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Elements of Design

Elsie Untalan

The Elements: Line

A line is a form with width and length, but no

depth. Artists use lines to create edges, the
outlines of objects. A line is created by the
movement of the artist's pen

A line is a mark made by a moving point and

having psychological impact according to its
direction, weight, and the variations in its
direction and weight. It is an enormously useful
and versatile graphic device that is made to
function in both visual and verbal ways. It can act
as a symbolic language, or it can communicate
emotion through its character and direction

A line represents a "path" between two
points. A line can be straight, curved, vertical,
horizontal, diagonal, or zigzag. Lines imply
motion and suggest direction or orientation. A
line can also be implied, that is filled in by the
mind when several points are positioned
geometrically within a frame. Placing four dots
on a page in the shape of a square can imply
the points are linked as the mind searches for
recognizable patterns.

The direction and orientation of a line

can also imply certain feelings.
Horizontal lines imply tranquillity and rest,
whereas vertical lines imply power and strength.
Oblique lines imply movement, action and
Curved lines or S shaped lines imply quiet, calm
and sensual feelings.
Lines that converge imply depth, scale and
distance - a fence or roadway converges into the
distance provides the illusion that a flat twodimensional image has three-dimensional depth.

Line is not necessarily an artificial creation

of the artist or designer; it exists in nature
as a structural feature such as branches, or
as surface design, such as striping on a
tiger or a seashell.

It can function independently to suggest

forms that can be recognized, even when the
lines are limited in extent. This can be seen in
drawings such as the Saul Steinberg
illustration shown here, or in Alexander
Calder's minimal wire sculptures, which
convey a great deal of information about the
figure with the most limited line.

Lines can be combined with

other lines to create
textures and patterns. This
is common in engravings
and pen and ink drawings
such as the one on the
right. The use of line in
combination results in the
development of form and
value, which are other
elements of design.

However, line is not always

explicit. It can exist by
implication, as the edge of
forms. As young children we
usually begin drawing
landscapes by making outlines
for earth, sky, and other
objects. Gradually we learn that
objects do not have such
outlines and we let color
changes define the edges of
shapes, creating implicit lines.
Thus we can speak of a horizon
"line," or the "lines" of a car or
a fashion silhouette, even
though we know there is no
literal line present.

Line also communicates emotion and states

of mind through its character and direction.
The variations of meaning generally relate to
our bodily experience of line and direction.

Horizontal line suggests a feeling of rest or

repose. Objects parallel to the earth are at
rest in relation to gravity. Therefore
compositions in which horizontal lines
dominate tend to be quiet and restful in
feeling. One of the hallmarks of Frank Lloyd
Wright's architectural style is its use of strong
horizontal elements which stress the
relationship of the structure to the land.

Horizontal lines are calm and quiet

Vertical lines communicate a feeling of

loftiness and spirituality. Erect lines seem to
extend upwards beyond human reach, toward
the sky. They often dominate public
architecture, from cathedrals to corporate
headquarters. Extended perpendicular lines
suggest an overpowering grandeur, beyond
ordinary human measure.

vertical lines suggest more of a

potential for movement

Diagonal lines suggest a feeling of movement

or direction. Since objects in a diagonal
position are unstable in relation to gravity,
being neither vertical nor horizontal, they are
either about to fall, or are already in motion,
as is certainly the case for this group of
dancers. In a two dimensional composition
diagonal lines are also used to indicate depth,
an illusion of perspective that pulls the viewer
into the picture-creating an illusion of a space
that one could move about within. Thus if a
feeling of movement or speed is desired, or a
feeling of activity, diagonal lines can be used.

while diagonal lines strongly suggest

movement and give more of a feeling of
vitality to a picture.

Horizontal and vertical lines

in combination
communicate stability and
solidity. Rectilinear forms
stay put in relation to
gravity, and are not likely to
tip over. This stability
suggests permanence,
reliability and safety. In the
case of the man in this
family group, the lines seem
to imply stability to the
point of stodginess.

Deep, acute curves, on the other hand,

suggest confusion, turbulence, even frenzy, as
in the violence of waves in a storm, the chaos
of a tangled thread, or the turmoil of lines
suggested by the forms of a crowd. The
complicated curves used to form the mother
in the family group shown above suggest a
fussy, frivolous personality.

Curved lines do vary in meaning, however.

Soft, shallow curves suggest comfort, safety,
familiarity, relaxation. They recall the curves of
the human body, and therefore have a
pleasing, sensual quality.

Contour and gesture

Lines used to follow the edges of forms are
called contour drawings

Drawings which seem to depict more

movement than actual outline are called
gesture drawings.

Line as Value
Lines or crosshatching
can also be used to
create areas of grey
inside a drawing. These
areas of darker shading
inside a figure, called
areas of value, can give a
more three-dimensional
feeling to an object

The quality of the line is in itself a

fundamental visual language, to an extent that
cannot be claimed for any other single
element. Its use is so universal that we are all
profoundly sensitive to it. Even without an
artist's training, we can extract considerable
meaning from the kind of line used in a
drawing. It is possible to recognize the soft,
irregular lines of a quick sketch from life, as
seen in this study of a lion.

On the other hand, the crisp, carefully placed

lines of the rhinocerous are typical of a more
studied, scrupulously worked studio drawing.
The lines suggest that this was not drawn from
life, but from hearsay. This is also evident from
the fact that Durer drew this rather inaccurate
image in fifteenth century Europe when he
could only have known of this African animal
from travellers' tales.

The quality of line in itself contributes to the

mood of the work, and for the master artist,
the quality of line is a fundamental expression
of his/her style. This drawing of a nude by
Matisse demonstrates his ability to create his
image through a minimal number of expertly
placed lines-lines that by their placement and
movement on the page identify this work with
this artist as surely as a signature.

Although the subject matter is the same in all

three works, the differences in line quality
have created works with very different impact.
How you use line is one of the most important
decisions to be made in creating a work of art

In the first image, da Vinci used a soft, sensitive soft line to create a
graceful image. The center image has the same subject. However, the
artist Willem DeKooning has created a very different feeling by using a
heavy, gestural line. The woman's face in the third image is created with a
mechanical line creating an emotionally-detached feeling.


A shape is an enclosed object. Shapes can be
created by line, or by color and value changes
which define their edges.

Volume and Mass

Shape is considered to be a two-dimensional
element, while three-dimensional elements
have volume or mass. Therefore, a painting
has shapes, while a sculpture has volume and

Positive / Negative Space

In a picture, the shapes that the artist has placed are
considered the positive shapes. The spaces around the
shapes are the negative spaces. It is just as important
to consider the negative space in a picture as the
positive shapes. Sometimes artists create pieces that
have no distinction between positive and negative
M. C. Escher was a master at creating drawings where
there was no distinction between positive and negative
space. Here are two examples of Escher's work which
show the interplay between positive and negative


Sky and Water


Texture is the surface quality of an object. We
experience texture when we touch objects and
feel their roughness, smoothness or patterns.
Texture is the artist's way of mapping these
tactile impressions on to the two-dimensional
picture. Texture is created by varying the pattern
of light and dark areas on an object. Notice how
the areas of light and dark give the impression of
depth to the image below


Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a
certain area. Value can be used for emphasis.
Variations in value are used to create a focal point for
the design of a picture. A light figure on a dark
background will be immediately recognized as the
center of attention, similarly for a dark figure on a
mostly white background. Gradations of value are also
used to create the illusion of depth. Areas of light and
dark can give a three-dimensional impression, such as
when shading areas of a person's face.

Drawing by Marguerite Smith, Saskatoon

Value - relative light and darkness. The overall lightness and lack of contrast
in the left image conveys a sense of spirituality and harmony between the
tree and the circular sky. The dramatic mood of the other work by Gustave
Dore is created, in large part, by the high contrast of light and dark

Color occurs when light in different wavelengths strikes
our eyes. Objects have no color of their own, only the
ability to reflect a certain wavelength of light back to
our eyes. As you know, color can vary in differing
circumstances. For example, grass can appear gray in
the morning or evening or bright green at noon. Colors
appear different depending on whether you view them
under incandescent, florescent or natural sunlight.
Colors also change according to their surroundings.

Properties of Color
Hue Hue refers to the color itself. Each
different hue is a different reflected
wavelength of light. White light broken in a
prism has seven hues: red, orange, yellow,
green, blue, indigo and violet. White light
occurs when all the wavelengths are reflected
back to your eye, and black light occurs when
no light is reflected to your eye. This is the
physics of light.

Color Value
Color value refers to the lightness or darkness
of the hue. Adding white to a hue produces a
high-value color, often called a tint. Adding
black to a hue produces a low-value color,
often called a shade.

Intensity, also called chroma or saturation, refers to the brightness
of a color. A color is at full intensity when not mixed with black or
white - a pure hue. You can change the intensity of a color, making
it duller or more neutral by adding gray to the color. You can also
change the intensity of a color by adding its complement (this is the
color found directly opposite on the traditional color wheel). When
changing colors this way, the color produced is called a tone.
When you mix complementary colors together, you produce a dull
tone. However, when you put complementary colors side by side,
you increase their intensity. This effect is called simultaneous
contrast - each color simultaneously intensifies the visual brightness
of the other color.

Color and Space

Certain colors have an advancing or receding
quality, based on how our eye has to adjust to
see them. Warm colors such as red, orange or
yellow seem to come forward while cool colors
such as blue and green seem to recede slightly. In
the atmosphere, distant objects appear bluish
and the further away an object appears, the less
colorful and distinct it becomes. Artists use this
to give an illusion of depth, by using more neutral
and grayish colors in the background.

Color Schemes
Monochromatic This color scheme
involves the use of only one hue. The
hue can vary in value, and black or
white may be added to create
various shades or tints.
Analogous This color scheme
involves the use of colors that are
located adjacent on the color wheel.
The hues may vary in value. The color
scheme for this site is analogous,
with the colors varying only slightly
from each other.

Color Schemes
Complementary This color scheme
involves the use of colors that are located
opposite on the color wheel such as red
and green, yellow and purple, or orange
and blue. Complementary colors produce
a very exciting, dynamic pattern.
Triadic This color scheme involves the
use of colors that are equally spaced on
the color wheel. The primary colors of
yellow, red and green could be used
together in a color scheme to produce a
lively result.


Illusion of Space and Depth
We live in a three-dimensional world of depth. When
we look around us, some things seem closer, some
further away. The artist can also show the illusion of
depth by using the following means:
Size & Vertical Location
Detail (Aerial or Atmospheric Perspective)
Linear Perspective
We can create a convincing illusion of a three-dimensional space
on a flat surface, if we establish our vantage point and are
consistent in our use of the indicators of depth:

Size & Vertical Location

Since objects in our environment
look smaller when they are
farther away, the easiest way to
show depth is to vary the size of
objects, with closer objects being
larger and more distant objects
being smaller. As well, we
perceive objects that are higher
on the page and smaller as being
further away than objects which
are in the forefront of a picture.

Diminishing scale - the

largest statue appears
closest and the smallest
appears further away.

Overlapping Planes
When objects are
partially obscured by
other objects in front of
them, we perceive
them as further back
than the covering
We do not see them as
incomplete forms, just
further back.

Overlapping "overrules"
the other indicators of
depth - we know that
the smaller pyramids
are closer because they
overlap the larger
pyramids. Overlapping
most clearly establishes

Aerial or Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective
uses color and value
contrasts to show depth.
Objects which are further
away generally have less
distinct contrast - they
may fade into the
background or become
indistinct dark areas. The
foreground objects will be
clear with sharper

Atmospheric perspective close objects have greater

intensity of color, detail
and value contrast. The
rider and horse in this
painting by Frederick
Remmington have a
higher color intensity,
attention to details and
value contrast than the
background cattle.

Leonardo was fascinated by the atmosphere and by its effects on

the colors and distinctness of distant objects. Though other artists
had already begun to create some of these effects in their work,
Leonardo was the first to make careful measurements and suggest
rules for applying them realistically in painting. He called the
subject aerial perspective.
In morning light Leonardo observed that distant objects such as
mountains look bluer and less distinct than nearby mountains. He
also noted that the more distant the mountain, the more its color
approached that of the surrounding atmosphere.
His experiments suggested that to correctly color objects at
different distances, artists should do as follows: Paint the nearest
one its true color. Paint the one behind proportionately bluer, and
the one behind that bluer still.

In painting the Virgin of

the Rocks, Leonardo
applied his
understanding of aerial
perspective to create
the sense of mountains
a great distance away.

Linear Perspective (Converging Lines)

Linear perspective is based on the

idea that all lines will converge on a
common point on the horizon called
the vanishing point. You have
observed linear perspective when
you notice that the lines on the
highway appear to meet at a point in
the distance. Artists use linear
perspective to create a focal point for
a picture. Any walls, ceilings, floors or
other objects with lines will appear to
come together at the horizon line.
These lines converging lead our eyes
towards that point. Often, the most
important object or person in the
picture will be located at that point.
You can see in the drawing above
how all the lines in the drawing seem
to lead your eye toward the church in
the center back of the drawing.

Diagonals and Linear

perspective - we
perceive diagonal lines
as receding into the
distance. The diagonal
lines in this painting of a
bridge create a
extraordinary sense of

Other types of perspective, such as two-point

or multipoint perspective are also used. Twopoint perspective, which occurs when you
display a building from a corner view, as
opposed to a front view, is often used by
architects to show a more three-dimensional
view of a building.

The horizon line runs across the canvas at the eye level of
the viewer. The horizon line is where the sky appears to
meet the ground.
The vanishing point should be located near the center of
the horizon line. The vanishing point is where all parallel
lines (orthogonals) that run towards the horizon line
appear to come together like train tracks in the distance.
Orthogonal lines are "visual rays" helping the viewer's eye
to connect points around the edges of the canvas to the
vanishing point. An artist uses them to align the edges of
walls and paving stones.

Vertical placement - we perceive objects that

are placed lower in the image as closer to us,
and objects that are placed higher as being
further away.

The boat placed lowest in this work by Japanese artist,

Hokusai, is perceived as closest to us. As we move up
vertically in the image, the boats seem further and further

Color - we perceive warm colors (red, orange and

yellow) as closer than cool colors (green, blue,
violet). Psychologically, the red and yellow objects
in both works appear to be in the foreground, while
the cool-colored backgrounds recede.

Loaf Mountain - warm glow of sunrise

advances where the cool blue shadows recede.



Anticipated Movement

Live figures portrayed in

unstable body positions cause
us to feel that motion is
imminent. We know from
past experience with these
positions that some kind of
movement will occur. This
heightens the feeling of

Fuzzy Outlines
When figures move past
us at very high speeds,
we perceive that figure
as somewhat blurry.
This experience leads us
to interpret blurry or
indistinct outlines as
conveying motion.


Classic design theory discusses unity in terms
of the objects present in a piece of art.
Regarded in this way, unity discusses the need
to tie the various elements of a work of art
together. Unity is a measure of how the
elements of a page seem to fit together - to
belong together. A unified work of art
represents first a whole, then the sum of its

UNITY: Proximity
The simplest method
of making objects
appear to belong
together is to group
them closely
together. This allows
us to see a pattern.

UNITY: Repetition
Another method often
used to promote unity
is the use of repetition.
Repetition of color,
shape, texture or object
can be used to tie a
work together

Unity-Variety. Repetition of visual elements such as shapes or

colors create a rhythm and pattern in an artwork - creating a sense
of harmony and unity that pulls the picture together. Some artists,
such as Andy Warhol, have emphasized repetition to make a
statement about the prevalence of mass-production in our society.
Most artists, however, seek a more equal balance between unity
and variety in their work. For example, the three-tined shape of the
pitchfork in Grant Wood's painting (left) in repeated exactly in the
clothing. It is also repeated in the windows and vertical lines in the
house. On the other hand, curved shapes surround the woman's
head - in the broach, curved edge of her dress and background
trees. This repetition of shape unifies the painting, while the
differences between the vertical and curved shapes give the
painting a balancing sense of variety.

UNITY: Continuation
A much more subtle method of unifying a
work involves the continuation of line, edge or
direction from one area to another.
Continuation is often used in books and
magazines to tie the elements of a page
together with the use of rules, and by lining
up edges of copy, headlines and graphics.

UNITY: Continuation

Edgar Degas. The Tub. 1886.

Pastel, 60 x 82 cm. Louvre, Paris

This painting by Degas

has many elements of
continuation. The circle of
the girl's back is
continued in the circle of
the tub on the floor. The
overhanging brush guides
our eyes towards the
objects on the table,
which are arranged as a
continuation of the

Proportion - relative size of objects within the

work of art. In his painting of bedroom (left),
Rene Magritte has created a surreal situation
simply by manipulating the proportions of
common objects. There are no clues that tell us if
we are in a normal-sized room or a dollhouse. In
the other painting, Andrew Wyeth has used the
proportion very differently - the small farmhouse
against the largeness of the field created a sense
of isolation.


Symmetrical (Formal) Balance
Symmetrical balance is mirror image balance.
If you draw a line down the center of the
page, all the objects on one side of the screen
are mirrored on the other side (they may not
be identical objects, but they are similar in
terms of numbers of objects, colors and other
elements. Sometimes they are completely
identical (often seen in architecture).

Look at this drawing of

the Cathedral of SaintPierre in Angouleme,
France. You can draw a
line down the middle of
the front face, and
everything on either
side would be mirror

Symmetrical Balance

Leonardo DaVinci

The parts of an image are organized so that one

side mirrors the other.

Asymmetrical balance occurs when several smaller

items on one side are balanced by a large item on the
other side, or smaller items are placed further away
from the center of the screen than larger items. One
darker item may need to be balanced by several lighter
Although asymmetrical balance may appear more
casual and less planned, it is usually harder to to use
because the artist must plan the layout very carefully
to ensure that it is still balanced. An unbalanced page
or screen creates a feeling of tension, as if the page or
screen might tip, or things might slide off the side, just
as the unbalanced balance beam would tip to one side

Achieving balance: by color

Our eyes are drawn by
color. Small areas of
vibrant color can be
used to balance larger
areas of more neutral
colors. The vivid red
skirt on the left is
balanced by the larger
neutral pink dress

Achieving balance: by value

Value refers to the
darkness or lightness of
objects. Black against
white has a much
stronger contrast than
gray against white. To
balance these two
colors, you would need
a larger area of gray to
balance the stronger
value of black

Achieving balance: by shape

Large flat areas without
much detail can be
balanced by smaller
irregularly shaped objects
since the eye is led
towards the more
intricate shape.
The front dancer in this
painting by Degas stands
out in intricate detail
compared to the large
blurry area behind her.

Achieving balance: by position

Using a balance beam, a larger
weight closer to the center
point can be balanced by a
lighter weight further away
from the center. This is the
basis for balance by position.
Sometimes larger elements on
one side of the page can be
balanced by a smaller element
that is positioned by itself at
the far end of the other side of
the page. This is a very tricky
type of asymmetrical balance
that often ends up looking out
of balance.

Achieving balance: by texture

Smaller areas with
interesting textures
(variegated light and
dark, or random
fluctuations) can
balance larger areas
with smoother,
untextured looks.

Achieving balance: by eye direction

Your eye can be led to a certain
point in a picture depending on
how the elements are arranged.
If the people in a picture are
looking in a certain direction,
your eye will be led there as
well. Elements in a picture, such
as triangles or arrows, will also
lead your eye to look to a
certain point and maintain the
balance of a picture. Look how
the eye direction of the dancers
and musicians in this painting
by Seurat lead your eye to the
small gaslights which provide a
focal point in this painting.

Asymmetrical balance
The painting by Mary
Cassatt, (on the right)
depicts an ordinary
moment. Appropriately, it is
asymmetrically balanced.
The two women on one side
are balanced by the large
silver service and fireplace
on the other -with the area
of highest value contrast
(the woman in dark with
the near-white saucer and
cup) only slightly off-set
from the center.

Asymmetrical Balance

James Whistler

When one side of a composition does not reflect

the design of the other.

Radial Balance
The third type of balance is radial balance,
where all elements radiate out from a center
point in a circular fashion. It is very easy to
maintain a focal point in radial balance, since
all the elements lead your eye toward the

Rhythm and Movement Rhythm refers to the way

your eye moves throughout a picture. Some pictures
move you throughout in a connected, flowing way
much like a slow, stately rhythm in music. Other
pictures move you from one place to another in an
abrupt, dynamic way much like a fast, staccato rhythm
in music will give you the impression of movement.
Rhythm in art is created by the repetition of elements.
Similarity of elements, or flowing, circular elements
will give a more connected flowing rhythm to a picture,
while jagged, or unrelated elements will create a more
unsettling, dynamic picture.

Look at the two images above. The painting by Matisse is full of

sweeping circular areas which move your eye around the picture (it
is a good example of optical movement). The elements are flowing
and circular and give you the impression of a calm quiet rhythm.
The line drawing on the right is more dynamic due to its incomplete
nature and the feeling of motion is much more evident




A regular repetition of
elements to produce the
look and feel of

The focal point of an image, or when
one area or thing stand out the most.

Jim Dine

Gustav Klimt

Emphasis by isolation
if most of the elements in a work of art are
grouped closely together, an object by itself
stands out as a focal point

Emphasis by placement:
An object placed in the center will often be
perceived as a focal point. If all eyes in the
painting look at one object, or if an object is
placed at the center of the lines of
perspective, that object will be perceived as
the focus of the work.

Focal point
This painting by John
Trumbull, entitled The
Surrender of Lord
Cornwallis, shows how
a focal point can be
emphasized both by
placement and by eye