On Looking At Visual Art

Originally presented to the AICA Conference - August, 1998
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One of the great disappointments commonly experienced in the art community is in recognizing and having to deal with the gap that seems to exist between artists and society. One encounters this kind of alienation everywhere in the world and it is most serious when it separates artists from those in their immediate communities who should be their intended audience. It may be said that part of the fault lies with the artists themselves, particularly in recent times as they follow an increasingly narrow tunnel of self expression and conceptual exploration. This alienation may also be attributed to what art has become in the last few decades, in part resulting from artists’ response to the turmoil of events in their world, but also as the natural fulfillment of the ideas and materials of previous decades. The impact of change on all forms of art has been vast and, unfortunately, the general public has not found it easy to accept these changes.

Actually it is the extent of the changes which most art-lovers are loath to accept. The extreme deviation from the comfortable forms of what we knew to be art and artistic expression is found to be unacceptable. The shockingly new, unconventional forms, require a correspondingly different way of looking and understanding; thereby fueling public alienation from much of contemporary art and a resulting isolation of many artists.


The purpose of this paper is to address the problem by looking at the terms and language being used in the description of what traditional and contemporary art is and what artists are really about. The problem is seen not so much as the failure of communication between the artist and his audience, but as the need for a more concrete and systematic approach to that communication. The paper examines commonly used art terms and treats them as a foundation for looking at the nature of visual art. Essentially, it offers as a theory a very concrete, integrated and coordinated set of easily understood art terms. It is hoped that the use of such terms can clarify concepts about the nature of contemporary art and about the world of the artist. If appropriately used the theory can help viewers to identify and see the meaning of some of the important works that have emerged in the last part of this century.

Given the clarity of understandable terminology, ordinary viewers may experience a greater sense of confidence and willingness to enter into discussion of modern works. And it is hoped that familiarity, even if not comfort, with these works, will help to reduce the present climate of resistance to contemporary art. It is hoped through such straightforward communication to develop a climate of discussion between artists, critics, educators and art lovers which can increase understanding and acceptance within the general public.

-2- An Overview

The theory presents a notion of the nature of visual art with specific, if arbitrary, definitions of elements, principles and a new category– ‘dynamics’. It is recognized that there are countless versions or variations of terms to describe what is and is not art. The terms and notions that have been selected here are judged to be commonly accepted designations.

The author asserts that causal connections exist between elements, principles and dynamics which can be presented in a framework resembling a simple abc of analysis. The value and use of the sets of terms rests on these logical connections or relationships between the elements, principles and dynamics. As art is not a science nor based on empirical entities it is left to the reader to decide the extent to which the identified relationships are logical and valid. In order to demonstrate the use of the framework, the author concludes with an analysis and interpretation of a few works by contemporary artists.


The elements given as line, shape, mass, colour, texture and tonality are seen to be the basic terms for visual expression. It is the interaction of the elements, made by artists on canvas or other media, that creates the ‘dynamics’ of artistic expressions. The term ‘dynamics’ is given because it implies the artists’ creative activity in working with the elements, merging them into coherent objects, figures and images. The dynamics are defined and logically described within six categories: pictorial, emotional, symbolic, structural, conceptual, and technical.

The final category, derived from an examination of traditional terms, describes the viewers’ response to what the artist has actually done with the elements and dynamics. The principles are the final interpretation of the work, usually in accord with the artists’ conception. Artists seldom wish to give their intention or state the meaning of the work, apart from what is suggested in the title. Although the terms presented here as principles are broad, they are in no way intended to be final or comprehensive. What is important is the need for some terms to be found that will adequately reflect our emotional and intellectual reading of the work.
-3 – The Theory Explained — Elements, Dynamics and Principles
Conventional, well established terms are used to describe the elements. More unusual definitions are used for the unique set of ‘dynamics’, and the principles are terms that are generally used for interpretation of works.

Elements Dynamics Principles
Lines Pictorial Stability
Shapes Symbolic  
Mass Structural  
Colour Conceptual  
Texture Technical  

Lines- A line may be described as a point which extends in a specific direction and has only two dimensions: length and a minimal amount of width. Lines are generally the most easily recogniseable features within a picture frame. Lines are essential for the definition of shapes and mass. Vertical and horizontal lines emphasize direction. Curved lines relate more to the development of shapes and objects within the frame. Other kinds of lines- linear and lateral, convergent and divergent, spiral, diagonal, concave and convex form the foundation of information about a work and its interpretation.

Shapes- Most importantly, shapes determine recogniseable and readable entities within the frame of a picture or ground of a work. They clarify masses, fix planes, guide the viewers attention and carry most of the meaning or message of a work, particularly where the pictorial dynamic is foremost. Shapes allow the viewers to figure out what the artist has intended.

Mass- Although it may operate quite forcibly within a picture frame, this element is very dependent on the workings of the other elements, such as line, shape and tonality. Mass functions to delineate the overall as well as specific structures within a work. It is needed to establish the dimensions, planes, volumes, fields, and grounds in a work. Also, mass can stimulate the perception of movement, balance, direction, and depth. Mass reveals artists’ psychological as well as aesthetic or structural intentions.

Colour- Colour is a most profound element as it directly affects viewers’ perceptions, emotions and interpretation of a work. Colour is readily available to assist the reading of objects, and their lines, shapes, masses, etc. Artists use colour to assist in creating depth, positioning and movement within the picture frame. Excitement, interest, and energy can be easily introduced into a work with the use of the correct colour or combination of colours. Also, conceptual, psychological and emotional interpretations are greatly affected by colours used in the work.


Texture- Although not as directly crucial to an understanding and appreciation of a work, its texture does contribute to the total impact the work has on viewers. Shimmering highlights of sunset, or jewels, delicate tracery or patterns of cloth, the special qualities of fur and velvet greatly add to the appeal and technical power of a work. Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, Pollock would not be the great figures they are were their works not dependent on the textures they created with brush, finger or whatever device. With textures such as intaglio and impasto artists attempt to establish a relief or third dimension on otherwise flat surfaces.

Tonality- The use of light and shade is especially important to the realist artist within a work emphasizing a pictorial dynamic. The reading and appreciation of objects cannot be more enhanced than through the use of gradations and emendations in rendering objects. The importance of such modulations can be best tested in the comparison of photographed and painted realities. Artists are able to greatly influence the perception, response and acceptance of the veracity of objects through the use of tonality.

While these elements may form the necessary and natural base for understanding all visual art, they are not the full nor sufficient means for interpretation. For that, the focus must be on what artists actually do with the elements within a work. The dynamics are descriptions of the kinds of choices and decisions made by artists. The role dynamics play in describing what artists do is crucial to this theory as it gives viewers the vocabulary and material necessary to ask and answer questions about the work. It allows for questions about how artists manipulate, structure, combine and use the elements so as to achieve their specific intentions. And this is a most fruitful approach to the analysis and interpretation of visual works.

The dynamics presented here are characterised as pictorial, emotional, symbolic, structural, conceptual and technical.

Pictorial- The pictorial dynamic is the easiest to recognize. It is usually presented as a scene, landscape, still life or portrait which is realistic and familiar to viewers. The theme, message, mood or image is conveyed with natural objects and the work is valued by the skill with which the artist has rendered.

Emotional- The impact a work may have on the feelings of viewers is a dynamic that is often immediately grasped and appreciated. The colours, textures, tonalities and design of a work may instantly cause a reaction or response, even at a distance. Because of the clarity of the emotion being expressed the dynamic is readily recognized and accepted.

Symbolic- Objects, motifs, figures, patterns or shapes are often used by artists to convey a specific kind of message or idea. Often, the idea extends the pictorial context of the work and requires thought or explanation to understand its relevance fully. Artists use symbols as a shorthand way of expressing a more complicated idea. These images may stand for religious and political beliefs, social mores, cultural values, or may stand for philosophical principles and psychological states.

Structural- This dynamic is primarily about the ways artists manipulate the composition and design of their works in order to achieve certain effects and to satisfy specific artistic values such as balance, proportion, perspective, movement or symmetry. The dynamic may also be used to heighten contrasts, simulate animation or conflict.

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Conceptual- One of the more common characteristics of contemporary art, this dynamic helps to explain many recent forms of non-representational or non-pictorial art: abstract, outsider, performance, field, installation, etc. The message or meaning of such works relates to an idea or set of ideas which artists present to viewers as a way of having the viewers share in their unique experience. Titles sometime assist the viewer in grasping the underlying theme but often such works seem obscure and indulgent. Often viewers are more appreciative when they are able to uncover or unravel the meaning of these works.

Technical- This dynamic is found in the visual impact artists achieve through their use of special methods, media or materials. Viewers can directly observe the skill and mastery displayed by artists when this dynamic predominates their works. Such effects as chiaroscuro and impasto, have become the hallmarks of the greatest artists and have enriched the works of all who have come after them.

-6- Principles
The importance of the dynamics in helping to determine the purpose and meaning of works of art is uppermost. Viewers are able to see into the deepest intentions of artists both aesthetically and personally. But, having uncovered that meaning and gained that understanding, viewers still have to complete their appreciation of the work by giving it their fullest interpretation and evaluation. Has the work raised an emotional response? Have the symbols sparked thought or imagination? Do the images make us laugh? Are we left in a somber mood? The terms we use to express the ideas, feelings, beliefs, values or pleasures we experience in response to a work may be considered to be the objectives or principles of that work. They help us to summarize what we understand the work to mean or what the work means to us.

Unity, clarity, energy, anxiety or serenity are examples of the terms we may use to further clarify and discuss our understanding. Such principles express both the culmination of our encounter with a work and the practical effects which a work can have on all viewers. Other terms can be shown as contrasting entities: spontaneity and diligence, apathy and passion, joy and sadness, stability and imbalance.

The purpose of this paper has been to improve the communication between viewers, artists and critics about works of art, through better understanding of the language or terms used to discuss them. It was particularly focused on providing guide lines for the understanding and interpretation of modern or contemporary works, whose meaning and value have seemed to elude the general public.

Three sets of traditional terms have been suggested for use in this interpretation. Definitions of the basic elements were given and were followed by explanations of the different kinds of dynamics artists use to accomplish their objectives. The final set of terms, the principles, were aimed at providing straightforward language in order that viewers may express their own reactions to the work and to give their response to its meaning.

Thus this categorization of terms is intended to involve art lovers and the general public in the ongoing analysis and discussion of works. To give them a further means of analysis, and thereby to enrich and enhance their understanding of the works. The accompanying definitions of elements, dynamics, and principles have given some substance to the discussion of contemporary art works, to the role played by artists in creating the work and to the ultimate meaning the work conveys to viewers.

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