painting. They convey an idea of roughness or choppiness.


Pattern is any decorative motif or design. Patterns can create visual texture, but sometimes they have the effect of flattening our perception of mass and space. The boats in the Dufy painting are definitely a motif, but they repeat with so many variations in size and shape that we don't see them as a pattern. Look at the ducks and flowers spread over the water surface in this painting by Manley Ragamala, c. 1610). Because their size is consistent they don't recede in space; the pavilion looks as if it were set in front of a backdrop of fabric.

The space in and around a work of art is a dynamic visual element that interacts with the lines and shapes and colors and textures of a work to give them definition. Consider it this way: how could there be a line if there were not space on either side to mark its edges? How could there be a shape without the space around it to set it off?

We are pretty clear about three-dimensional space when we look at a sculpture or a building. The artworks take their character from the ways in which they carve out volumes of space within and around them. Painting is a two-dimensional art form; the actual space is the flat surface of the work, which we see all at once. But on this literal surface, which is called the picture plane, other quantities and dimensions of space can be implied.

We perceive depth from several visual cues:

Overlap: we know that when two figures overlap, the one we perceive as complete is in front of the one we perceive as partial.

Position: we look down to see objects closer to us and up to see objects that are further away.

Linear Perspective: based on systematic application of two observations:

  • Forms seem to diminish is size as they recede from us
  • Parallel lines receding into the distance seem to converge, until they meet at a point on the horizon line where they disappear. This point is known as the vanishing point.

The artists of the Renaissance developed linear perspective, and it changed how artists viewed the picture plane. It became a window onto a scene, rather than a flat surface covered with shapes and colors. Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is the classic example of the use of linear perspective in Renaissance art:

The precise and careful perspective, created by the cloth hangings on the wall and the receding panels in the ceiling create a vanishing point behind Jesus' head at the exact center of the picture. It directs our attention to the most important part of the composition, the face of Jesus. The opening at the back wall, a rectangular window, also focuses our attention and creates a halo.

Foreshortening: the logic of perspective must apply to every form that recedes into the distance, including objects and humans and animal forms.

Look at Hans Baldung Grien's woodcut The Groom and the Witch (1540) above. Imagine if the two forms were parallel to the picture frame; they would both be considerably larger.

Atmospheric Perspective: this is the optical effect caused by the atmosphere that interposes itself between us and the objects we perceive. The further an object is from us, the bluer it appears. The American painter Albert Bierstadt used atmospheric perspective in Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863). Our eyes are drawn from the Indian encampment on the near shore, to a waterfall in the middle distance, and then upward to the towering mountain peaks in the far distance.

Works cited:
Getlein, Mark. Gilbert's Living with Art. sixth edition. Boston, McGraw Hill, 2002

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