ARTH101 Study Guide

Unit 4: How Art Works – The Elements and Principles of Visual Language

4a. Define and describe artistic elements and principles of design

  • What is the difference between an artistic element and principle of design?
  • What artistic elements can be combined to produce other elements?
  • Which principles of design can be found across many kinds of media?

When we consider art's formal aspect (materials, the methods used to work them, and their perceptual effects), we make a general distinction between basic units (called elements), and the various principles for combining elements. Elements proceed from simple to complex: from point, to line, to planar shape, to mass, to figure/ground distinctions, and so on.

In a given work of art, these fundamental formal units relate to one another on a second, higher level. They are arranged according to principles of design, such as balance, repetition, emphasis, unity, variety, and so on. The key point to understand is that there is a fundamental conceptual distinction between simpler formal elements themselves, and the general rules or patterns of how they are combined, which are called the principles of design.


This sculpture's aesthetic effect depends on the use of the elements of Mass, Space and Texture, and the principles of Balance, Repetition and Proportion.

To review, read subunits 4.1 and 4.2.

4b. Compare and contrast artworks from different cultures using the language of art

  • What aspects of art can be compared across cultural contexts?
  • What are the ways that culture might influence art's creation and experience?
  • Why does criticism compare art across cultures?

Comparative analysis of art carefully looks for similarities and differences in similar art forms across different cultures. For example, you might compare the art on temples in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, or between Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. Any cultural artefact that can be found in a variety of cultural contexts can be analyzed for their similarities and differences, such as textile patterns, paintings, sculptures, or films.

At a straightforward level, you can make verifiable statements about formal qualities (materials and methods used or their perceptual effects). You might then move beyond this and seek patterns, such as what might occur when one culture 'influences' another though trade or migration. You might even claim to find common 'archetypes' in image and narrative artefacts from a wide diversity of cultural sources. In any comparison and contrast, it is important to remain grounded in evidence and not leap to conclusions that may be affected by your own personal or cultural biases.

To review, read subunit 4.3.

Unit 4 Vocabulary

Be sure you understand these terms as you study for the final exam. Try to think of the reason why each term is included.

  • elements 
  • point
  • line
  • planar shape
  • mass
  • figure/ground
  • principles of design 
  • balance
  • repetition
  • emphasis
  • unity
  • variety
  • cultural artefact