Formal Elements of Art

The elements or principles of art

The formal elements are an fundamental part of visual analysis

This page appears under the The Comparative Study as well, when your students are analyzing an artwork in the CS they will need to refer specifically to the formal elements of the chosen artworks. See CS Assessment Criteria

Formal Analysis

When analyzing an artwork in any media it is always good to start with a formal analysis, that is a careful consideration of the visual (formal) aspects of an artwork. The formal elements are also important vocabulary for an art student.

These formal elements are not entirely separate form one another and should 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 understand an artist's choices. They will be equipped to discuss a work of art, be it their own or others!

Analysis varies according the medium

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. Keep in mind also when analyzing non traditional art forms and aim to address the most relevant formal elements.

We may need to revisit the whole notion of formal elements in the 21st century; most art these days hardly conforms to the modernist idea of the elements of art! This is a whole new topic however...

What are the basic formal elements?

You can find any number of descriptions of the formal elements of art online ( see below). Here are some aspects of key formal elements used in analysing an art work. You can Download this  The Formal Elements defined


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. Have a look at the site page on using viewfinders and the page on thumbnail sketches to determine compositions.


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 can also be found in abstract mark making, such as in the Rebecca Salter drawing on the right or in any work that employs a repetitive device.

Useful resource

Simplified definitions of the formal elements of art for non native english speakers

The Education Department at the JP Getty Museum in Los Angeles has some good, very basic resources for teachers and students on formal visual analysis, with printable PDFS, vocabulary and exercises. Especially If you are teaching students who are not mother toungue english you might want to check out this great resource.

How to apply Visual Analysis

I love the Khan academy video with a step by step visual analysis of a painting, check out the links in this page below

Visual (formal) Analysis

For The Comparative Study students are asked to identify and analyze the formal qualities of each artwork considered, for assessed criterion A. This is called Visual (or Formal) analysis.criterion A....

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