Art History: Thinking and Talking about Art


Image from Art Institute of Chicago Museum


What is Art?

Overview

Art is a highly diverse range of human activities engaged in creating visual, auditory, or performed artifacts— artworks—that express the author’s imaginative or technical skill, and are intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.

The oldest documented forms of art are visual arts, which include images or objects in fields like painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and other visual media. Architecture is often included as one of the visual arts; however, like the decorative arts, it involves the creation of objects where the practical considerations of use are essential, in a way that they usually are not in another visual art, like a painting.

Art may be characterized in terms of mimesis (its representation of reality), expression, communication of emotion, or other qualities. Though the definition of what constitutes art is disputed and has changed over time, general descriptions center on the idea of imaginative or technical skill stemming from human agency and creation. When it comes to visually identifying a work of art, there is no single set of values or aesthetic traits. A Baroque painting will not necessarily share much with a contemporary performance piece, but they are both considered art.

Despite the seemingly indefinable nature of art, there have always existed certain formal guidelines for its aesthetic judgment and analysis. Formalism is a concept in art theory in which an artwork’s artistic value is determined solely by its form, or how it is made. Formalism evaluates works on a purely visual level, considering medium and compositional elements as opposed to any reference to realism, context, or content.

Art is often examined through the interaction of the principles and elements of art. The principles of art include movement, unity, harmony, variety, balance, contrast, proportion and pattern. The elements include texture, form, space, shape, color, value and line. The various interactions between the elements and principles of art help artists to organize sensorially pleasing works of art while also giving viewers a framework within which to analyze and discuss aesthetic ideas.

Ecce Homo by Caravaggio, c.1605, oil on canvas / Palazzo Bianco (Genoa), Wikimedia Commons

Bjӧrk, Mutual Core, 2011

What Does Art Do?

A fundamental purpose common to most art forms is the underlying intention to appeal to, and connect with, human emotion. However, the term is incredibly broad and is broken up into numerous sub-categories that lead to utilitarian, decorative, therapeutic, communicative, and intellectual ends. In its broadest form, art may be considered an exploration of the human condition, or a product of the human experience.

The decorative arts add aesthetic and design values to everyday objects, such as a glass or a chair, transforming them from a mere utilitarian object to something aesthetically beautiful. Entire schools of thought exist based on the concepts of design theory intended for the physical world.

Bauhaus Chair / Wikimedia Commons
The decorative arts add aesthetic and design values to everyday objects

Art can function therapeutically as well, an idea that is explored in art therapy. While definitions and practices vary, art therapy is generally understood as a form of therapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication. It is a relatively young discipline, first introduced around the mid-20th century.

Historically, the fine arts were meant to appeal to the human intellect, though currently there are no true boundaries. Typically, fine art movements have reacted to each other both intellectually and aesthetically throughout the ages. With the introduction of conceptual art and postmodern theory, practically anything can be termed art. In general terms, the fine arts represent an exploration of the human condition and the attempt to experience a deeper understanding of life.

What Does Art Mean?

The meaning of art is often culturally specific, shared among the members of a given society and dependent upon cultural context. The purpose of works of art may be to communicate political, spiritual or philosophical ideas, to create a sense of beauty (see aesthetics), to explore the nature of perception, for pleasure, or to generate strong emotions. Its purpose may also be seemingly nonexistent.

The nature of art has been described by philosopher Richard Wollheim as “one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture.” It has been defined as a vehicle for the expression or communication of emotions and ideas, a means for exploring and appreciating formal elements for their own sake, and as mimesis or representation. More recently, thinkers influenced by Martin Heidegger have interpreted art as the means by which a community develops for itself a medium for self-expression and interpretation.

Abstract expressionist artist Helen Frankenthaler, pictured above in 1956 in her studio, adopted Jackson Pollock’s technique of painting canvases laid flat on the floor. She sought to “marry” the paint with the canvas, she said. / Wikimedia Commons

Art, in its broadest sense, is a form of communication. It means whatever the artist intends it to mean, and this meaning is shaped by the materials, techniques, and forms it makes use of, as well as the ideas and feelings it creates in its viewers. Art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations.

What Makes Art Beautiful?

What makes art beautiful is a complicated concept, since beauty is subjective and can change based on context. However, there is a basic human instinct, or internal appreciation, for harmony, balance, and rhythm which can be defined as beauty. Beauty in terms of art usually refers to an interaction between line, color, texture, sound, shape, motion, and size that is pleasing to the senses.

Aesthetic Art

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and appreciation of art, beauty, and taste. Aesthetics is central to any exploration of art. The word “aesthetic” is derived from the Greek “aisthetikos,” meaning “esthetic, sensitive, or sentient. ” In practice, aesthetic judgment refers to the sensory contemplation or appreciation of an object (not necessarily a work of art), while artistic judgment refers to the recognition, appreciation, or criticism of a work of art.

Numerous philosophers have attempted to tackle the concept of beauty and art. For Immanuel Kant, the aesthetic experience of beauty is a judgment of a subjective, but common, human truth. He argued that all people should agree that a rose is beautiful if it indeed is. There are many common conceptions of beauty; for example, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel are widely recognized as beautiful works of art. However, Kant believes beauty cannot be reduced to any basic set of characteristics or features.

For Arthur Schopenhauer, aesthetic contemplation of beauty is the freest and most pure that intellect can be. He believes that only in terms of aesthetics do we contemplate perfection of form without any kind of worldly agenda.

Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, c.1512, fresco / Sistine Chapel, Wikimedia Commons

Beauty in art can be difficult to put into words due to a seeming lack of accurate language. An aesthetic judgment cannot be an empirical judgment but must instead be processed on a more intuitive level.

Art and Human Emotion

Sometimes beauty is not the artist’s ultimate goal. Art is often intended to appeal to, and connect with, human emotion. Artists may express something so that their audience is stimulated in some way—creating feelings, religious faith, curiosity, interest, identification with a group, memories, thoughts, or creativity. For example, performance art often does not aim to please the audience but instead evokes feelings, reactions, conversations, or questions from the viewer. In these cases, aesthetics may be an irrelevant measure of “beautiful” art.

Who is an Artist?

An artist is a person who is involved in the wide range of activities that are related to creating art. The word has transformed over time and context, but the modern understanding of the term denotes that, ultimately, an artist is anyone who calls him/herself an artist.

In ancient Greece and Rome, there was no word for “artist.” The Greek word “techne” is the closest that exists to “art” and means “mastery of any art or craft.” From the Latin “tecnicus” derives the English words “technique,” “technology,” and “technical.” From these words we can denote the ancient standard of equating art with manual labor or craft.

Each of the nine muses of ancient Greece oversaw a different field of human creation. The creation of poetry and music was considered to be divinely inspired and was therefore held in high esteem. However, there was no muse identified with the painting and sculpture; ancient Greek culture held these art forms in low social regard, considering work of this sort to be more along the lines of manual labor.

During the Middle Ages, the word “artista” referred to something resembling “craftsman,” or student of the arts. The first division into “major” and “minor” arts dates back to the 1400s with the work of Leon Battista Alberti, which focused on the importance of the intellectual skills of the artist rather than the manual skills of a craftsman. The European academies of the 16th century formally solidified the gap between the fine and the applied arts, which exists in varying degrees to this day. Generally speaking, the applied arts apply design and aesthetics to objects of everyday use, while the fine arts serve as intellectual stimulation.

Currently, the term “artist” typically refers to anyone who is engaged in an activity that is deemed to be an art form. However, the questions of what is art and who is an artist are not easily answered. The idea of defining art today is far more difficult than it has ever been. After the exhibition during the Pop Art movement of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and Campbell’s Soup Cans, the questions of “what is art?” and “who is an artist?” entered a more conceptual realm. Anything can, in fact, be art, and the term remains constantly evolving.

Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962, synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Museum of Modern Art, Wikimedia Commons

Visual Elements

Line

A line is defined as a mark that connects the space between two points, taking any form along the way.

The line is an essential element of art, defined as a mark that connects the space between two points, taking any form along the way. Lines are used most often to define shape in two-dimensional works and could be called the most ancient, as well as the most universal, forms of mark making.

There are many different types of lines, all characterized by their lengths being greater than their width, as well as by the paths that they take. Depending on how they are used, lines help to determine the motion, direction, and energy of a work of art. The quality of a line refers to the character that is presented by a line in order to animate a surface to varying degrees.

Actual lines are lines that are physically present, existing as solid connections between one or more points, while implied lines refer to the path that the viewer’s eye takes as it follows shape, color, and form within an art work. Implied lines give works of art a sense of motion and keep the viewer engaged in a composition. We can see numerous implied lines in Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, connecting the figures and actions of the piece by leading the eye of the viewer through the unfolding drama.

Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1784, oil on canvas / Louvre (Paris), Wikimedia Commons
Many implied lines connect the figures and action of the piece by leading the eye of the viewer through the unfolding drama.

Straight or classic lines add stability and structure to a composition and can be vertical, horizontal, or diagonal on the surface of the work. Expressive lines refer to curved marks that increase the sense of dynamism of a work of art. These types of lines often follow an undetermined path of sinuous curves. The outline or contour lines create a border or path around the edge of a shape, thereby outlining and defining it. Cross contour lines delineate differences in the features of a surface and can give the illusion of three dimensions or a sense of form or shading.

Hatch lines are a series of short lines repeated in intervals, typically in a single direction, and are used to add shading and texture to surfaces. Cross-hatch lines provide additional texture and tone to the image surface and can be oriented in any direction. Layers of cross-hatching can add rich texture and volume to image surfaces.

Light and Value

The use of light and dark in art is called value. Value can be subdivided into tint (light hues) and shade (dark hues). In painting, which uses subtractive color, value changes are achieved by adding black or white to a color. Artists may also employ shading, which refers to a more subtle manipulation of value. The value scale is used to show the standard variations in tones. Values near the lighter end of the spectrum are termed high-keyed, while those on the darker end are low-keyed.

Value Scale: Represents different degrees of light used in artwork

In two-dimensional artworks, the use of value can help to give a shape the illusion of mass or volume. It will also give the entire composition a sense of lighting. High contrast refers to the placing of lighter areas directly against much darker ones, so their difference is showcased, creating a dramatic effect. High contrast also refers to the presence of more blacks than white or grey. Low-contrast images result from placing mid-range values together so there is not much visible difference between them, creating a more subtle mood.

In Baroque painting, the technique of chiaroscuro was used to produce highly dramatic effects in art. Chiaroscuro, which means literally “light-dark” in Italian, refers to clear tonal contrasts exemplified by very high-keyed whites, placed directly against very low-keyed darks. Candlelit scenes were common in Baroque painting as they effectively produced this dramatic type of effect. Caravaggio used a high contrast palette in such works as The Denial of St. Peter to create his expressive chiaroscuro scene.

The Denial of Saint Peter, Caravaggio, 1610, oil on canvas / Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), Wikimedia Commons

Color

In the visual arts, color theory is a body of practical guidance to color mixing and the visual impacts of specific color combinations

Color is a fundamental artistic element which refers to the use of hue in art and design. It is the most complex of the elements because of the wide array of combinations inherent to it. Color theory first appeared in the 17th century when Isaac Newton discovered that white light could be passed through a prism and divided into the full spectrum of colors. The spectrum of colors contained in white light are, in order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Color theory subdivides color into the “primary colors” of red, yellow, and blue, which cannot be mixed from other pigments; and the “secondary colors” of green, orange and violet, which result from different combinations of the primary colors. Primary and secondary colors are combined in various mixtures to create “tertiary colors.” Color theory is centered around the color wheel, a diagram that shows the relationship of the various colors to each other .

A color wheel is a diagram that shows the relationship of various colors to each other

Color “value” refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color. In addition, “tint” and “shade” are important aspects of color theory and result from lighter and darker variations in value, respectively. “Tone” refers to the gradation or subtle changes of a color on a lighter or darker scale. “Saturation” refers to the intensity of a color

Additive and Subtractive Color

Additive color is color created by mixing red, green, and blue lights. Television screens, for example, use additive color as they are made up of the primary colors of red, blue and green (RGB). Subtractive color,  or “process color,” works as the reverse of additive color and the primary colors become cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). Common applications of subtractive color can be found in printing and photography.

Complementary Color

Complementary colors can be found directly opposite each other on the color wheel (purple and yellow, green and red, orange and blue). When placed next to each other, these pairs create the strongest contrast for those particular two colors

Warm and Cool Color

The distinction between warm and cool colors has been important since at least the late 18th century. The contrast, as traced by etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary, seems related to the observed contrast in landscape light, between the “warm” colors associated with daylight or sunset and the “cool” colors associated with a gray or overcast day. Warm colors are the hues from red through yellow, browns and tans included. Cool colors, on the other hand, are the hues from blue green through blue violet, with most grays included. Color theory has described perceptual and psychological effects to this contrast. Warm colors are said to advance or appear more active in a painting, while cool colors tend to recede. Used in interior design or fashion, warm colors are said to arouse or stimulate the viewer, while cool colors calm and relax

Texture

Texture refers to the tactile quality of the surface of an art object

Texture in art stimulates the senses of sight and touch and refers to the tactile quality of the surface of the art. It is based on the perceived texture of the canvas or surface, which includes the application of the paint. In the context of artwork, there are two types of texture: visual and actual. Visual texture refers to an implied sense of texture that the artist creates through the use of various artistic elements such as line, shading and color. Actual texture refers to the physical rendering or the real surface qualities we can notice by touching an object, such as paint application or three-dimensional art.

It is possible for an artwork to contain numerous visual textures, yet still remain smooth to the touch. Take for example Realist or Illusionist works, which rely on the heavy use of paint and varnish, yet maintain an utterly smooth surface. In Jan Van Eyck’s painting “The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin” we can notice a great deal of texture in the clothing and robes especially, while the surface of the work remains very smooth.

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Jan Van Eyck, c.1435, oil on panel / Musée du Louvre (Paris), Wikimedia Commons
The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin has a great deal of texture in the clothing and robes, but the actual surface of the work is very smooth

Paintings often use actual texture as well, which we can observe in the physical application of paint. Visible brushstrokes and different amounts of paint will create a texture that adds to the expressiveness of a painting and draw attention to specific areas within it. The artist Vincent van Gogh is known to have used a great deal of actual texture in his paintings, noticeable in the thick application of paint in such paintings as Starry Night

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas / Museum of Modern Art (New York City), Wikimedia Commons
The Starry Night contains a great deal of actual texture through the thick application of paint

Shape and Volume

Shape refers to an area in a two-dimensional space that is defined by edges; volume is three-dimensional, exhibiting height, width, and depth

Shapes are, by definition, always flat in nature and can be geometric (e.g., a circle, square, or pyramid) or organic (e.g., a leaf or a chair). Shapes can be created by placing two different textures, or shape-groups, next to each other, thereby creating an enclosed area, such as a painting of an object floating in water.

“Positive space” refers to the space of the defined shape, or figure. Typically, the positive space is the subject of an artwork. “Negative space” refers to the space that exists around and between one or more shapes. Positive and negative space can become difficult to distinguish from each other in more abstract works.

A “plane” refers to any surface area within space. In two-dimensional art, the “picture plane” is the flat surface that the image is created upon, such as paper, canvas, or wood. Three-dimensional figures may be depicted on the flat picture plane through the use of the artistic elements to imply depth and volume, as seen in the painting Small Bouquet of Flowers in a Ceramic Vase by Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Small Bouquet of Flowers in a Ceramic Vase, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1599, oil on canvas / Wikimedia Commons
Three-dimensional figures may be depicted on the flat picture plane through the use of the artistic elements to imply depth and volume.

“Form” is a concept that is related to shape. Combining two or more shapes can create a three-dimensional shape. Form is always considered three-dimensional as it exhibits volume—or height, width, and depth. Art makes use of both actual and implied volume.

While three-dimensional forms, such as sculpture, have volume inherently, volume can also be simulated, or implied, in a two-dimensional work such as a painting. Shape, volume, and space—whether actual or implied—are the basis of the perception of reality.

Time and Motion

Motion, or movement, is considered to be one of the “principles of art”; that is, one of the tools artists use to organize the artistic elements in a work of art. Motion is employed in both static and in time-based mediums and can show a direct action or the intended path for the viewer’s eye to follow through a piece.

Techniques such as scale and proportion are used to create the feeling of motion or the passing of time in static visual artwork. For example, on a flat picture plane, an image that is smaller and lighter colored than its surroundings will appear to be in the background. Another technique for implying motion and/or time is the placement of a repeated element in different areas within an artwork.

Visual experiments in time and motion were first produced in the mid-19th century. The photographer Eadweard Muybridge is well known for his sequential shots of humans and animals walking, running, and jumping, which he displayed together to illustrate the motion of his subjects. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 exemplifies an absolute feeling of motion from the upper left to lower right corner of the piece.

Nude Descending a Staircase, Marcel Duchamp, 1912, oil on canvas / Philadelphia Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons
The work represents Duchamp’s conception of motion and time.

While static art forms have the ability to imply or suggest time and motion, the time-based mediums of film, video, kinetic sculpture, and performance art demonstrate time and motion by their very definitions. Film is many static images that are quickly passed through a lens. Video is essentially the same process, but digitally-based and with fewer frames per second. Performance art takes place in real time and makes use of real people and objects, much like theater. Kinetic art is art that moves, or depends on movement, for its effect. All of these mediums use time and motion as a key aspect of their forms of expression

Chance, Improvisation, and Spontaneity

Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Fluxus movement all relied on the elements of chance, improvisation, and spontaneity as tools for making art works

Chance, improvisation, and spontaneity are elements that can be used to create art, or they can be the very purpose of the artwork itself. Any medium can employ these elements at any point within the artistic process.

Dadaism

Dadaism was an art movement popular in Europe in the early 20th century. It was started by artists and poets in Zurich, Switzerland with strong anti-war and left-leaning sentiments. The movement rejected logic and reason and instead prized irrationality, nonsense, and intuition. Marcel Duchamp was a dominant member of the Dadaist movement, known for exhibiting “ready-mades,” which were objects that were purchased or found and then declared art

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917 / Wikimedia Commons
Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal is an example of a “ready-made,” which were objects that were purchased or found and then declared art.

Dadaists used what was readily available to create what was termed an “assemblage,” using items such as photographs, trash, stickers, bus passes, and notes. The work of the Dadaists involved chance, improvisation, and spontaneity to create art. They are known for using “automatic writing” or stream of consciousness writing, which often took nonsensical forms, but allowed for the opportunity of potentially surprising juxtapositions and unconscious creativity.

Surrealism

The Surrealist movement, which developed out of Dadaism primarily as a political movement, featured an element of surprise, unexpected juxtaposition and the tapping of the unconscious mind. Andre Breton, an important member of the movement, wrote the Surrealist manifesto, defining it as follows:

“Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation. “

Like Dadaism before it, the Surrealist movement stressed the unimportance of reason and planning and instead relied heavily upon chance and surprise as a tool to harness the creativity of the unconscious mind. Surrealists are known for having invented “exquisite corpse” drawing, an exercise where words and images are collaboratively assembled, one after another. Many Surrealist techniques, including exquisite corpse drawing, allowed for the playful creation of art through assigning value to spontaneous production.

The Fluxus Movement

The Fluxus movement of the 1960s was highly influenced by Dadaism. Fluxus was an international network of artists that skillfully blended together many different disciplines, and whose work was characterized by the use of an extreme do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic and heavily intermedia artworks. In addition, Fluxus was known for its “happenings,” which were multi-disciplinary performance events or situations that could take place anywhere. Audience participation was essential in a happening, and therefore relied on a great deal of surprise and improvisation. Key elements of happenings were often planned, but artists left room for improvisation, which eliminated the boundary between the artwork and the viewer, thus making the audience an important part of the art.

Inclusion of All Five Senses

The inclusion of the five human senses in a single work takes place most often in installation and performance-based art. In addition, works that strive to include all senses at once generally make use of some form of interactivity, as the sense of taste clearly must involve the participation of the viewer. Historically, this attention to all senses was reserved to ritual and ceremony. In contemporary art, it is quite common for work to cater to the senses of sight, touch, and hearing, while somewhat less common for art to address the senses of smell and taste.

The German word “Gesamtkunstwerk,” meaning “total work of art,” refers to a genre of artwork that attempts to address all five human senses. The concept was brought to prominence by the German opera composer Richard Wagner in 1849. Wagner staged an opera that sought to unite the art forms, which he felt had become overly disparate. Wagner’s operas paid great attention to every detail in order to achieve a state of total artistic immersion. “Gesamkunstwerk” is now an accepted English term relating to aesthetics, but has evolved from Wagner’s definition to mean the inclusion of the five senses in art.

Installation art is a genre of three-dimensional artwork that is designed to transform the viewer’s perception of a space. Embankment by Rachel Whiteread exemplifies this type of transformation. The term generally pertains to an interior space, while Land Art typically refers to an outdoor space, though there is some overlap between these terms. The Fluxus movement of the 1960s is key to the development of installation and performance art as mediums.

Embankment, Rachel Whitehead, 2005 / Wikimedia Commons
Whiteread’s installation Embankment is a type of art designed to transform the viewer’s perception of space.

“Virtual reality” is a term that refers to computer-simulated environments. Currently, most virtual reality environments are visual experiences, but some simulations include additional sensory information. Immersive virtual reality has developed in recent years with the improvement of technology and is increasingly addressing the five senses within a virtual realm. Artists have been exploring the possibilities of these simulated and virtual realities with the expansion of the discipline of cyberarts, though what constitutes cyberart continues to be up for debate. Environments such as the virtual world of Second Life are generally accepted, but whether or not video games should be considered art remains undecided

Compositional Balance

Compositional balance refers to the placement of the elements of art (color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value) in relation to each other. When balanced, a composition appears more stable and visually pleasing. Just as symmetry relates to aesthetic preference and reflects an intuitive sense for how things “should” appear, the overall balance of a given composition contributes to outside judgments of the work.

Creating a harmonious compositional balance involves arranging elements so that no single part of a work overpowers or seems heavier than any other part. The three most common types of compositional balance are symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial.

Compositional Space: The three common types of balance are symmetric, asymmetric, and radial.

Symmetrical balance is the most stable, in a visual sense, and generally conveys a sense of harmonious or aesthetically pleasing proportionality. When both sides of an artwork on either side of the horizontal or vertical axis of the picture plane are the same in terms of the sense that is created by the arrangement of the elements of art, the work is said to exhibit this type of balance. The opposite of symmetry is asymmetry.

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci, c.1490, pen and ink with wash over metalpoint on paper / Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venice), Wikimedia Commons
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is often used as a representation of symmetry in the human body and, by extension, the natural universe.

Asymmetry is defined as the absence of, or a violation of, the principles of symmetry. Examples of asymmetry appear commonly in architecture. Although pre-modern architectural styles tended to place an emphasis on symmetry (except where extreme site conditions or historical developments lead away from this classical ideal), modern and postmodern architects frequently used asymmetry as a design element. For instance, while most bridges employ a symmetrical form due to intrinsic simplicities of design, analysis, fabrication, and economical use of materials, a number of modern bridges have deliberately departed from this, either in response to site-specific considerations or to create a dramatic design statement.

Oakland Bay Bridge / Wikimedia Commons
Eastern span replacement of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge reflects asymmetrical architectural design.

Radial balance refers to circular elements in compositions. In classical geometry, a radius of a circle or sphere is any line segment from its center to its perimeter. By extension, the radius of a circle or sphere is the length of any such segment, which is half the diameter. The radius may be more than half the diameter, which is usually defined as the maximum distance between any two points of the figure. The inradius of a geometric figure is usually the radius of the largest circle or sphere contained in it. The inner radius of a ring, tube or other hollow object is the radius of its cavity. The name “radial” or “radius” comes from Latin radius, meaning “ray” but also the spoke of a circular chariot wheel

Rhythm

Artists use rhythm as a tool to guide the eye of the viewer through works of art

The principles of visual art are the rules, tools, and guidelines that artists use to organize the elements of in a piece of artwork. When the principles and elements are successfully combined, they aid in creating an aesthetically pleasing or interesting work of art. While there is some variation among them, movement, unity, harmony, variety, balance, rhythm, emphasis, contrast, proportion, and pattern are commonly sited as principles of art.

Rhythm (from Greek rhythmos, “any regular recurring motion, symmetry” (Liddell and Scott 1996)) may be generally defined as a “movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions” (Anon. 1971). This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or frequency of anything from microseconds to millions of years. In the performing arts, rhythm is the timing of events on a human scale, of musical sounds and silences, of the steps of a dance, or the meter of spoken language and poetry. Rhythm may also refer to visual presentation, as “timed movement through space” (Jirousek 1995), and a common language of pattern unites rhythm with geometry.

In a visual composition, pattern and rhythm are generally expressed by showing consistency with colors or lines. For instance, placing a red spiral at the bottom left and top right, for example, will cause the eye to move from one spiral, to the other, and then to the space in between. The repetition of elements creates movement of the viewer’s eye and can, therefore, make the artwork feel active. Hilma af Klint’s Svanen (The Swan) exemplifies the visual representation of rhythm using color and symmetry.

Svanen (The Swan), Hilma af Klint, 1915, oil on canvas / Wikimedia Commons
Color and symmetry work together in this painting to guide the eye of the viewer in a particular visual rhythm.

Proportion and Scale

Proportion is a measurement of the size and quantity of elements within a composition. Hierarchical proportion is a technique used in art, mostly in sculpture and painting, in which the artist uses unnatural proportion or scale to depict the relative importance of the figures in the artwork. In ancient Egyptian art, for example, gods and important political figures appear much larger than common people. Beginning with the Renaissance, artists recognized the connection between proportion and perspective, and the illusion of three-dimensional space. Images of the human body in exaggerated proportion were used to depict the reality an artist interpreted

Depiction of Narmer from the Narmer Palette, c.31st century BCE / Egyptian Museum (Cairo), Wikimedia Commons
Narmer, a Predynastic ruler, accompanied by men carrying the standards of various local gods. This piece demonstrates the ancient Egyptians’ use of proportion, with Narmer appearing larger than the other figures depicted.

Mathematically, proportion is the relation between elements and a whole. In architecture, the whole is not just a building but the set and setting of the site. The things that make a building and its site “well shaped” include everything from the orientation of the site and the buildings on it, to the features of the grounds on which it is situated. Light, shade, wind, elevation, and choice of materials all relate to a standard of architectural proportion.

Architecture has often used proportional systems to generate or constrain the forms considered suitable for inclusion in a building. In almost every building tradition, there is a system of mathematical relations which governs the relationships between aspects of the design. These systems of proportion are often quite simple: whole number ratios or incommensurable ratios (such as the golden ratio) were determined using geometrical methods. Generally, the goal of a proportional system is to produce a sense of coherence and harmony among the elements of a building.

Among the various ancient artistic traditions, the harmonic proportions, human proportions, cosmic orientations, various aspects of sacred geometry, and small whole-number ratios were all applied as part of the practice of architectural design. For instance, the Greek classical architectural orders are all proportioned rather than dimensioned or measured modules, because the earliest modules were not based on body parts and their spans (fingers, palms, hands, and feet), but rather on column diameters and the widths of arcades and fenestrations.

Temple of Portunus (or Temple of Fortuna Virilis – “manly fortune”) / Forum Boarium (Rome), Wikimedia Commons
The Greek Temple of Portanus is an example of classical Greek architecture with its tetrastyle portico of four Ionic columns.

Typically, one set of column diameter modules used for casework and architectural moldings by the Egyptians and Romans is based on the proportions of the palm and the finger, while another less delicate module—used for door and window trim, tile work, and roofing in Mesopotamia and Greece—was based on the proportions of the hand and the thumb.

Dating back to the Pythagoreans, there was an idea that proportions should be related to standards, and that the more general and formulaic the standards, the better. This concept—that there should be beauty and elegance evidenced by a skillful composition of well understood elements—underlies mathematics, art, and architecture. The classical standards are a series of paired opposites designed to expand the dimensional constraints of harmony and proportion.

Space

The organization of space in art is referred to as composition, and is an essential component of any work of art. Space can be generally defined as the area that exists between any two identifiable points.

Space is conceived of differently in each medium. The space in a painting, for example, includes the background, foreground and middle ground, while three-dimensional space, like sculpture or installation, will involve the distance between, around, and within points of the work. Space is further categorized as positive or negative. “Positive space” can be defined as the subject of an artwork, while “negative space” can be defined as the space around the subject.

Over the ages, space has been conceived of in various ways. Artists have devoted a great deal of time to experimenting with perspectives and degrees of flatness of the pictorial plane.

The perspective system has been a highly employed convention in Western art. Visually, it is an illusionist phenomenon, well suited to realism and the depiction of reality as it appears. After spending hundreds of years developing linear perspective, Western artistic conventions about the accurate depiction of space went through a radical shift at the beginning of the 20th century. The innovations of Cubism and subsequent modernist movements represented an important shift in the use of space within Western art, the impact of which is still being felt.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), Pablo Picasso, 1907, oil on canvas / Museum of Modern Art (New York City), Wikimedia Commons
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is an example of cubist art, which has a tendency to flatten the picture plane, and its use of abstract shapes and irregular forms suggest multiple points of view within a single image.

Two-Dimensional Space

Two dimensional, or bi-dimensional, space is a geometric model of the planar projection of the physical universe in which we live. The two dimensions are commonly called length and width. Both directions lie on the same plane. In physics, our bi-dimensional space is viewed as a planar representation of the space in which we move

Mathematical depiction of bi-dimensional space / Cartesian coordinate system

In art composition, drawing is a form of visual art that makes use of any number of drawing instruments to mark a two-dimensional medium (meaning that the object does not have depth). One of the simplest and most efficient means of communicating visual ideas, the medium has been a popular and fundamental means of public expression throughout human history. Additionally, the relative availability of basic drawing instruments makes drawing more universal than most other media.

Measuring the dimensions of a subject while blocking in the drawing is an important step in producing a realistic rendition of a subject. Tools such as a compass can be used to measure the angles of different sides. These angles can be reproduced on the drawing surface and then rechecked to make sure they are accurate. Another form of measurement is to compare the relative sizes of different parts of the subject with each other. A finger placed at a point along the drawing implement can be used to compare that dimension with other parts of the image. A ruler can be used both as a straightedge and a device to compute proportions. When attempting to draw a complicated shape such as a human figure, it is helpful at first to represent the form with a set of primitive shapes.

Almost any dimensional form can be represented by some combination of the cube, sphere, cylinder, and cone. Once these basic shapes have been assembled into a likeness, then the drawing can be refined into a more accurate and polished form. The lines of the primitive shapes are removed and replaced by the final likeness. A more refined art of figure drawing relies upon the artist possessing a deep understanding of anatomy and the human proportions. A trained artist is familiar with the skeleton structure, joint location, muscle placement, tendon movement, and how the different parts work together during movement. This allows the artist to render more natural poses that do not appear artificially stiff. The artist is also familiar with how the proportions vary depending on the age of the subject, particularly when drawing a portrait.

Madam Palmyre with Her Dog, Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, 1897, pencil / Wikimedia Commons
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Madame Palmyre with Her Dog, 1897. 

Linear Perspective and Three-Dimensional Space

In art, perspective is an approximate representation on a flat surface of an image as it is seen by the eye, calculated by assuming a particular vanishing point. Systematic attempts to evolve a system of perspective are usually considered to have begun around the 5th century BCE in the art of Ancient Greece. By the later periods of antiquity, artists—especially those in less popular traditions—were well aware that distant objects could be shown smaller than those close at hand for increased illusionism. But whether this convention was actually used in a work depended on many factors. Some of the paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii show a remarkable realism and perspective for their time.

The earliest art paintings and drawings typically sized objects and characters hierarchically according to their spiritual or thematic importance, not their distance from the viewer. The most important figures are often shown as the highest in a composition, also from hieratic motives, leading to the “vertical perspective” common in the art of Ancient Egypt, where a group of “nearer” figures are shown below the larger figure(s).

The art of the Migration Period had no tradition of attempting compositions of large numbers of figures, and Early Medieval art was slow and inconsistent in relearning the convention from classical models, though the process can be seen underway in Carolingian art. European Medieval artists were aware of the general principle of varying the relative size of elements according to distance, and use and sophistication of attempts to convey distance increased steadily during the period, but without a basis in a systematic theory.

By the Renaissance, however, nearly every artist in Italy used geometrical perspective in their paintings. Not only was this use of perspective a way to portray depth, but it was also a new method of composing a painting. Paintings began to show a single, unified scene, rather than a combination of several. For a while, perspective remained the domain of Florence. Gradually, and partly through the movement of academies of the arts, the Italian techniques became part of the training of artists across Europe and, later, other parts of the world.

Delivery of the Keys, Pietro Perugino, c.1481-1482, fresco / Sistine Chapel, Wikimedia Commons
Pietro Perugino’s usage of perspective in this fresco at the Sistine Chapel (1481–82) helped bring the Renaissance to Rome.

A drawing has one-point perspective when it contains only one vanishing point on the horizon line. This type of perspective is typically used for images of roads, railway tracks, hallways, or buildings viewed so that the front is directly facing the viewer. Any objects that are made up of lines either directly parallel with the viewer’s line of sight or directly perpendicular (the railroad slats) can be represented with one-point perspective. These parallel lines converge at the vanishing point.

Two-point perspective can be used to draw the same objects as one-point perspective, but rotated—such as looking at the corner of a house, or looking at two forked roads shrink into the distance. In looking at a house from the corner, for example, one wall would recede towards one vanishing point and the other wall would recede towards the opposite vanishing point.

Three-point perspective is used for buildings depicted from above or below. In addition to the two vanishing points from before, one for each wall, there is now a third one for how those walls recede into the ground. This third vanishing point would be below the ground.

Four-point perspective is the curvilinear variant of two-point perspective. The resulting elongated frame can be used both horizontally and vertically. Like all other foreshortened variants of perspective, four-point perspective starts off with a horizon line, followed by four equally spaced vanishing points to delineate four vertical lines. Because vanishing points exist only when parallel lines are present in the scene, a perspective with no vanishing points (“zero-point”) occurs if the viewer is observing a non-rectilinear scene. The most common example of a nonlinear scene is a natural scene (e.g., a mountain range), which frequently does not contain any parallel lines. A perspective without vanishing points can still create a sense of depth.

Distortions of Space and Foreshortening

Distortion is used to create various representations of space in two-dimensional works of art.

A distortion is the alteration of the original shape (or other characteristic) of an object, image, sound, or other form of information or representation. Distortion can be wanted or unwanted by the artist. Distortion is usually unwanted when it concerns physical degradation of a work. However, it is more commonly referred to in terms of perspective, where it is employed to create realistic representations of space in two-dimensional works of art.

Perspective Projection Distortion

Perspective projection distortion is the inevitable misrepresentation of three-dimensional space when drawn or “projected” onto a two-dimensional surface. It is impossible to accurately depict three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional plane. However, there are several constructs available that allow for seemingly accurate representation. The most common of these is perspective projection. Perspective projection can be used to mirror how the eye sees by making use of one or more vanishing points

Lamentation of Christ, Giotto di Bondone, fresco, c.1304-1306 / Scrovegni Chapel (Venice), Wikimedia Commons
Giotto is one of the most notable pre-Renaissance artists to recognize distortion on two-dimensional planes.

Foreshortening

Foreshortening is the visual effect or optical illusion that causes an object or distance to appear shorter than it actually is because it is angled toward the viewer. Although foreshortening is an important element in art where visual perspective is being depicted, foreshortening occurs in other types of two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional scenes, such as oblique parallel projection drawings.

The physiological basis of visual foreshortening was undefined until the year 1000 when the Arabian mathematician and philosopher, Alhazen, in his Perspectiva, first explained that light projects conically into the eye. A method for presenting foreshortened geometry systematically onto a plane surface was unknown for another 300 years. The artist Giotto may have been the first to recognize that the image beheld by the eye is distorted: to the eye, parallel lines appear to intersect (like the distant edges of a path or road), whereas in “undistorted” nature, they do not. In many of Giotto’s paintings, perspective is employed to achieve various distortion effects.

Loreto, Melozzo da Forlì, c.1470, fresco / Basilica della Santa Casa (Venice), Wikimedia Commons
This painting illustrates Melozzo da Forlì’s usage of upward foreshortening in his frescoes at The Basilica della Santa Casa.

Distortion in Photography

In photography, the projection mechanism is light reflected from an object. To execute a drawing using perspective projection, projectors emanate from all points of an object and intersect at a station point. These projectors intersect with an imaginary plane of projection and an image is created on the plane by the points of intersection. The resulting image on the projection plane reproduces the image of the object as it is beheld from the station point.

Radial distortion can usually be classified as one of two main types: barrel distortion and pincushion distortion. Barrel distortion occurs when image magnification decreases with distance from the optical axis. The apparent effect is that of an image which has been mapped around a sphere (or barrel). Fisheye lenses, which take hemispherical views, utilize this type of distortion as a way to map an infinitely wide object plane into a finite image area.

On the other hand, in pincushion distortion, the image magnification increases with the distance from the optical axis. The visible effect is that lines that do not go through the center of the image are bowed inwards, towards the center of the image, like a pincushion. A certain amount of pincushion distortion is often found with visual optical instruments (i.e., binoculars), where it serves to eliminate the globe effect.

Cylindrical perspective is a form of distortion caused by fisheye and panoramic lenses, which reproduce straight horizontal lines above and below the lens axis level as curved, while reproducing straight horizontal lines on lens axis level as straight. This is also a common feature of wide-angle anamorphic lenses of less than 40mm focal length in cinematography. Essentially it is just barrel distortion, but only in the horizontal plane. It is an artifact of the squeezing process that anamorphic lenses do to fit widescreen images onto standard-width film.

Content

Types of Content

Content in art takes the form of portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, genre art, and narrative art.

Content in a work of art refers to what is being depicted and might be helpful in deriving a basic meaning. Sometimes content is straightforward; in other cases, however, it is less obvious and requires additional information. Content appears in the visual arts in several forms, all of which may be figurative (realistic) or abstract (distorted). Among them are portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, genre art, and narrative art

Portraits

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression are predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

Philip Burne-Jones Holding a Cat, George Grantham Bain Collection / Library of Congress, Creative Commons

Landscapes

Landscape painting, also known as landscape art, is the depiction in art of landscapes—natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, especially where the main subject is a wide view—with its elements arranged into a coherent composition. In other works, landscape backgrounds for figures can still form an important part of the work. Sky is almost always included in the view, and weather is often an element of the composition. Detailed landscapes as a distinct subject are not found in all artistic traditions and develop when there is already a sophisticated tradition of representing other subjects

Landscape at Collioure, Henri Matisse, 1905, oil on canvas / Museum of Modern Art (New York City), Wikimedia Commons
Matisse was a member of the Fauves (French for “wild beasts”), who used bold colors to convey emotions.

Still Lifes

A still life (plural still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects that may be either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, or shells) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, and so on). Early still-life paintings, particularly before 1700, often contained religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted. Some modern still lifes break the two-dimensional barrier and employ three-dimensional mixed media, and use found objects, photography, computer graphics, as well as video and sound

Vanitas Still-Life, Maria von Oosterwijk, 1668, oil on canvas / Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna), Wikimedia Commons

Genre Art

Genre art is the pictorial representation in any of various media of scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes. Such representations (also called genre works, genre scenes, or genre views) may be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist

The Idle Servant, Nicolas Maes, 1655, oil on canvas / National Gallery (London), Wikimedia Commons
Dutch Baroque genre scenes often have important moral lessons as their subtexts.

Narrative Art

Narrative art is art that tells a story, either as a moment in an ongoing story or as a sequence of events unfolding over time. Some of the earliest evidence of human art suggests that people told stories with pictures. However, without some knowledge of the story being told, it is very hard to read ancient pictures because they are not organized in a systematic way like words on a page, but rather can unfold in many different directions at once

Laocoön and His Sons, c.180-160 BCE, marble / Vatican Museums (Vatican City), Wikimedia Commons
This marble sculpture depicts a scene from Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, in which the Trojan seer Laocoön foresees the Trojan Horse and the destruction of Troy by the Greeks. Before he can warn his fellow townspeople, the sea god Neptune (an ally of the Greeks) sends his serpents to kill Laocoön and his sons.

Figurative and Abstract Art

Art exists along a continuum from realistic representational work to fully non-representational work.

Painting and sculpture can be divided into the categories of figurative (or representational) and abstract (or non-representational). Figurative art describes artwork – particularly paintings and sculptures – which are clearly derived from real object sources, and therefore are, by definition, representational. Since the arrival of abstract art in the early twentieth century, the term “figurative” has been used to refer to any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world.

Ein Meerhafen, Johann Anton Eismann, 17th century, oil on canvas / Staatsgalerie im Neuen Schloss Bayreuth, Wikimedia Commons
This figurative work from the 17th century depicts easily recognizable objects—ships, people, and buildings.

Artistic independence was advanced during the nineteenth century, resulting in the emergence of abstract art. Three movements which contributed heavily to the development of these styles were Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism.

Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in its depiction of imagery. Abstraction exists along a continuum; it can formally refer to compositions that are derived (or abstracted) from figurative or other natural sources, or it can refer to non-representational art and non-objective art that has no derivation from figures or objects.

Even art that aims for verisimilitude of the highest degree can be said to be abstract, at least theoretically, since perfect representation is likely to be exceedingly elusive. Artwork which takes liberties, altering, for instance, color and form in ways that are conspicuous, can be said to be partially abstract.

Le Premier Disque, Robert Delauney, 1912-1913, oil on canvas / Private collection, Wikimedia Commons
Delauney’s work is an example of early abstract art.

Non-representational art refers to total abstraction, bearing no trace of any reference to anything recognizable. In geometric abstraction, for instance, one is unlikely to find references to naturalistic entities. Figurative art and total abstraction are nearly mutually exclusive, but figurative or representational art often contains at least one element of abstraction.

Meaning in Nonrepresenational Art

Meaning in nonrepresentational art is highly subjective and can be difficult to define.

Nonrepresentational art refers to compositions which do not rely on representation or mimesis to any extent. Abstract art, nonfigurative art, nonobjective art, and nonrepresentational art are related terms that indicate a departure from reality in the depiction of imagery in art. Meaning in nonrepresentational art is highly subjective and can be difficult to define. We can focus on the elements of the artwork (form, shape, line, color, space, and texture) in terms of the aesthetic value of the work, but the meaning will always be personal to the viewer unless the artist has made a statement about his or her intentions.

Generally, we can look at nonrepresentational art as the personal expression of an artist’s subjective experience. Certain movements have described their intentions as an aim to evoke moods or emotions in the viewer. A good example are the expressionists of the early 20th century, who aimed to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect.

Nonrepresentational art has often been explored by artists as a means to spiritual expression. Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter, printmaker, and art theorist, is one of the most famous 20th century artists and is generally considered the first important painter of modern abstract art. As an early modernist in search of new modes of visual expression and spiritual expression, he theorized (as did contemporary occultists and theosophists) that pure visual abstraction had corollary vibrations with sound and music. He posited that pure abstraction could express pure spirituality.

Composition VII, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913, oil on canvas / The State Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow), Wikimedia Commons
Kandinsky is recognized as the father of modern abstract art in the 20th century.

Piet Mondrian’s art was also related to his spiritual and philosophical studies. In 1908 he became interested in the theosophical movement launched by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who believed that it was possible to attain a knowledge of nature more profound than that provided by empirical means, and much of Mondrian’s work for the rest of his life was inspired by his search for that spiritual knowledge.

Iconography

Iconography is the branch of art history which studies the identification, description, and interpretation of the content of images such as the subjects that are depicted, particulars of composition, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style.

Iconography as an academic art historical discipline developed in the nineteenth century in the works of scholars such as Adolphe Napoleon Didron (1806–1867), Anton Heinrich Springer (1825–1891), and Émile Mâle (1862–1954). Christian religious art was the main focus of study throughout this period, and French scholars were especially prominent. They looked back to earlier attempts to classify and organize subjects encyclopedically, as guides to understanding works of art, both religious and profane, in a more scientific manner than the popular aesthetic approach of the time. These early contributions paved the way for encyclopedias, manuals, and other publications useful in identifying the content of art.

In early twentieth-century Germany, Aby Warburg (1866–1929) and his followers Fritz Saxl (1890–1948) and Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) elaborated the practice of identification and classification of motifs in images to using iconography as a means of understanding meaning. Panofsky codified an influential approach to iconography in his 1939 Studies in Iconology, where he defined it as “the branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to form”. The distinction he and other scholars drew between particular definitions of “iconography” (put simply, the identification of visual content) and “iconology” (the analysis of the meaning of that content) has not been generally accepted, though it is still used by some writers.

While most iconographical scholarship remains highly dense and specialized, some analyses began to attract a much wider audience; for example, Panofsky’s theory (now generally out of favor with specialists) is that the writing on the rear wall in The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck turned the painting into the record of a marriage contract. Holbein’s The Ambassadors has been the subject of books for a general market with new theories as to its iconography; as well as being a double portrait, the painting contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. The most notable and famous of Holbein’s symbols in the work is the distorted skull which is placed in the bottom center of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is speculated to have been a reminder of death and mortality.

Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434, oil on canvas / National Gallery (London), Wikimedia Commons
The iconography in this work has historically been the subject of debate due to its many signifiers. Some scholars have theorized that the painting was actually a marriage contract due to the writing on the wall in the background.

Art in Society

Religion as a Theme

Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic artistic traditions have used elements of symbolism, narrative, ritual, iconoclasm, and authorship to express the tenets of their beliefs throughout history.

Religious art is art that makes use of religious inspiration and/or motifs. It is often intended to uplift the mind to the spiritual or communicate the principles of the religion. While incredibly large and varied individually, we can identify certain elements that Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic artistic traditions have used to express the tenets of their beliefs using symbolism, ritual, iconoclasm, and authorship.

Christian Art

Christian art is typically produced in order to illustrate the various principles and narratives of the religion. Throughout time, most Christian sects have used art to some extent, though there have been definite periods of iconoclasm within the history of the religion. Most Christian art alludes to themes that are familiar to a practicing Christian, such as the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus or the crucifixion. While Christianity is a monotheistic religion, Christians believe God is triune, meaning that the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are in one union in which each figure is also wholly God. Most Christian art focuses on Jesus, particularly at the Crucifixion or stories from the Bible, while the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove or tongue of fire. God as the Father of Jesus is rarely visually depicted.

Christianity has historically made use of an elaborate iconographic system, whereby each saint is associated with a particular object or animal. For example, Saint Peter is depicted with keys and Saint Patrick is depicted with a shamrock in order to quickly convey narratives to potentially illiterate audiences.

Virgin and Child, early catacomb fresco, 4th century CE / Rome, Wikimedia Commons
One of the most common Christian themes is that of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus.

Buddhist Art

Buddhist art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Gautama Buddha, in the sixth to fifth century BCE, evolving via contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world. Buddhist art followed believers as the dharma spread, adapted, and evolved in each new host country. It developed to the north through Central Asia and into Eastern Asia to form the Northern branch of Buddhist art and to the east as far as Southeast Asia to form the Southern branch of Buddhist art. In India, Buddhist art flourished and even influenced the development of Hindu art, while Tibetan Buddhist art was created as a meditation practice. An important example of Tibetan meditation art is the sand mandala, made and used by monks for meditation.

Thematically, Buddhist art is typically comprised of devotional works depicting mythology and narratives associated with the Buddha and bodhisattvas. There is great variation in the types of Buddhist art as the religion is so vast. Some Buddhist art contains animist themes, meaning the depiction of natural elements (animals, nature, earth) as spiritual entities. The creation of art has traditionally been considered both a meditation itself, as well as a method to produce an object to aid others in meditation. Works are rarely, if ever, signed by the artist or group of artists, as the art-making process is considered sacred and communal.

An example of Tibetan meditation art is the sand mandala, made by monks and used in meditation. / Wikimedia Commons

Islamic Art

Islamic art prohibits representational images in religious art, and evolved to be comprised mainly of calligraphic decorations and repetitive geometric patterns. Intended to express the ideals of order and of nature, these geometric patterns are used to adorn religious architecture, carpets, manuscripts, and other art objects. Sacred Islamic art reflects a worldview focused on spiritual essence as opposed to physical form.

Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. The employment of calligraphy as ornament had a definite aesthetic appeal but often also included an underlying talismanic component. Geometric patterns make up one of the three non-figurative types of decoration in Islamic art, which also includes calligraphy and vegetal patterns. Abstract designs not only adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects of all types.

Eighteenth century writing in Ottoman calligraphy, depicting the phrase “In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious”. / Wikimedia Commons

The Market

The key components of the art market are the gallery, curator, dealer, consultant, and collector.

The art market is an economic ecosystem that relies not only on supply and demand, but on the fabrication of a work’s predicted future monetary and/or cultural value. The art market can appear somewhat unclear, since artists do not make art with the sole intention of selling it, and buyers often have no idea of the value of their purchase.

The art market is made up of two parts: the primary market and the secondary market. The primary art market refers to art that enters the market for the first time, while the secondary market refers to artworks that have been sold at least once before.

Once a work is sold, it enters the secondary market and the price at which it sold has a direct influence on its subsequent price. For example, the Picasso painting Garçon à la Pipe sold for $104.2 million at auction, thereby setting its worth at $104.2 million. Supply and demand affects the secondary market more than the primary market, as contemporary art with no market history relies on speculative analysis to determine its value.

Garçon à la Pipe, Pablo Picasso, 1905, oil on canvas / Private collection, Wikimedia Commons
Picasso’s Garçon à la Pipe sold for, and is thereby valued at, $104.2 million.

The important players in the art market are the gallery, curator, dealer, consultant, and collector. Art galleries are commercial or privately funded businesses that deal in artworks, made by contemporary or historical artists. Nonprofit galleries are typically a step above commercial galleries, and include museums and galleries that are funded by the government or charity that do not sell artwork, such as the Tate Modern.

The curator is generally the manager of the gallery and the person who programs the space and organizes art shows. Curators at commercial galleries may have the responsibility of selling work, while those at museums generally maintain the organizational aspects of exhibitions.

Art dealers are persons or companies who buy and sell works of art. They typically seek out artists to represent while simultaneously building relationships with collectors and museums to whom they might be able to sell the work. Dealers are often able to anticipate market trends, and some prominent dealers might be able to influence the taste of the market. Many dealers specialize in a particular style, region, or time period and travel internationally to exhibitions, auctions, artists’ studios, and art fairs to pick up new work. An example of a highly notable art dealer is Larry Gagosian, who also owns Gagosian Gallery, a highly influential art gallery.

Art fairs act as conventions or large-scale shows where galleries display the work of select artists whom they represent and are important to the structure of the contemporary art market. Prominent art fairs include Art Basel, Scope, Frieze Art Fair, NADA, and the Armory Show. The tradition of selling art at auction dates back to the 17th century and continues to thrive today. Art auctions deal in the most highly valued of art, such as works by Picasso, Manet, Jeff Koons, and Andy Warhol. The leading auction houses are Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

National Pride

Art can be used to advance nationalistic goals by providing a state or nation with political and social legitimacy. “Romantic nationalism” refers to the phenomenon by which a state derives power from the unity of those it governs, whether it be through culture, religion, customs, language, or race. Romantic nationalism was a key component of Romanticism as well as certain post-Enlightenment philosophies that focused on the development of national language, folklore, and traditional customs. This form of nationalism arose in reaction to imperial and dynastic hegemony, which acquired legitimacy not from the bottom-up but from the top-down; in other words, from the authority down to the people. National anthems, national epics, and national treasures are part of the language of Romantic nationalism, and date back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

After the 1870s, Romantic nationalism became a very familiar movement in the arts that allowed for a form of reinterpretation of the past, without being considered merely historicist. Nationalist movements for the separation of Finland and the kingdom of Bavaria from Germany proved successful, Czech and Serb nationalism created conflict, Welsh and Irish tongues experienced a poetic revival, and the Zionist movement both revived Hebrew and began immigration to Israel. In the first few decades of the 20th century, Romantic nationalism had exerted an important influence on political events. The belief that nation states forming around unities in culture and ethnicity was in some sense “natural” was prominently held. After the Second World War, however, Romantic nationalism took on a darker tone.

Some degree of art-based national pride still exists today. The age-old notion of the state gaining political prowess through its artistic output still holds true. Cultural heritage—both tangible and intangible—is regarded as highly valuable. It is not uncommon for museums and art galleries to be owned by the state, thereby imparting biased and/or nationalistic world views on exhibitions. A “national treasure” refers to shared culture which has been deemed exceptionally valuable and could be a skilled musician, such as Yo-Yo Ma, or a cultural object of great value, such as Britain’s Bayeux tapestry. Governments influence the artistic output of their regions by presenting grants and awards to artists whose careers they wish to support—a model which is not unlike the dynastic patronage common throughout Europe in the past.

The Bayeux Tapestry, c.1070 CE, embroidery / Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux (Normandy), Wikimedia Commons
The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth—not an actual tapestry—nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King of England) and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Museums and Private Collections

Museums are institutions that collect art objects and make them available for public viewing through either permanent or temporary exhibitions. A museum does not sell works of art, but essentially holds them in public trust, and engages in varying levels of education and conservation practices. Private collections are privately owned works of art which may or may not be available for viewing by the public. Museums and private collections are both engaged in the collection and display of works of art.

Early museums began as the private collections of wealthy families and individuals. Originally, only nobility collected art, but soon the wealthy classes began to adopt the habit of collecting and displaying archaeological and art objects in their salons and living rooms. “Cabinets of curiosity,” or cabinets that held these collections of artifacts and art objects, became commonplace, and were the beginnings of museums and private collections. Often, these private collections were available for viewing by the so-called “respectable” public, but the majority did not become open to the public until the 18th century.

The majority of significant museums were opened to the public in the 18th century, or the Enlightenment era, a time known for its pursuit and dissemination of knowledge throughout society. The arts were especially important during the Enlightenment and viewed as a deeply noble pursuit. The Grand Tour, which became very popular during this time, solidified the habit of collecting works for display from these trips abroad. Many of the most significant private collections of art were opened to the public in the 18th century, such as the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy; The Louvre in Paris, France; and The Hermitage Museum, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great.

The Louvre, Paris / Wikimedia Commons
The Louvre museum in Paris was a private collection opened to the public in the 18th century.

Numerous art works in museums today were in fact donations from private collections. In addition, commonly a note is posted next to a work of art in a temporary museum exhibition stating that it is on loan from a particular private collection. Currently, some private collections remain private, while some are available for public viewings. The Frick Collection in New York City is one of the preeminent small art museums in the city. Housed in the mansion of its owner, Henry Clay Frick, the collection includes old master paintings by Jan van Eyck, Fragonard, Rembrandt, and others.

Preservation and Restoration

Preservation and restoration is a profession devoted to the conservation of cultural heritage, such as works of art, for future generations. The activities involved in this profession include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventative conservation. The goal of the conservator is to attempt to maintain cultural heritage objects as close to their original condition as possible, for as long as possible. The conservator acts as a sort of steward for these objects, which range from archaeological to artistic.

The tradition of conservation is considered by most to have begun in 1565, with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. During the 19th century, the fields of science and art became somewhat intertwined, and scientific processes were used to care for artistic objects. Today, all museums employ teams of conservators to keep their collections up-to-date, conduct frequent tests, and engage in analysis and documentation. In addition, numerous organizations create standardized methodologies for the conservation of art objects, such as the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the American Institute for Conservation.

Painting before-and-after restoration

The conservator’s activities are guided by ethical standards. They must choose if, when, and how to alter a work of art in order to bring it closer to its original state. Since the original state is often beyond the conservator’s lifetime, a certain degree of guesswork is required. Conservators are often involved in what is termed “preventative conservation,” which refers to protecting art and cultural works from damage from environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and exposure to light. This is why, for example, it is common to see textiles or photography exhibited in dimly-lit galleries.

A guiding principle of conservation is the idea of “reversibility”; that is, any intervention with the object should be fully reversible, and the object should be able to be returned to its original state. “Interventive conservation” refers to any act that involves a direct interaction between the conservator and the cultural material, such as cleaning, stabilizing, repairing, or replacing of parts. The conservator is required to fully justify any work of this sort and to complete documentation of the process before and after. Examples of interventive conservation include securing flaking paint and the tinted varnish treatment, whereby the restorer applies a tinted varnish over the original varnish, giving the illusion that spots on a work have been repainted.

Conflicts

Destruction, mislabeling, appropriation, and repossession can contribute to conflicts surrounding the preservation of art.

While institutions and owners do their best to preserve works of art, it is not uncommon for conflicts to arise due to issues related to ownership, human error, destruction, and appropriation. War, political unrest, accidents, and disaster are the typical outside factors that contribute to preservation conflicts when it comes to works of art.

Ownership conflicts are common, especially during times of unrest, such as war, when there is a higher potential for unethical behavior. Art is often stolen, or looted, during periods of conflict, as well as destroyed. Plunder, appropriation, and spoliation are related terms that describe the process of looting. During World War II, the Nazis looted a lot of European art, much of which was eventually repatriated, or returned to, its rightful owners.

Appropriation is a complex issue in art. The appropriation of Native American iconography, sacred images, and sculptures for commercial use by non-natives has been a source of controversy, contributing to cultural subjugation. The Kachina doll, for example, is a sacred Hopi sculpture that was traditionally meant to be seen only during specific Hopi ritual events. Many commercial replicas have been created to sell to tourists, altering the original intent of the object.

Appropriation has been embraced in certain Western art movements. Dadaist and Surrealist works, for example, typically utilize a great deal of appropriation, as seen in Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.

L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp, 1919, postcard / Wikimedia Commons
L.H.O.O.Q. is an example of appropriation deemed acceptable in art.

A copyright can give the creator of an original work exclusive rights to it, usually for a limited time. However, after that time is up, the work of art might be appropriated and used by others, thereby creating conflict. The internet has further complicated issues surrounding ownership and appropriation, especially in art.

Historical Context

Context of Creation

The political, socioeconomic, and cultural setting that a work of art is created in will affect how it is perceived within art history.

Art has existed almost as long as humankind itself and serves as a vehicle for the expression and communication of ideas and emotions. The canon of art history, however, has historically conveyed the political, religious, and philosophical ideals of the dominant power. Art history categorizes artworks and theories with a heavy reliance on the context or environment that the artwork was created in (i.e., its political, social, cultural, and economic settings).

Art history is the academic study of art objects in their historical development and stylistic contexts (i.e., genre, design, form, and style). A work of art from a particular historical period can be treated as an original source of information that was created at the time under study, and provides information about that time. Art historians study the contextual forces that shaped artists and their oeuvres, including their teachers and the influences of preceding styles; their patrons and their demands; their audiences; and their general socioeconomic, political, and cultural climate. These factors produce and influence different artistic styles and iconography, which are characteristic of their age and geographical location with reference to visual appearance, technique, and form.

In many ways, the historical backbone of art history is a celebratory chronology of beautiful creations of art commissioned by religious or civic institutions or wealthy individuals. Patronage of the arts has been used throughout history to endorse the ambitions and agenda of these institutions and individuals, and has been particularly important in the creation of religious art. For example, the Roman Catholic Church was an enthusiastic sponsor of the arts that resulted in a tremendous outpouring of architecture, painting, sculpture, and decorative crafts in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City under the patronage of Pope Julius II between 1508 and 1512.

Intended Context of Reception

Art’s context of reception depends on a variety of circumstances, both on the part of the artist as well as the artistic community and climate that the artist is participating in. Throughout human history, art has been created across a range of media for many different reasons and to serve many different functions. Some of these purposes are intrinsic to the human instinct for harmony and balance, as well as the human desire to experience mysterious things and express the human imagination. Art can transcend the concept of utility or external purpose. These ideas are called the non-motivated purposes of art. However, art also comes from intentional, conscious actions that aim towards specific external goals, and those qualify as the motivated purposes of art. Motivated purposes usually arise from the artwork’s historical context, which consists of a multitude of different factors, including the social, political, economic, and cultural settings of the period; the artist’s patrons; and the artist’s intended audience.

Primarily, art is a form of communication, and like most forms of communication, has intents and goals directed toward other people. It may be used for entertainment, seeking to evoke particular emotions or moods in viewers, or for social inquiry and political change by portraying aspects of society in complimentary or critical ways.

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, 1830, oil on canvas / Louvre (Paris), Wikimedia Commons
This painting reflects contemporary events, commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled Charles X of France. A woman personifying liberty leads the people forward over the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishing a musket with the other. The painting reflects the context of the time: namely, a shift towards representing political current events in art.

Similarly, art may also be used as a form of propaganda by subtly influencing popular conceptions, or for commercial purposes, by making specific products more attractive to potential consumers. Religious or sacred art uses religious inspiration and motifs in order to illustrate the principles of a religion in a tangible form, and is often intended to provide spiritual instruction and connection with believers.

Madonna and Child with Eight Angels, Sandro Botticelli, c.1478, oil on canvas / Staatliche Museen (Berlin), Wikimedia Commons
An example of religious art, this painting was commissioned by the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. Like a great deal of religious art, the painting is meant to communicate the spiritual beauty of the religious concept echoed in the aesthetic beauty of an oil painting. The work reflects the context of its time, in which art was driven nearly exclusively by religious institutions and used to illustrate and provide instruction about the principles of the religion.

Through the course of history, much of art has traditionally been patronized by wealthy and powerful individuals, including rulers and aristocrats, as well as various civic and religious institutions. Patronage of the arts was typically used as a means of expressing and endorsing political, social, and cultural agendas and of displaying personal prestige. Works of art commissioned by wealthy patrons usually reflect their desires and aims.

Key Points

  • The interplay between the principles and elements of art provide a language with which to discuss and analyze works of art.
  • The principles of art include: movement, unity, harmony, variety, balance, contrast, proportion and pattern.
  • The elements of art include: texture, form, space, shape, color, value and line.
  • How best to define the term art is a subject of constant contention.
  • Since conceptual art and postmodern theory came into prominence, it has been proven that anything can be termed art.
  • The decorative arts add aesthetic and design values to the objects we use every day, such as a glass or a chair.
  • Art therapy is a relatively young type of therapy that focuses on the therapeutic benefits of art-making, using different methods and theories.
  • Since the introduction of conceptual art and postmodern theory, it has been proven that anything can, in fact, be termed art.
  • It can be said that the fine arts represent an exploration of the human condition and the attempt at a deeper understanding of life.
  • The meaning of art is often shared among the members of a given society and dependent upon cultural contex.
  • The nature of art has been described by philosopher Richard Wollheim as “one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture.”
  • Some purposes of art may be to express or communicate emotions and ideas, to explore and appreciate formal elements for their own sake, or to serve as representation.
  • Art, at its simplest, is a form of communication and means whatever it is intended to mean by the artist.
  • Beauty in art can be difficult to put into words due to a seeming lack of accurate language.
  • An aesthetic judgment cannot be an empirical judgment but must instead be processed on a more intuitive level.
  • Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and appreciation of art, beauty, and taste. Aesthetics is central to any exploration of art.
  • For Immanuel Kant, the aesthetic experience of beauty is a judgment of a subjective, but common, human truth.
  • For Arthur Schopenhauer, aesthetic contemplation of beauty is the freest and most pure and truthful that intellect can be, and is therefore beautiful.
  • Art is often intended to appeal to, and connect with, human emotion.
  • In ancient Greece and Rome there was no word for “artist,” but there were nine muses who oversaw a different field of human creation related to music and poetry, with no muse for visual arts.
  • During the Middle Ages, the word “artista” referred to something resembling “craftsman.”
  • The first division into major and minor arts dates back to the 1400s with the work of Leon Battista Alberti.
  • The European Academies of the 16th century formally solidified the gap between the fine and the applied arts which exists in varying degrees to this day.
  • Currently an artist can be defined as anyone who calls him/herself an artist.
  • Actual lines are lines that are physically present, existing as solid connections between one or more points.
  • Implied line refers to the path that the viewer’s eye takes as it follows shapes, colors, and forms along any given path.
  • Straight or classic lines provide stability and structure to a composition and can be vertical, horizontal, or diagonal on a work’s surface.
  • Expressive lines refer to curved marks that increase the sense of dynamism of a work of art.
  • The outline or contour lines create a border or path around the edge of a shape, thereby outlining and defining it. “Cross contour lines” delineate differences in the features of a surface.
  • Hatch lines are a series of short lines repeated in intervals, typically in a single direction, and are used to add shading and texture to surfaces, while cross-hatch lines provide additional texture and tone to the image surface and can be oriented in any direction.
  • In painting, value changes are achieved by adding black or white to a color.Value in art is also sometimes referred to as “tint” for light hues and “shade” for dark hues.
  • Values near the lighter end of the spectrum are termed “high-keyed” while those on the darker end are called “low-keyed.”
  • In two-dimensional art works, the use of value can help to give a shape the illusion of mass or volume.
  • Chiaroscuro was a common technique in Baroque painting and refers to clear tonal contrasts exemplified by very high-keyed whites, placed directly against very low-keyed darks.
  • Color theory first appeared in the 17th century, when Isaac Newton discovered that white light could be passed through a prism and divided into the full spectrum of colors.
  • The spectrum of colors contained in white light are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
  • Color theory divides color into the “primary colors” of red, yellow, and blue, which cannot be mixed from other pigments, and the “secondary colors” of green, orange, and violet, which result from different combinations of the primary colors.
  • Primary and secondary colors are combined in various mixtures to create tertiary colors.
  • Complementary colors are found opposite each other on the color wheel and represent the strongest contrast for those particular two colors.
  • Visual texture refers to an implied sense of texture that the artist creates through the use of various artistic elements such as line, shading, and color.
  • Actual texture refers to the physical rendering or the real surface qualities we can notice by touching an object.
  • Visible brushstrokes and different amounts of paint will create a physical texture that can add to the expressiveness of a painting and draw attention to specific areas within it.
  • It is possible for an artwork to contain numerous visual textures but still remain smooth to the touch.
  • “Positive space” refers to the space of the defined shape or figure
  • “Negative space” refers to the space that exists around and between one or more shapes.
  • A “plane” in art refers to any surface area within space.
  • “Form” is a concept that is related to shape and can be created by combining two or more shapes, resulting in a three-dimensional shape.
  • Art makes use of both actual and implied volume.
  • Shape, volume, and space, whether actual or implied, are the basis of the perception of reality.
  • Techniques such as scale and proportion are used to create the feeling of motion or the passing of time in static a visual piece.
  • The placement of a repeated element in different area within an artwork is another way to imply motion and the passing of time.
  • Visual experiments in time and motion were first produced in the mid-19th century, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge is well-known for his sequential shots.
  • The time-based mediums of film, video, kinetic sculpture, and performance art employ time and motion by their very definitions.
  • Dadaists are known for their “automatic writing” or stream of consciousness writing, which highlights the creativity of the unconscious mind.
  • Surrealist works, much like Dadaist works, often feature an element of surprise, unexpected juxtaposition, and tapping into the unconscious mind.
  • Surrealists are known for having invented “exquisite corpse” drawing.
  • The Fluxus movement was known for its “happenings,” which were performance events or situations that could take place anywhere, in any form, and relied heavily on chance, improvisation, and audience participation.
  • In contemporary art, it is quite common for work to cater to the senses of sight, touch, and hearing, while it is somewhat less common to address smell and taste.
  • “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work of art,” is a German word that refers to an artwork that attempts to address all five human senses.
  • Installation art is a genre of three-dimensional artwork that is designed to transform the viewer’s perception of a space.
  • Virtual reality is a term that refers to computer-simulated environments.
  • A harmonious compositional balance involves arranging elements so that no one part of a work overpowers or seems heavier than any other part.
  • The three most common types of compositional balance are symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial.
  • When balanced, a composition appears stable and visually right. Just as symmetry relates to aesthetic preference and reflects an intuitive sense for how things “should” appear, the overall balance of a given composition contributes to outside judgments of the work.
  • Rhythm may be generally defined as a “movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions” (Anon. 1971).
  • Rhythm may also refer to visual presentation as “timed movement through space” (Jirousek 1995), and a common language of pattern unites rhythm with geometry.
  • For instance, placing a red spiral at the bottom left and top right, for example, will cause the eye to move from one spiral, to the other, and everything in between. It is indicating movement in the piece by the repetition of elements and, therefore, can make artwork seem active.
  • Hierarchical proportion is a technique used in art, mostly in sculpture and painting, in which the artist uses unnatural proportion or scale to depict the relative importance of the figures in the artwork.
  • Mathematically, proportion is the relation between elements and a whole. In architecture, the whole is not just a building but the set and setting of the site.
  • Among the various ancient artistic traditions, the harmonic proportions, human proportions, cosmic orientations, various aspects of sacred geometry, and small whole-number ratios were all applied as part of the practice of architectural design.
  • The organization of space is referred to as composition and is an essential component to any work of art.
  • The space of an artwork includes the background, foreground, and middle ground, as well as the distance between, around, and within things.
  • There are two types of space: positive space and negative space.
  • After spending hundreds of years developing linear perspective, Western artistic notions about the accurate depiction of space went through a radical shift at the beginning of the 20th century.
  • Cubism and subsequent modernist movements represented an important shift in the use of space within Western art, which is still being felt today.
  • In physical terms, dimension refers to the constituent structure of all space and its position in time.
  • Drawing is a form of visual art that makes use of any number of instruments to mark a two-dimensional medium.
  • Almost any dimensional form can be represented by some combination of the cube, sphere, cylinder, and cone. Once these basic shapes have been assembled into a likeness, then the drawing can be refined into a more accurate and polished form.
  • Systematic attempts to evolve a system of perspective are usually considered to have begun around the 5th century B.C. in the art of Ancient Greece.
  • The earliest art paintings and drawings typically sized objects and characters hierarchically according to their spiritual or thematic importance, not their distance from the viewer.
  • In Medieval Europe, the use and sophistication of attempts to convey distance increased steadily but without a basis in a systematic theory.
  • By the Renaissance, nearly every artist in Italy used geometrical perspective in their paintings, both to portray depth and also as a new and “of the moment” compositional method.
  • Perspective projection distortion is the inevitable misrepresentation of three-dimensional space when drawn or “projected” onto a two-dimensional surface. It is impossible to accurately depict three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional plane.
  • However, there are several constructs available which allow for seemingly accurate representation. Perspective projection can be used to mirror how the eye sees by the use of one or more vanishing points.
  • Although distortion can be irregular or follow many patterns, the most commonly encountered distortions in composition, especially in photography, are radially symmetric, or approximately so, arising from the symmetry of a photographic lens.
  • Content in a work of art refers to what is being depicted and might be helpful in deriving a basic meaning. It appears in the visual arts in several forms, all of which may be figurative (realistic) or abstract (distorted). Among them are portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, genre art, and narrative art.
  • Portraits represents the likeness of a person and can include a study of the sitter’s mood or personality.
  • Landscapes  depict natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, especially where the main subject is a wide view.
  • A still-life is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects that may be either natural or man-made.
  • Genre art involves the pictorial representation in any of various media of scenes or events from everyday life, whereas narrative art tells a story that may be real or imagined.
  • Representational art, or figurative art, references objects or events in the real world.
  • Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism contributed to the emergence of abstract art in the nineteenth century.
  • Even representational work is abstracted to some degree; entirely realistic art is elusive.
  • Nonrepresentational artwork refers to art that does not attempt to represent or reference reality.
  • In the late 19th century, artists began to move toward increasing abstraction as a means of communicating subjective experience more personally and creatively.
  • Artists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian viewed art as an expression of spirituality.
  • Academic studies of iconography in painting emerged in the 19th century in France and Germany.
  • Iconographical scholarship became particularly prominent in art history after 1940.
  • In the 20th century, studies of iconography have become of interest to a broad public beyond the scholarly community.
  • Christian sacred art is produced in an attempt to illustrate, supplement, and portray, in tangible form, the principles of Christianity; most Christian art is built around themes familiar to the intended observer.
  • Buddhist art followed believers as the dharma spread and evolved in each new host country. It developed to the north through Central Asia and into Eastern Asia to form the Northern branch of Buddhist art; and to the east as far as Southeast Asia to form the Southern branch of Buddhist art.
  • Islamic art prohibited the depiction of representational images in religious art. Therefore, the naturally decorative nature of Arabic script led to the use of calligraphic decorations, which usually involved repeating geometrical patterns that expressed ideals of order and nature.
  • Religion and spirituality has been a theme in art throughout history and throughout many areas of the world, from Hinduism and Judaism to indigenous spiritual practices.
  • The art market is an economic ecosystem that relies not only on supply and demand, but also on the fabrication of a work’s predicted future monetary and/or cultural value.
  • The primary art market refers to art that enters the market for the first time. The secondary market refers to artworks that have been sold at least once before.
  • An art dealer is a person or company who buys and sells works of art.
  • Art galleries are commercial or privately funded businesses that deal in artworks, typically made by contemporary artists.
  • The curator is the manager or director of the gallery who traditionally programs the space and organizes art shows.
  • Art fairs act as conventions or large-scale shows where galleries display the work of select artists whom they represent.
  • Romantic nationalism refers to the phenomenon by which a state derives power from the unity of those it governs, whether it be through culture, religion, customs, language, or race.
  • Romantic nationalism was a key component of Romanticism as well as certain post-Enlightenment philosophies.
  • National anthems, national epics, and national treasures are part of the language of Romantic nationalism, and date back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Today, cultural heritage—both tangible and intangible—is regarded as highly valuable.
  • A “national treasure” refers to shared culture which has been deemed exceptionally valuable.
  • Governments influence the artistic output of their regions by presenting grants and awards to artists whose careers they wish to support.
  • Early museums began as the private collections of wealthy families and individuals.
  • “Cabinets of curiosity,” or cabinets that held collections of artifacts and art objects, were the beginnings of museums and private collections.
  • The majority of significant museums were opened to the public in the 18th century Enlightenment Era, such as the Louvre and the Hermitage Museum.
  • Numerous art works in museums today were donated from private collections.
  • It is not uncommon to see a note next to a work of art in a temporary museum exhibition, stating that it is on loan from a particular private collection.
  • The goal of the conservator is to attempt to maintain cultural heritage objects as close to their original condition as possible, for as long as possible.
  • The tradition of conservation is considered by most to have begun in 1565, with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes.
  • Today, all museums employ teams of conservators to keep their collections up to date, conduct frequent tests, and engage in analysis and documentation.
  • Conservators are often involved in what is termed “preventative conservation,” which refers to protecting art and cultural works from damage from environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and exposure to light.
  • A guiding principle of conservation is the idea of “reversibility”; that is, any intervention with the object should be fully reversible.
  • “Interventive conservation” refers to any act that involves a direct interaction between the conservator and the cultural material, such as cleaning, stabilizing, repairing, or replacing of parts.
  • War, political unrest, accidents, and disaster are the typical outside factors that contribute to the non-preservation of art.
  • Looting refers to when art is stolen during such times of conflict.
  • Art repatriation refers to the process of returning artworks to their rightful owners.
  • The use, or appropriation of, art has inspired much controversy and contributed to cultural subjugation. A prime example of appropriation and subjugation is seen in the appropriation of sacred Native American images, iconography, and sculptures for commercial use by non-natives.
  • Copyright can give the creator of an original work exclusive rights to it, usually for a limited time.
  • Patronage of the arts, and art history by extension, has been used throughout history to endorse the ambitions and agenda of the dominant power of any given age. Art history is the academic study of objects of art in their historical development and stylistic contexts (i.e., genre, design, form, and style).
  • Art conveys political, religious, and philosophical themes and judgments that arise as much from the artist’s environment as they do from his or her creative impulse.
  • Some of the contextual forces that shape artists and their work are their teachers and the influences of preceding styles; their patrons and their demands; their audiences; and their general socioeconomic, political, and cultural climate.
  • Art arises from a combination of non-motivated factors driven by the intrinsic human impulse towards harmony and creativity as well as motivated factors, which consciously aim to communicate specific messages to other individuals.
  • Art may be used to evoke particular emotions or moods, for social inquiry and political change, for questioning and criticizing society, or as a means of propaganda or commercial advertisement for influencing popular conceptions.
  • Religious art uses religious inspiration and themes in order to illustrate the principles of the religion and to provide spiritual instruction to audiences.
  • Patronage of the arts was typically used as a means of expressing and endorsing political, social, and cultural agendas and of displaying personal prestige. Works of art commissioned by wealthy patrons usually reflect their desires and aims.

Key Terms

  • Aesthetic: Concerned with artistic impact or appearance.
  • Aesthetics: The branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, taste, and the creation and appreciation of beauty.
  • Appropriation: The use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them.
  • Assemblage: A collection of things which have been gathered together.
  • Asymmetry: Want of symmetry, or proportion between the parts of a thing, especially want of bilateral symmetry. Lacking a common measure between two objects or quantities; Incommensurability. That which causes something to not be symmetrical.
  • Chiaroscuro: An artistic technique popularized during the Renaissance, referring to the use of exaggerated light contrasts in order to create the illusion of volume.
  • Complementary color: A color which is regarded as the opposite of another on the color wheel (i.e., red and green, yellow and purple, and orange and blue).
  • Conservation: The act of preserving, guarding, or protecting; the keeping (of a thing) in a safe or entire state; preservation.
  • Cross-hatching: A method of showing shading by means of multiple small lines that intersect.
  • Conservator: A professional who works on the conservation and restoration of objects, particularly artistic objects.
  • Copyright: The right by law to be the entity which determines who may publish, copy, and distribute a piece of writing, music, picture, or other work of authorship.
  • Cubism: An artistic movement in the early 20th century characterized by the depiction of natural forms as geometric structures of planes.
  • Curator: A person who manages, administers, or organizes a collection, either independently or employed by a museum, library, archive, or zoo.
  • Curvilinear: Having bends; curved; formed by curved lines.
  • Dimension: A single aspect of a given thing. A measure of spatial extent in a particular direction, such as height, width or breadth, or depth.
  • Engaged: Attached to a wall or sunk into it halfway.
  • Enlightenment: A philosophical movement in 17th- and 18th-century Europe; the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, emphasized rationalism.
  • Expressionism: A movement in the arts in which the artist does not depict objective reality, but rather the subjective expression of inner experience.
  • Fine arts: Visual art created principally for its aesthetic value.
  • Foreshortening: A technique for creating the appearance that the object of a drawing is extending into space by shortening the lines with which that object is drawn.
  • Form: The shape or visible structure of an artistic expression.
  • Formalism:  The study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style—the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects.
  • Frames per second: The number of times an imaging device produces unique consecutive images (frames) in one second. Abbreviation: FPS.
  • Fresco: In painting, the technique of applying water-based pigment to wet or fresh lime mortar or plaster.
  • Golden ratio: The irrational number (approximately 1·618), usually denoted by the Greek letter φ (phi), which is equal to the sum of its own reciprocal and 1, or, equivalently, is such that the ratio of 1 to the number is equal to the ratio of its reciprocal to 1. Some twentieth-century artists and architects have proportioned their works to approximate this—especially in the form of the golden rectangle, in which the ratio of the longer side to the shorter equals this number—believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing.
  • Gradation: A passing by small degrees from one tone or shade, as of color, to another.
  • Happening: A spontaneous or improvised event, especially one that involves audience participation.
  • Horizontal line: A horizontal line in perspective drawing, directly opposite the viewer’s eye and often implied, that represents objects infinitely far away and determines the angle or perspective from which the viewer sees the work.
  • Hue: A color, or shade of color.
  • Human condition: The characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.
  • Iconoclasm: The deliberate destruction of religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually with religious or political motives.
  • Iconography: The branch of art history which studies the identification, description, and interpretation of the content of images.
  • Intuitive:Spontaneous, without requiring conscious thought; easily understood or grasped by instinct.
  • Line: A path through two or more points.
  • Motif: A recurring or dominant element in a work of art.
  • Mimesis: The representation of aspects of the real world, especially human actions, in literature and art.
  • Muses: Goddesses of the inspiration of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology.
  • National treasure: A person, place, or object that is deemed of great value to an entire nation, usually due to its cultural significance.
  • Nonprofit: An organization that exists for reasons other than to make a profit, such as a charitable, educational, or service organization.
  • Nonrepresentational: Not intended to represent a physical object in reality.
  • Oeuvre: The complete body of an artist’s work.
  • Patron: An influential, wealthy person who supports an artist, craftsman, scholar, or aristocrat.
  • Perspective: The technique of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface.
  • Planar: Of or pertaining to a plane. Flat, two-dimensional.
  • Plane: A flat surface extending infinitely in all directions (e.g., horizontal or vertical plane).
  • Pop art: An art movement that emerged in the 1950s that presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising and news.
  • Primary color: Any of three colors which, when added to or subtracted from others in different amounts, can generate all other colors.
  • Projection: The image that a translucent object casts onto another object.
  • Radial: Arranged like rays that radiate from, or converge to, a common center.
  • Religious art: Artistic imagery using religious inspiration and motifs, often intended to uplift the mind to the spiritual.
  • Space: The distance or empty area between things.
  • Static: Fixed in place; having no motion.
  • Symmetry: Exact correspondence on either side of a dividing line, plane, center, or axis. The satisfying arrangement of a balanced distribution of the elements of a whole.
  • Tactile: Tangible; perceptible to the sense of touch.
  • Texture:The feel or shape of a surface or substance; the smoothness, roughness, softness, etc. of something.
  • Tint: A color considered with reference to other very similar colors. Red and blue are different colors, but two shades of scarlet are different tints.
  • Two-Dimensional: Existing in two dimensions. Not creating the illusion of depth.
  • Value: The relative darkness or lightness of a color in a specific area of a painting or other visual art.
  • Vanishing point: The point in a perspective drawing at which parallel lines receding from an observer seem to converge.
  • Verisimilitude: The property of seeming true, of resembling reality; resemblance to reality, realism.
  • Virtual reality: A reality based in the computer.
  • Volume: A unit of three-dimensional measure of space that comprises a length, a width, and a height.
  • Worldview: The totality of one’s beliefs about reality.

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