Friday, November 21, 2014

The Elements of Art

I recently started reading The Daily Book of Art, a collection of 365 short readings about lots of different facets of art. The first reading is about the elements of art—line, shape, texture, etc. I've seen these referred to as the building blocks of art, as if we use them one-by-one to put together a work of art. But I think art-making is largely intuitive; it's probably not all that common for an artist to consciously think about line and shape and texture while making art. These elements of art, however, come into play when we step back to review, analyze, or interpret a work of art. They give us a common language that helps us understand art.

The first entry in The Daily Book of Art says to imagine the elements of art as components of a visual language. Surely I've heard this before, but it jumped off the page today and made me ask myself: If the elements of art are a language, what is my art saying? 

This is one of my favorite images, taken a few years ago on the shore of a lake in northern Maine. Looking at it now and thinking about art as visual language, I can see that this image is saying quite a lot. If I focus on texture, I see gentle ripples on an otherwise calm water surface covered with a shroud of mist that contributes to the calm and gentle feeling of the scene. Then there is the clear horizontal line signifying the movement of the ducks from left to right, breaking the stillness of the water, creating a crease of evidence that stays for only a few minutes and then disappears. Then there is the rock, a critical part of this composition. Without the rock, this would be an entirely different image. The rock is the counterpoint, a hard and edgy shape amidst an ocean of soft mist and calm water.

So what is this image saying? I think it is saying something about the general state of stillness, a state unencumbered by passing thoughts and solid impediments. This image evokes such a state and honors it. But, somehow, putting this into words doesn't work all that well. The image says what I have to say so much better than the words. And the most amazing part is that I wasn't consciously thinking about this when I took the picture; rather, the scene resonated with me in a very strong way and I was drawn to preserve it. By making this picture, I used the elements of art to make a statement—one that can't as easily be said with words, at least not by me.

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