Building Blocks of Art


When looking to buy original art, rather than something less than extraordinary that you might find at Home Depot or even Walmart, or any department store, you are engaging in a good thing. It is a practice not unlike buying from a small business rather than a large franchise, or like buying local rather than national. But, like buying fresh produce, it’s best to know what you’re doing when you’re looking at art so you know what’s “good”, and lots of folks are not well educated in that area. So this is a first in a series of articles dealing with appreciating art in order to help buyers purchase the best art that is available and that appeals to each. In this article, we start with the seven tools that artists have at their disposal when they paint. How do they use these tools effectively? and How do I know what I’m looking at? These are questions that this article will begin to address by using works of art created by Arts, Artists, Artworks’ own artists.


The first, and likely most basic tool in an artist’s tool box is the use of line, but I must emphasize that “line” in this case, represents an extended mark that is essentially one dimensional, at least in its essence. An artist can paint a line the width of the brush being used, but such is not the type of line to which I refer. If you’ve ever drawn a stick man, then you have the right idea, but still, an artist who creates using line doesn’t really use that line in the same way that is used in “stick” art. The artist who uses line to create the image of a dog, for instance, does not really draw a dog with a line. Rather, he or she draws a border between what is the dog and what is not. The dog itself, once the two ends of the line meet, is inside the line. Everything outside of the line is what is not the dog. The artist hasn’t actually drawn a dog but has merely differentiated between what is and what is not the dog on the area of the canvas or page.

Take a moment to examine “Soulmate” by Stephanie Noblet Miranda. You can see that the two faces in the image are clearly brought out by the use of a line that marks the edge of the forehead, nose, mouth and chin of each face, but the line itself is not actually creating the face, but is distinguishing it from two areas of the canvas.

Soulmate by Stephanie Noblet Miranda
Soulmate by Stephanie Noblet Miranda

It’s not often that a line is used as some part of a painting all on its own without forming something else, but it does happen. By way of example, see (below) “Women in the Wind” by Anna Roberts. The only use of line that is its own image is the blowing grass (as one possible interpretation of those lines) near the bottom of the image. Sometimes small branches of trees or strands of hair might be lines. Brandon Scott’s “Catch Me if You Can” and “The Therapist” use lines to show individual hair strands, but this is not a frequent use of line.

Even more rare is the use of line as actual components of an image rather than to make an area distinct from anther, but Michael Volpicelli makes use of this technique quite often in his own work. He will use drawn words, which are, clearly, comprised of lines, to create entire portraits. See, for example, “Mattie Stepanek’s Portrait.” There is no part of that image that is not made of a line. Volpicelli also will use line in a “scribble” fashion to achieve the same effect as his portraits. His “Tiger” and “Elephant” serve as examples that Volpicelli calls “scribble drawings.” But his work is as much the exception as it is exceptional.


The word “shape” is used to describe the area inside a closed line, such as the dog drawing in the earlier example. But shape, on its own, is two-dimensional, giving a sense of height and width only. If you were to think of it in geometrical terms, “shape” refers to a square, triangle or circle, not a cube, pyramid or sphere.

Since its nature is so basic, it’s not often that you will see mere shape in a finished painting that is representational. You might see, perhaps, a circle making a Ferris wheel in the distance of a painting. More often than not, however, if you do see mere shapes in a painting, it is more likely going to be in a painting that is of a specialty genre of abstract art. Consider, for example, “Series of Colourful Circles” or the untitled other minimalist work of Astrid Stoppel. Or “Dazzling Venues” or the untitled painting of Milly Martionou’s abstract impressionist work. In these, circles—not spheres—play key roles.


“Form” is the three-dimensional completion of a shape. Where in shape you have a circle, in form you have a sphere; in shape you have a square, in form you have a cube. In shape you are given only height and width, but in form you are also offered length and depth. So “form” is closely related to “shape,” but with greater development and clarity to give the illusion of three-dimensional space.

A synonym for “form” is “positive space,” which I will discuss under the next heading; both terms refer to the same thing, but each term is used in a different context. “Form” is used to contrast with “shape,” specifically, whereas “positive space” is used for a different contrast.

To demonstrate form, however, I offer you “Angel” by Stephanie Noblet Miranda and Brandon Scott’s “Given to Fly.” In the Miranda piece, you can see the depth of the face she has painted. The subject’s right shoulder appears to be closer to the viewer than her face. You can sense the depth of her face around her nose and the modelling of the contours of her lips. It is clearly a representation of a three-dimensional being visible in the form.

Similarly, in “Given to fly,” it is clear that the dancer’s right arm is farther away from the viewer than her left arm. That the material making her tutu juts out in all directions, including toward the viewer. Scott has presented to us a three-dimensional form of a dancer.


Speaking generally, “space” refers to the areas that are made distinct by the use of line. Going back to our dog drawing from before, where you have the dog on your page you have once space, and where you have no dog is another space.

In more specific application, the term “negative space” is used to indicate any area that is not a subject of the painting—the background or the area between or around objects. The “forms” that I discussed before are also referred to as “positive space”—the subjects of the paintings are the positive spaces indicating the areas where the viewers are to focus their attention. The “positive space” is where the action of the painting is.

Dasmang’s spectacular expressionism makes illustrating this point marvellously clear. Consider “Euphoria,” a painting of musical director Bradley Thachuk, “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ but Soul,” a portrait of Esperanza Spalding, and “Kiss,” a tribute to the late musical artist, Prince. In each of these remarkable paintings, the positive space is the subject—the person. The negative space is the area surrounding the subject.

This is not to say that the negative space is less important than the positive space. Negative space is not “thrown away.” On the contrary, it is integral to the understanding of the painting as a whole. In the case of Dasmang’s work, the negative space is used to express (hence, “expressionism”) the mood or emotion of the subject.

Consider the spaces in the two works of Anna Roberts: In “Blue Skies,” Roberts uses the negative space to create ambiguity: are we in a room with tree wallpaper or are we outdoors at night seeing an eerie window floating mysteriously in the air. Or in “Let the Light In,” the open doorway is the subject, but it would make absolutely no sense without the negative space; it would be only a yellow rectangle in the middle of the canvas. Even the background of something as famous as da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” needs the context of its negative space, as mysterious as it is. Even if we can’t locate that particular geography anywhere in Europe, it still serves to put the subject in the area of a balcony with a view. The fact that the space is called “negative” only serves to indicate that a particular area of the canvas is not the subject of the painting, while it is distinctly an important part of the painting, even as the subject of a sentence is important, but says nearly nothing without the context of the rest of the sentence.


It seems odd to think of colour being a tool. After all, it’s pretty clear that you need colour because the sky needs to be blue; the sun, yellow; the grass, green; the house, white; and the cat, black. All true. But colour is so much more important than just this! It is with colour that a shape is turned to a form. It is with colour that we have light and shadow. It is with light that we have contour. It is through colour that we have much of our temporal setting for a painting, the mood of a painting, the tone of a painting. It is through colour that we have depth and texture and rhythm (both of which will be covered in the next two segments).

It only seems odd to think of colour as a tool, but that’s likely because it is one of art’s more important tools, because even if you have a work in grayscale, any colour will draw your eye to it. Consider Brandon Scott’s untitled image. It is mostly done in shades of black and grey, but not entirely, and where is your eye drawn to? To the colour, most likely—to the intense blue of the subject’s eyes or the red of her supple lips.

Untitled by Brandon Scott
Untitled by Brandon Scott

Regard Rachael Bingaman’s “Somewhere Ever After.” It is largely through her use of grays that we have depth in the painting, because the trees move away from us by use of lighter and lighter tones (with decreasing sizes, as well). Because of colour, we know that it is likely very early morning, because it gives us a sense of the dew in the air. It is through the use of colour that we can detect a source of light, however vague.

Again, consider Milly Martionou’s “Mykonos.” It is the title that indicates that we are looking at an island, evidently in the distance. It is through her use of colour, though, that we see the water in different waves. But it is also through her use of colour that we understand that we may not be looking across the surface of the water, but at a cross section of water because, while we are able to see the sky in the greater distance, and the island in front of that, the use of colour allows us to understand that we are also seeing the ocean floor because the bottom of the canvas is the same colour as the island; they are both “soil.” What we took as waves, then, becomes differing layers of the ocean: different currents, temperatures, habitats and so on. Alternatively, the soil at the bottom of the canvas can be a nearer shore on which we stand. The different water/wave colours representing light, action and distance.

While “line” may be the most simple and basic of the artist’s tools, colour is likely the most complex, not just for the reasons I’ve indicated, but also because, without colour, including the next two tools for art in general would be far more difficult.


Texture in art is the illusion that an object in a painting would have a certain tactile feel were we to touch it. Mind you, it’s never advisable for you to touch the paint of a work of art, but because of the way an artist has applied pigments to a canvas, your mind tells you how it might feel. It’s an illusion because, if you did break this cardinal rule and touch the paint, it would probably not feel the way your mind thought it would, and you’ll have damaged the painting and your perception of it from then on.

Dasmang - The Warm Up
Dasmang – The Warm Up

Consider the dancer’s sweater in Dasmang’s “The Warm-Up.” We may not know what materials were used in its creation, but we can tell visually how that sweater would feel. We might imagine feeling the knitted knots in the yarn and the looser spaces between them. We are enabled to feel the material, whether it’s cotton or nylon or whatever else. The application of colour has helped us imagine how our nerves would react to feeling it.

Similarly, in Rachel’s Bingaman’s “The Day in the Red” and “Eden’s Promise,” the application of colour helps viewers to feel the leaves of the respective trees. Perhaps not individual leaves, but the leafy part of the tree as a whole, most certainly. We can also feel the roundness of that leafy part, that the sides and top are farther from us, and that the middle is closer to us because of texture brought about by use of colour. There is even a texture of the grass that is distinct from the texture of the tree’s leaves. Texture is the visual side of the literary device called “imagery,” in which words are used to appeal to the reader’s five senses; in both cases, we are able to become part of what we are viewing or reading because our senses have been made aware.


Rhythm is not always listed among the tools of the artist, but since my favourite of many art teachers introduced it to me, I am always sure to include it. I must make it clear that there is a distinction between what a musician thinks of as rhythm, and what the pictorial artist thinks of as rhythm. In music, rhythm is the varying length of pitches played in contrast with the beat of the music, which stays relatively constant, so there is a great deal of variety in the musical understanding of rhythm. In art, rhythm refers to a regular pattern of colour or design and gives a painting a feeling of movement.

Dasmang - The Warm Up
Dasmang – The Warm Up

To illustrate, I could refer you again to Dasmang’s “The Warm-up.” The sweater that the dancer wears has a certain rhythm to it, in the elongated spaces that separate the knitted yarn. The pattern repeats with subtle variation down her torso, until it actually turns upside-down on itself. As a result, we are able to feel the weight of the sweater on the dancer’s person. The rhythm helps us to sense what it might feel like to wear it ourselves. In Dasmang’s “Changes” and “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” we are given distinct rhythm in the negative spaces of both images. In “Changes,” specifically, the rhythm of the negative space gives viewers the sense that the subject is moving ever forward and the background becomes a sort of conduit, retreating ever farther to the background.

Nowhere is rhythm better demonstrated, however, than in the watery works of Evie Zimmer. In her works of “Vibe,” “Shiira” and “The Exchange,” rhythm is made to be the key element. In the first two, she creates a sense of rhythm in the repeated suggestion of water (or sound) waves, giving viewers the feeling that they are spreading outward. And even the title, “Vibe” on its own suggests rhythm to a certain degree. In “The Exchange,” viewers are treated to a visual depiction of what sound waves or brain waves or even seismic waves might look like if they were to be printed. Zimmer has created a flow of pitch or frequency that repeats and mutates and encourages us to start again, as you would your first time on a particularly fun ride at an amusement park.


These are the tools in the tool box of an artist. He or she need not use them all, but they are at the artist’s disposal regardless. Being able to know them and identify them is among the first of many steps to knowing what to look for in art, to be able to discuss art intelligently and competently, and to begin to open doors of understanding so that you can enter into dialogues and be able to, not only understand, but to share insights and interpretations and, hopefully, years of satisfied enjoyment.

Like understanding the inner workings of the engine of a new car, or the quality and age of the furnace, windows, roof of a house you’re looking at buying, understanding the basic tools or components of art is an important first step in being able to know if the artist has produced quality work. If the artist—hopeful of a sale—begins discussing these tools in a painting in order to help you understand what he or she was trying to accomplish, knowing these tools will help you to understand the artist and will help you, on a fundamental level, be able to assess if the artist was successful. Knowing these tools may also, actually help you to understand and articulate why you like or dislike certain works of art.

Granted, there is much more to be known about appreciating art, but there is also much more that will be written and presented on the Art, Artists, Artworks web site in the coming months. That way, when you make your art purchase, you will trust that we have lead you to a work that you will enjoy and that will be a point of excitement and awe in your home or office.

About the Writer:

A. J. Mittendorf does not have a degree in pictorial art, but he does have equal credits—perhaps more—in art history, appreciation and interpretation, and he has continued to study art on his own since the end of his university days. He is a long-time educator, having taught high school and university courses in both Canada and the U. S. He is also a published poet with two books on the market, an actor, and a musician with symphony experience. The arts are his passion—all of them, and he longs to do his part to keep them in the forefront of our society.





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