Basic Art History Terms


Art history studies and explores visual arts. Visual arts include drawing, metalwork, painting, sculpture, photography, architecture and more.

To study art, you need to understand the basic terms that art historians use to classify and describe the objects of art. You will encounter these terms on a regular basis when talking or reading about art.

The form describes the visual aspects of the arts. The form includes properties of line, shape, texture, composition, color, light, volume, mass and space. These properties are also known as formal elements.

The line is an element that has a much greater length compared to its width. Because of this, the human eye disregards the width of a line and only perceives the length. Lines can be both actual and implied. For example, an artist may create a work looking at which the eyes of the viewers will follow a path even though there’s no actual line there.

The shape is different from a line in that shape is two-dimensional. It is defined by the borders of an outline or a contour. There are different kinds of shapes, including geometric, biomorphic, open or closed.

Color has the attributes of saturation, hue, and value. Hue is what most people think about when they think about a certain color. Our eyes perceive hue because of the differences in wavelengths of electromagnetic energy.

Electromagnetic energy has a visible spectrum and an invisible spectrum. The visible spectrum is included in a rainbow. Red, yellow and blue are the primary hues because all the other colors can be created as a combination of these three hues.

The value of color describes the degree of its lightness. It is based on the amount of light that a surface of a certain hue reflects. For example, a dark blue has a deeper value compared to a light blue. Some art paintings are made only with ink of a certain hue. Such paintings are possible because of different color values while hue and saturation stay the same.

Saturation is also known as intensity. It describes how dull or bright a color is. A bright color looks very vivid, while a dull color looks muddy.

Texture is the quality of surface that is perceived by touch. Here are some of the descriptions of textures: smooth, polished, rough, grainy. Just like a line, texture can be actual or implied.

Space contains forms. Space can be three-dimensional, two-dimensional or fictional. Architectural and sculptural objects of art exist in three-dimensional space. Some paintings create an illusion by representing three-dimensional objects in two dimensions.

Mass and volume are properties of physical items that exist in a three-dimensional space.

Composition is how forms are arranged in a work of art. It may include shapes and colors repeating themselves or interacting with each other. The possibilities for composition in a work of art are nearly endless.