The Element of Texture

Texture is the tactile sense we get from the surface of a shape or volume. Texture comes in two forms:

  • Actual: the real surface qualities we perceive by running a hand over an object
  • Visual: an implied sense of texture created by the artist through the manipulation of their materials

An artwork can include many different visual textures and still feel smooth to the touch. Robert Rauschenberg's mixed media print Skyway includes rough and smooth visual textures that add layers of perception and animate the work, drawing attention to specific areas within it. A self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh below swirls with actual textures created with brushstrokes loaded with paint. The artist fixes his gaze sternly at the viewer, his spiky red beard and flowing hair rendered so texturally you want to reach out and touch them.

Self Portrait, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Self Portrait, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Photographs can hold lots of examples of visual texture. A grainy film exposure adds to this effect. Louis Daguerre's early photograph of his studio below shows many objects with textures jumbled across the smooth photographic paper. These, along with the strong contrast in dark and light tones, enrich the photograph with a sense of drama not necessarily inherent to the objects themselves.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Still Life in the Artist's Studio, 1837

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Still Life in the Artist's Studio, 1837

Three-dimensional artworks make generous use of actual textures. The face mask from the Ivory Coast of Africa incorporates textures from materials ranging from wood, horns, fibers, cloth, metal and feathers. The complexity of the composition is directly related to the many textures found in the mask. For instance, the relative smoothness of the dark ovoid shape of the face focuses our attention even though it competes with the surrounding ornaments, textures and forms. The masks honor deceased elders of the Senufo tribe from the Ivory Coast.

We have now covered the essential artistic elements. Each one has its own characteristics and limitations. Used together they add variety and complexity, becoming the building blocks in creating works of art. We'll rely on them to describe different kinds of artworks in the learning activities for this module. This will give you the practice and experience you'll need to use description as an objective way to discuss the art you experience.


Source: Chris Gildow, Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2019, 3:10 PM