Introduction: A Toolkit for Looking
A muscular man stands stiffly on an elegantly-curved boat, a long staff in his left hand. Around him, much smaller figures, some of them holding harpoons, crouch and lunge, driving their boats forward and aiming their weapons. In the background a series of repeating vertical lines suggests that they are traveling through a marsh of towering papyrus stems, and below their boats, the water teems with fish, hippopotamus, and crocodile.
This scene is known as “Ti Watching a Hippopotamus Hunt,” and adorns one wall of the tomb of an Egyptian official named Ti. Even without that title to give context, though, and without any knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture, there are certain elements of this scene that are immediately recognizable. This artwork is representational, meaning that it reflects things that exist in the real world, and so its content, or what it is about, is that recognizable story: the men hunting, their boats, the bountiful environment. This chapter is about giving you the tools and vocabulary to carefully look at, and describe, any image you see, representational or not, and without any other background or context. This applies not just to famous artworks and artifacts, but to imagery and visual culture in the world around you every day.
Formal Elements & Principles of Composition
Formal elements are things that can be recognized without other context or knowledge about the image; formal elements are separate from content, subject matter, or story. These include the visual elements discussed individually later in this chapter, such as line, shape, color, and texture. They also include the way those elements come together as a whole, or an artwork’s composition—things like balance, movement, and scale. Artists can use these elements to communicate or reinforce a certain mood, meaning, or message.
Turning back to “Ti Watching a Hippopotamus Hunt,” there is plenty to notice separate from the content of the hunting scene. First, this is not a flat painting, but stands out slightly from the stone; it is a shallow relief carving, which means the image does not project out very far and does not detach from the background. It has been painted: colored using pigments in a liquid binder. Because the image included here is a photograph of the three-dimensional original object, it is the shadows cast by the artificial light that reveal its depth. The light also highlights the actual texture of the limestone surface: the pits and rough edges one would feel by touching it. This artwork contains not just actual texture, but simulated texture: lines in Ti’s wig suggest individual strands of hair, which is distinct from the smoother surface of his skin or shendjet (traditional kilt-like skirt). Line is visible elsewhere, as well: in addition to the vertical lines of the background and zigzag water pattern, contour lines define the edges of every figure here, from the men and animals to the boats and weapons. There are even implied lines, which are not carved or painted, but which a viewer can still recognize, such as between the harpooners’ eyes and their prey below the surface. Color is another easily-identifiable visual element—notably here, the rich reddish brown of the figures’ skin.
This color is not necessarily naturalistic, or true to optical reality (what the eyes see), but instead represents a convention, or system of representation, of Egyptian art in which color indicates a figure’s gender. This is clear in the slightly later Egyptian statues of Rahotep and Nofret, in which her skin is ivory while his is a darker ochre. Coloration is just one way in which figures might be stylized, or conform to particular conventions rather than recording a strict observation of the natural world. Ti is much larger than the less-important figures around him, a convention known as hierarchical or hieratic scale. He is also shown in twisted perspective, with his head, arms, and legs in profile, while his shoulders, torso, and eye are seen head-on. Finally, his image, like those of Rahotep and Nofret, has been idealized, conforming to Egyptian standards of beauty for that time. Regardless of the subjects’ actual ages or looks, their depictions here are youthful and physically fit, with regular, symmetrical features.
Individual visual elements are important, but so is the way they are organized, or the artwork’s composition. Ti, as noted earlier, is much larger than the men around him, drawing the attention, or emphasis, to him. This also brings balance to the scene, as his larger figure feels similar in visual weight to the several smaller figures across from him. Ti’s rigid, almost frozen posture contrasts with the energetic movement of his servants, whose nudity, in addition to their size and relative naturalism, indicate that they are nowhere near as important as Ti himself.
Historiography (Writing History)
Chapters 1 and 2 introduced the concept of historiography, and the importance of taking into account how history is written and who is writing it. Subsequent chapters will continue introducing concepts, events, and developments that shape our understanding of the objects presented and the history surrounding them.
This chapter concentrates not on a particular region or time period, as following chapters will, but instead on the language of description. Formal elements are just one way of writing about art—and frequently simply a starting point. Careful looking is the basis of recognizing the medium, historical period, and even date of an artwork. It is also essential to iconography, or the study of the meanings of particular elements, or symbols, in an artwork. (In Egypt, the hippopotami being hunted on the wall of Ti’s tomb aren’t just a source of food, for example, but are associated with forces of chaos, and may represent the god Seth.) As you learn more about a particular region, culture, and the way its history has been written, you will add layers of understanding to the skills of description that are our focus here.
This chapter focuses on vocabulary you can use to describe images, even if you do not have additional information about them. It gives you a toolkit of terms that will enable you not only to look closely at artworks, but also to understand and describe what you see. It begins with a discussion of the visual elements: line, shape and form, color, space, surface and depth, texture, and light and shadow. It concludes with the principles of composition: balance, symmetry, and emphasis; movement; proportion and scale; pattern, repetition and rhythm, variety and unity.
By the time you finish reading this chapter on the visual elements and principles of composition, you should be able to:
- Name and identify different kinds of line in artwork
- Identify and discuss the effects of light, color, texture, and pattern in a work of art
- Use the art-historical terms shape, mass, and ground when discussing art
- Identify various techniques artists used to represent three-dimensional space in two-dimensional art
- Recognize and describe texture and pattern
- Identify basic principles of design: unity and variety, balance, emphasis and subordination, scale and proportion, and rhythm
- Identify principles of design at work in specific visual imagery
- Experiment with your art historical toolkit and vocabulary by observing and describing works of art
Want to know more?
Here are some optional resources you can explore to further your understanding of the concepts discussed in this chapter.
- Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker, “How to do Visual (Formal) Analysis”
- The Getty Museum, “Elements of Art”
- The Toledo Museum “The Art of Seeing Art”
- Dr. Asa Simon Mittman, "Power: Comparisons and Connections"
- Dr. Cerise Myers, “Describing Art, Part I” [video]
- Dr. Cerise Myers, “Describing Art, Part II” [video]