Elements of Art – Explanations for Children

Elements of Art

These basic elements of art are part of a “Family Fun Gallery Guide” from the New Britain Museum of American Art. The guide describes these elements as “the language of art” to use while exploring the museum. This list is helpful when talking to children, since it is geared toward them.

Definitions for Younger Students

  • Lines can outline or make shapes or textures. There are many kinds of lines.
  • Shape and form have boundaries and may look three-dimensional if the artist shades them. Forms may have color or texture, and may be organic or geometric. There are many kinds of shapes and forms found in art.
  •  Light is the reason we can see anything at all. Light can make things look more three-dimensional and it can reveal textures and the colors of things.
  •  Colors are visible because of light. Colors can be light or dark, bright or dull, warm or cool. The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. From those three colors, we can make all other colors.
  •  Textures are the surfaces of things. Textures can be rough or smooth, flat or bumpy. There are many kinds of textures.
  •  Space in a painting or drawing may look like real three-dimensional space if the artist uses perspective (a system using lines, shapes, colors and textures to fool our eye into believing the canvas is like a window onto the world). Space can be just the flat space between shapes and forms. Space in a painting can look exaggerated and unreal.
  •  Value is the lightness or darkness of a color.

Definitions for Older Students

(These art terms were compiled from a guide for a similar program in Phoenix and from the J. Paul Getty Museum. These definitions provide more information for the volunteer and are helpful when talking to older students.)

  • Line is a line is an identifiable path created by a point moving in space. It is one-dimensional and can vary in width, direction and length. Lines often define the edges of a form. Lines can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal, straight or curved, thick or thin. They lead your eye around the composition and can communicate information through their character and direction. A line is an outline or boundary of a figure or space, an abstract invention of man used to describe the contour of a three-dimensional object. Lines do not exist in nature and need not be used in art, but artists almost invariably start their work with line. Sculptors usually mark the piece of wood or stone with lines before starting to carve. They almost always make sketches, employing lines before the first mark is made in the rough block. Lines, by themselves, can convey moods and feelings. They can divide an area or suggest movement, e.g. horizontal lines suggest peace; vertical lines indicate growth; diagonal lines convey change or excitement.
  • Shape or Form define objects in space. Shapes have two dimensions – height and width – and usually are defined by lines. Forms exist in three dimensions, with height, width and depth.
    • Two-dimensional shapes exist only in a drawing or painting since the artist works on a flat surface.
    • Actual three-dimensional art exists only in sculpture and architecture.Three-dimensional (illusory) art is created when an artist works on a flat surface that has no actual depth. If the artist wants a third dimension, he or she must create it using the technique of perspective. Perspective, a technique that has been employed since the Renaissance, is the illusion of depth and volume on a two-dimensional surface when viewed from a stationary point of view. The artist creates the illusion of objects that appear to get smaller according to their distance from the viewer. Perspective may be achieved by converging lines, overlapping objects, color variations (bright colors make objects appear to come forward), size variation, foreshortening, etc.
  • Space is the empty area around, between or within an object. Real space is three-dimensional. Space in a work of art refers to a feeling of depth or three dimensions. It can also refer to the artist’s use of the area within the picture plane. The area around the primary objects in a work of art is known as negative space, while the space occupied by the primary objects is known as positive space.
  • Texture is the surface quality of an object that we sense through touch. All objects have a physical texture. Artists can also convey texture visually in two dimensions. In a two-dimensional work of art, texture gives a visual sense of how an object depicted would feel in real life if touched: hard, soft, rough, smooth, hairy, leathery, sharp, etc. In three-dimensional works, artists use actual texture to add a tactile quality to the work.
    • Actual texture is roughness or smoothness that can be felt with the fingers. Actual texture is more obvious in sculpture and architecture. In painting, pigment can be laid on thickly which will have a different impact on the eye than paint that is laid on smoothly.
    • Simulated texture gives the appearance of texture, yet the painting would be smooth to the touch.
  • Pattern is repeating forms. Pattern is made up of lines or symbols that move across the picture surface arranged in some sequence of movement.
  •  Color is light reflected off objects. Color has three main characteristics or attributes:
    • Hue: The actual color itself (red, green, blue, etc.).
    • Value: How light or dark it is – green is lower (darker) in value than yellow.
    • Intensity: How bright or dull it is; the degree of purity, strength or saturation. Bright red is more intense than pink. Colors can be described as:
      • Warm (red, yellow, orange), which suggests warmth, excitement or energy, or
      • Cool (blue, green, violet, gray), which suggests coolness, calm or quiet. 
    • Shade: The darkening of a hue (maroon is a shade of red).
    • Tint: The lightening of a hue (pink is a tint of red).
    • Primary colors: Red, yellow and blue. Primary colors cannot be made by mixing other colors, but all other colors can be produced by mixing two or more primary colors.
    • Secondary colors: Orange, green and violet. These colors are made by mixing two of the primary colors in equal parts (red and yellow make orange).
    • Tertiary colors:  Colors produced by the mixture of two secondary colors (yellow and green make yellow-green).
    • Complementary color: A color having a maximum contrast with another color. The complement of a primary color is formed by mixing the other two primary colors. Red is the complement of green (yellow + blue); blue is the complement of orange (red + yellow); yellow is the complement of violet (red + blue).

To see examples from the Getty Museum, go to: http://www.getty.edu/education/for_teachers/building_lessons/elements.html