The Formal Elements

The formal elements of art are the basis of visual analysis

 A visual analysis is a careful consideration of the formal aspects of an artwork. The formal elements comprise important vocabulary for an art student. Refer to the formal elements when analyzing artworks in The Comparative Study.

Formal elements of art basic vocabulary

This page has brief descriptions of some of the principle formal elements of art. There are many more terms that can be used to describe artworks such as balance, repitition, contrast, space, movement, emphasis, proportion, but this list covers the basic vocabulary.


There is more to a line than a simple outline. A line has an infinite range of expressivity depending on the texture, thickness, fragility, wobbliness, intensity, and speed with which it was drawn. A line is a connection from the eye to the hand of the maker and as such it is one of the most direct forms of expression. The quality of a line will depend on the type of material that is used to draw it, from a fine delicate ink line to a thick textured charcoal mark to a fluid calligraphic stroke. Explore line in all of it's possibilities.


Form refers to the dimensions and volume of the an object. In 3 dimensional work, such as sculpture, form has depth as well as width and height. Three-dimensional form is the basis of sculpture, architecture and decorative arts.

When discussing form look to see if there are certain predominant shapes

Geometric: squares, rectangles, circles, cubes, spheres, and cones..etc.

Organic: curving natural shapes such as plant forms, as found in nature

Space and Volume

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.

Positive and negative space

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. In the Seurat drawing on the left, the dark figure is the positive space, the light background the negative space.


The composition refers to the arrangement of the formal elements, i.e. shapes, lines, colors, and their relationship to eachother. A composition can be pyramidal, as in many Renaissance paintings, or it can emphasize vertical or horizontal lines, as in an Agnes Martin painting (at the top of this page.) A composition can be stable or unstable, dynamic or static. Every time you take a picture in your camera viewfinder you are framing a composition. The composition also emphasizes the viewpoint of the artist.


Texture is the surface quality of something. In some artworks this will be very evident, such as Meret Oppenheim's objet on the right. 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. When discussing texture, think of adjectives to describe the tactile qualities, such as rough, smooth, bumpy, silky, knobbly, prickly, velvety, slippery, slick, shiny, repulsive, enticing, etc.

Color and Tone

Color is light reflected off objects. Color has three main characteristics: hue (red, green, blue, etc.), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright or dull it is). Colors can be described as warm (red, yellow) or cool (blue, gray), depending on which end of the color spectrum they fall.

When discussing an artwork without color there is still a tone, how light or dark it is or where it falls on the gray scale from white to black. This is also called value.


Pattern can be defined as a regular repeated arrangement of forms and can be applied to many artworks, especially in the decorative arts. Some patterns rely on modular repetition of geometric or organic shapes, as in the William Morris design on the left.

Pattern and repitition are employed in abstract mark making, such as in the Rebecca Salter drawing on the right or in any work that employs a repetitive device.

Download The Formal Elements of Art Vocabulary

Getty Museum Resources

The Education Department at the JP Getty Museum in Los Angeles has some very accessible resources for teachers and students with lots of handouts and exercises on Understnading Formal Analysis.  These are especially suitable for students who are not mother tounge english, check out their website.

What medium is it?

When analyzing a painting, the formal elements are not the same as when analyzing a moving image, a sculpture or an installation, and every medium has its specific language and visual elements. Bear this in mind also when analysing non traditional art forms and aim to address the most relevant formal elements.

The formal elements are not entirely separate form one another and can be approached fluidly rather than categorically. Students who can identify the elements and principles of art and evaluate their role in the composition of a work of art will be better able to discuss a work of art, be it their own or others.

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