What’s the Deal With Evaluating Art? (part one)

So while I’ve been filling your heads with all sorts of wonderful knowledge about various art movements, you may have been wondering a few things about the whole process of discussing and evaluating art. Well Auntie Opifex is here to help.

The first thing you need in your toolbox of art appreciation is an understanding of the “alphabet” of art as it were. Much like I cannot understand a story written in Arabic because I cannot read the writing, you need to understand the “language” employed by artists if you want to understand their art. There are five (or so) basic elements of design, and they serve as the letters the artist uses to form the words of the ideas they wish to convey.


This is the most basic element of design. The hydrogen of our element table if you will. Take your mark making tool, press it to the surface you want to mark, move it around a bit, and you have a line. Lines can be curvy; they can be jagged. You can twist them around to form letters or the outline of shapes. Lines can also be sneaky implied things, where they only exist because your eye travels along a certain path in the artwork.

Two frame animated gif. 1) Line drawing of hand with finger pointing, captioned "This." 2) Same drawing, with arrow in same direction as finger is pointing, captioned "But also this"
There are the lines I used to draw the hand, but there is also the implied line created by the pointing finger.



Shape is another element that comes in a couple of forms. The shapes that are the subject of the image are positive space (note lines can also fall into positive space) and everything else is negative space. These two need to be balanced to form a good composition. Of course, it isn’t always an easy task. For one thing this is another case where our brain will perceive shapes where there aren’t. Thanks to the gestalt effect, our brain will form the negative space into a positive shape if enough clues are provided. Give us a bunch of dashed lines on a curved path that meets at both ends and we will perceive a circle. Where this can get really problematic is with multistablity, where we stop being able to tell which is the positive space and which is the negative space. Then our brain will pop back and forth between the two. Think the face/vase image. Form is what we call shape when it exists in more than two dimensions.

3 frame animated gif. 1) Solid circle, captioned "This is a circle." 2) Dotted line outlining a circle, captioned "So is this." 3) Solid square with a negative circle inside, captioned "Still totally a circle."
Lies your brain tells you


A little self evident on what this one is, but give me a minute to explain a little color theory. Value is what we use to describe how light or dark a color is. Saturation refers to how much pigment is present. You probably all got the color wheel explanation at some point. All the colors arranged in a neat little circle in the following order clockwise from the top: yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, and green. Artists use that color wheel to help sort colors into useful arrangements. The colors at exact opposite points on the wheel are complementary. They cause each other to stand out. Think how nice red and green look together in Christmas decorations. This comes with a caveat too though: not at full saturation. At full saturation, they give each other so much signal boost that the look like they are vibrating near the edges. Colors to which you can draw an equilateral triangle to connect also tend to look good together, as do colors that sit next to each other. Also, a plain grey that sits within a highly saturated color field tends to take on the color it’s next to.

2 frame animated gif. 1) Bright red and green abutting squares, captioned "This is obnoxious." 2) Very muted red and green abutting squares, captioned "This looks fairly pleasant."
This is what I mean by vibrate


Texture is the surface quality or implied surface quality of an artwork. This is pretty simple and straight forward. Is it soft/rough/bumpy? Does it have the illusion of being soft/rough/bumpy. Texture can go a long way to creating visual interest. One of the biggest problems I had with old computer animation is that everything looked like it was made of mold injected plastic, which got dull after a while.

Multiframe gif, with squiggly lines, or bumpy lines, or parallel curving lines
Like I said, this is a fairly easy one to understand


Like texture, mass can be real or implied. How big is it? How big does it appear to be? How much visual weight does it have? The critical thing is to always balance this, so your art doesn’t seem unnecessarily weighted in one spot or another.

4 frame animated gif. 1 & 2) Mass of scribbly lines, off center, caption pops up reading "Too heavy in the corner." 3 & 4) Scribbly mass centered in frame, caption pops up reading "Better."
you’ll notice the text actually balances the off kilter image as well.

So now that you have the ABCs, next week well talk about design principals, aka, the grammar of art.

For more on color, check out Hillary’s color-theory article from March. Super interesting stuff!

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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