There’s a unique pleasure that comes when creating something beautiful. But don’t just delve in without any background knowledge. Learning a few basic art principles can help you create more successful pieces and learning art history can help you understand and appreciate its influences.
Another tip I once heard: When attending an art gallery or museum, choose your favorite piece and try to explain to someone else why you feel that way. By forcing a choice, you learn how to think critically about what you’re seeing and you become a more participatory viewer. (Kids can do this, too!)
Composition: The placement of a work’s various elements and the ways these elements work together
The six basic elements of art: An artist’s visual tools, including: line, shape, color, value, form, texture and space
Elements of art technique: The various ways of depicting a work’s elements, including: lighting, values, proportions, silhouettes, gradient, contrast, shading and detail
The basic principles of art: Aspects of a work that together make up the work’s effect, including: balance/proportion, contrast/emphasis, movement/rhythm, pattern, unity/harmony/variety
Qualities of a successful piece of visual art: Technical skill; emotive power; movement; pattern; and a balance of contrast and emphasis, unity and variety, and proportions
Balance: The relative proportion of a work’s various elements
Emphasis: Visual dominance
Movement: The way a work encourages the viewer’s eye to take it in, area by area, which can be achieved through the use of diagonal lines, curvy lines, negative space and/or repetition
Pattern: A repetition of a work’s element or elements
Rhythm: A type of movement resulting from repetition and variety within a work
Unity/harmony: A sense of relatedness of the parts of a work
Symmetry: A mirror-image visual effect, with similar elements on opposite sides of the piece
Asymmetry: A non-mirror-image visual effect, with contrasting elements on opposite sides of the piece
Radial symmetry: A visual effect resulting from elements being equally spaced around a central point (as the spokes in a hub)
Dominant: Larger and more eye-catching than other elements in the piece. An example is found in magazines, newspapers and websites, which often use a single photo as the centerpiece of each page.
Negative space: Empty space, as opposed to filled positive space
The golden ratio: Approximately 1.618, a number that appears many times in geometry, art, and architecture and that seems to help create an attractive balance in a work
The rule of thirds: The artistic guideline recommending that the central focus and other key elements of a work should be placed 1/3 of the way down, up, right or left in a composition in order to achieve visual balance
The 70/30 rule of drawing: The artistic guideline recommending that 30 percent of the work is made up of its main focus and the rest is made up of filler and background
Color theory: The set of rules that describe how colors relate to each other
Primary colors: The three basic colors from which the secondary colors are created. Traditionally, and in art theory, these are red, blue and yellow, while in printing pigment, these are cyan, magenta and yellow.
Secondary colors: The colors that are made up of exactly two primary colors. When using the traditional primary colors, these are orange, purple and green.
Complementary colors: Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel
Analagous colors: Colors that border each other on the color wheel
Achromatic colors: Black, white and grey
Neutral colors: Achromatic and near-achromatic colors like beige, tan, black, brown and grey
Color wheel: A circular representation of the relationships between various colors
Color scheme: A set of colors that provide a theme
Hue: A specific wavelength of light; a color
Saturation: A color’s intensity
Shade: A hue produced by adding black
Tint: A hue produced by adding white
Tone: A hue produced by adding grey
Value: The lightness or darkness of the color
Pigment: A colored material used for artworks that is mostly or entirely insoluble in water
Dye: A colored material used for artworks that is mostly or entirely water soluble
Prehistoric art: The earliest arts, found on every continent, which predated writing and the Neolithic Revolution and which included cave drawings, pottery, textile weaving, statue making and much more
Ancient Mesopotamian art: The art of ancient Mesopotamia and nearby, which included wood and stone statues; cuneiform and other pictographs; elaborate gardens; ziggurats and pyramids; ceremonial architecture including monuments, tombs, temples, sphinxes, obelisks and shrines; and more
Ancient Chinese art: The art of ancient China, which included silk weaving; delicate painted ceramics; bronze ritual vessels; jade and gold statues; intricate calligraphy; gold jewelry; ink handscroll with gold embellishment; the Terracotta Army; the Sanxingdui excavation; and more
Terracotta soldiers: A large collection of larger-than-life clay warriors created in ancient China then buried for thousands of years in the grave of Shi Huang Di
Sanxingdui excavation: A collection of about fifty large bronze heads and a large bronze human figure decorated with elephant heads created and long buried in ancient China
Ancient Grecian art: The art of ancient Greece, which includes simple sculptures in bronze and clay; cave painting; and some life-sized statues like a snake goddess which were influenced by Egyptian art
Ancient Egyptian art: The art of ancient Egypt, which includes pyramids; sarcophagi (intricately decorated coffins); gold works and more. Many ancient Egyptian tombs were crammed with gold jewelry, statues and much more. The Great Pyramid of Giza is Egypt’s most well-known artistic and architectural achievement.
Inuit art: The ancient and medieval art of far-north North America that includes walrus ivory sculpture
Traditional Tibetan and Indian art: The ancient and medieval art of these regions that often features sacred themes, drawing inspiration from Buddhism, Hinduism and tribal religions and that includes religious icons; Tibetan murals and frescoes on monastery walls; cave paintings; textiles and more. Many works were intended to be used as meditation aids.
Traditional African art: The ancient and medieval art of these regions that includes buffalo hide masks; masks of other mediums; brass and gold sculpture; gold jewelry; elaborate palaces; and more. Many traditional African art forms were created as conduits to the spirit world.
Ancient Japanese art: The ancient art of Japan, which includes pottery, sculpture, ink painting, calligraphy on silk and paper, ceramics, origami and more
Traditional Aboriginal art: The art of native Australians, which includes rock engravings and paintings from 50,000 years ago; the Easter Island statues (larger-than-life human figures built during the Middle Ages); treasure chests; masks; battle shields; paintings; and more
Native American art: The traditional art of North America that includes Zapotec masks; ornate Aztec clothing; stone calendars of the Aztecs; massive Olmec heads; Mayan illuminated manuscripts on tree bark; pottery painting; totem poles; masks; quillwork; beadwork; ceramics; burial mounds; and gold and jade statues
Medieval European art: The art of medieval Europe, which reflected the dominance of the Catholic Church and included illustrated and illuminated manuscripts; paintings with gold leaf; gold leaf on glass; holy vessels; mosaics; religious icons; stained glass; detailed church architecture; and more
Medieval Celtic art: The art of the people who spoke Celtic languages and other culturally similar people and which included decorated shields, swoards and armor; religious vessels; gold jewelry; statues; painted manuscripts; and more
The Book of Kells: The most famous medieval illuminated manuscript, which was created by monks in Ireland, Scotland or England in approximately 800 AD. It was named after the Abbey of Kells, where it was kept for centuries. It is appreciated for its masterful calligraphy and illustrations and its overall intricacy and detail. It contains the four gospels of the New Testament, plus various other religious texts.
Medieval Anglo-Saxon art: The traditional art of Anglo-Saxon people that includes illuminated manuscripts and Romanesque-style metalwork including metal armor
Medieval Viking/Norse art: The traditional art of the Vikings and Nordic peoples that includes animal heads and plain large stone structures
Megaliths: Large stone building-like structures such as Stonehenge and Newgrange, the purpose of which is often unclear
Medieval Russian art: The art of Russia after the region’s state-led westernization that included Christian icons, religious paintings and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which features onion-shaped domes in bright colors
Medieval Islamic art: The traditional art of the Islamic-speaking areas, especially the Middle East, that was inspired by Islam and includes painted ceramics; detailed metalwork; ornate textiles; intricate calligraphy; and architectural domes, arches and minarets
Romanesque art: The art movement that arose in Europe in the Middle Ages that was inspired by ancient Rome and that included frescoes; illuminated books; austere yet imposing churches decorated with sculptures; and other monumental stone structures
Renaissance art: The art movement of the 1400s and 1500s that was a response to the magical thinking of medieval times and that focused on scientific principles and realism. Notable examples include Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci; The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli; and David by Michaelangelo.
Romanticism: The art movement of the 1800s that was a response to Renaissance art and that emphasized emotion and subjectivity over realism
The arts and crafts movement: The art movement of the mid-1800s that was a response to mass production and that featured handmade furniture and other items. A notable arts and crafts artist is John Ruskin.
Art Nouveau: The style of art that arose during the late 1800s in which the work’s elements follow a single curved line or several curved lines to bring unity, balance, emphasis, movement and an organic quality to the piece
Impressionism: The partially abstract style of painting that arose during the late 1800s and that features relatively small, thin strokes and an emphasis on light and movement to create an impression of an image, rather than a realistic depiction of it. A notable example is Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Other important impressionists are Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Modern art: The art movement that arose during the late 1800s that encompasses a variety of non-traditional, anti-authoritarian styles
Art Deco: The style of art that applied modernism to useful items like clothing, furniture and dishes, bringing a modern style to an average home
Expressionism: The style of art that arose during the early 1900s in which a realistic image is distorted in order to reveal the artist’s ideas and feelings about it, and about the world. A notable example is Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
Pablo Picasso: The Spanish artist who invented Cubism and was the most prominent and influential modern artist
Cubism: The style of abstract modern art that arose during the early 1900s and features fragmentation, geometrical shapes and multiple perspectives of the same subject
Contemporary art: Any art style or work of art being created during the current time
Abstract art: Any art style or work of art that depicts its subject in a symbolic, rather than realistic, way
Dadaism: The artistic movement that arose as a response to World War I that rejected realism and rationalism, instead depicting chaos and nonsense
Surrealism: The artistic movement that arose after World War I and combines real and unreal, dreamlike elements, with strange beauty resulting
Salvado Dali: The most prominent and influential artist of the Surrealist movement, whose enigmatic work breaks many formal rules
Pop art: The art movement that emerged during the 1970s that as a response to the traditional hierarchy of artistic culture and taste (and as a response to culture in a larger sense, too) that incorporates objects not normally used in artworks, such as newspaper, soup cans and discarded items
Andy Warhol: The most prominent and influential pop artist who famously used soup cans to comment on consumer culture
Street art: The style of art that emerged during the 1970s and is featured in public spaces with the intention of taking art out of its typical confined settings such as art galleries. It encompasses a variety of mediums like painting, sculpture, or stained glass and is sometimes made illegally in the form of graffiti.
Manga: A form of modern Japanese cartooning and comic art
Atrium: An interior courtyard-like space
Buttress: A structure that helps to reinforce and strengthen a wall
Gable: The triangular portion between intersecting roof pitches, whose shape allows for easy water drainage and good interior ventilation
Mezzanine: A half floor that usually opens to and overlooks a high-ceilinged space
Pavilion: A structure with a roof and beams but no walls that often serves as a shelter in gardens and parks
Ziggurat: A step pyramid, which was the precursor to the sloped pyramid. Ziggurats were created in multiple early world civilizations, including Mesopotamia, the Mayan and Egyptian civilizations, separately, and were often meant to bring people closer to heaven.
Ancient Greek architecture: The architectural style of the ancient Greeks, which included the first columns, canopies and other novel elements, and which greatly influenced other architectural styles in the West. It includes the Parthenon, whose columns were tilted to account for visual distortion, so that the human eye saw it as if it were perfectly straight.
Ancient Roman architecture: The architectural style that dominated for nearly 1,000 years in Europe and that introduced concrete, domes, arches, triumphal gates, paved roads, aqueducts and more. It includes the Roman aqueducts and the Colosseum.
Byzantine architecture: A glamorous architectural style that came about during the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Rome that featured elevated domes organized into octagons, extensive mosaics and other enhanced Greek and Roman ideas
Ottoman Empire architecture: The architectural style that incorporated both Byzantine and Islamic ideas and that featured detailed ornamentation plus domes and minarets
Romanesque architecture: The architectural style that came about in Europe during the Middle Ages whose style incorporated classical Roman and Byzantine elements like arches and sculpture
Gothic architecture: The elegant architectural style that followed Romanesque architecture and that incorporated some medieval and some Renaissance characteristics
Renaissance architecture: The grand architectural style that came about as part of the Renaissance and focused on realism, symmetry, mathematics and discipline
Baroque architecture: The highly ornate, dramatic architectural style that arose during the 1600s and early 1700s and that took Renaissance architecture to a new level, featuring decorative elements like gargoyles, lion heads, baby angels, horns of abundance and the like. A response to the Reformation and Protestantism in the 1600s and originating with the Catholic Church in Italy, it focused less on unity of design and more on emotional evocation.
Neo-classical architecture: The architectural style of the 1700s and 1800s that sought to mimic aspects of Greek and Roman architecture
Colonial architecture: The architectural style of the 1500s through the 1800s that adapted a colonizing culture’s styles to the places they colonized
Modern architecture: The architectural style guided by the idea that form follows function, which is known for minimalist features, lack of ornamentation, simple silhouettes and basic materials such as concrete
Postmodern architecture: A quirky, playful architectural style that came about in the 1960s as a response to the cold, function-focused modern style
Some important world architectural landmarks: The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey; the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the Acropolis in Athens; the Parthenon in Athens; the Colosseum in Rome; The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt; the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy; the White House in Washington, D.C.; Buckingham Palace in London; Big Ben in London; Westminster Abbey in London; the Empire State Building in New York City; St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow; the Space Needle in Seattle; the Guggenheim in New York City; the Taj Mahal in India; the Dancing House in Prague; the Louvre Museum in Paris; the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; the Sydney Opera House in Australia; the Geghard Monastery in Armenia; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur; Casa Batlló in Barcelona; Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
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