Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practice
Ocvirk, Stinson, Wigg, Bone, Cayton
Twelfth Edition

Chapter 1
pp. 10-13


The Three Components of Art
  Subject, form, and content have always been the three basic components of a work of art, and they are wed in a way that is inseparable. In general, subject may be thought of as the "what" (the topic, focus, or image); form, as the "how" (the development of the work, composition, or the substantiation); and content, as the "why" (the artist's intention, communication, or meaning behind the work).  
The subject of visual art can be a person, an object, a theme, or an idea. Though there are many and varied ways of presenting the subject matter, it is only important to the degree that the artist is motivated by it.

Objective images, which represent people or objects, look as close as possible to their real-world counterparts and can be clearly identified. These types of images are also called representational.

Dennis Wojtkiewicz, Kiwi Series #1, 2005.
Oil on canvas, 36 x 66 in.
Marilyn Levine, Anne's Jacket, 1999.
Ceramic, 36 x 20 1/2 x 7 1/4 in.

Gus Heinze, Expresso Cafe, 2003. Acrylic on gessoed panel, 32 x 35 1/2 in.
Artists who explore the process of abstraction (simplification and rearrangement) create images that look less like the object on which they are based, although they may still be recognizable. Barbara Chase-Riboud, Bathers, 1973. Floor relief, cast aluminum and silk in sixteen pieces, 400 x 400 x 12 cm.


Piet Mondrian, The Grey Tree, 1911.
Oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 42 7/8 in.
Ismael Rodriguez Rueda, El Sueno de Erasmo (The Dream of Erasmus), 1995.
Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 47 1/2 in.

DeLoss McGraw’s “The Story of Eutychus,” mixed-media
  Marcel Duchamp, Nude Decending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912
Oil on canvas, 58 x 35 in.
Harold E. Edgerton, Baseball hit-fly ball, 1950s-1970s. Gelatin silver print  
In the most extreme type of abstraction, the subject does not refer to any physical object, and this nonrepresentational image is thus considered non-objective. Here, the subject may be difficult for the observer to identify, since it is based solely on the elements of art rather than real-life people or objects. This type of subject often refers to the artist's idea about energy and movement, which guides the use of raw materials, and it communicates with those who can read the language of form.

Piet Mondrian, Composition, 1916. Oil on canvas and wood strip, 47 1/4 x 29 1/2 in.
Music, like visual art, deals with subjects and provides an interesting comparison. Unless there are lyrics, it is often hard to identify a specific subject in a piece of music. Sometimes, the subject is recognizable - the thunderstorms and birdsongs in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony or the taxi horns in Gershwin's An American in Paris. Other times, however, the subject is more abstract, and it is an emotion or idea that comes across strongly in the music. Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man is a good example of this: he does not try to describe the subject literally but creates a nobel, accessible, and uplifting musical theme that honors the plight of the common man. In a similar way, nonobjective art seeks to present a more general theme or idea as the subject.
Mark Rothko, Number 10, 1950.
Oil on canvas, 7 ft. 6 3/8 in. x 4 ft. 9 1/8 in.
Regardless of the type of art, the most important consideration is what is done with the subject. After you recognize the subject in a work (whether it is obvious or not), ask yourself whether the artist has given it expression. Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950.
Oil on canvas, 8 ft. 9 in. x 17 ft. 3 in.
Charles Sheeler, Golden Gate, 1955.
Oil on canvas, 25 1/8 in. x 34 7/8 in.
  As a component of art, the word form refers to the total overall arrangement or organization of an artwork. It results from using the elements of art, giving them order and meaning through the principles of organization. When studying a work's form, we are analyzing how the piece was created. More specifically, we are examing why the artist made certain choices and how those choices interact to form the artwork's final appearance. In this sense, the word form may actually be thought of as a verb rather than a noun.

The elements of art, which include line, texture, color, shape, and value, are the most basic, indispensable, and immediate building blocks for expression. Their characteristics, determined by the artist's choice of media and techniques, can communicate a wide range of complex feelings. All artists must deal with the elements singularly or in combination, and their organization contributes to the aesthetic success or failure of a work.

Based on the intended expression, each artist can arrange the elements in any manner that builds the desired character into the piece. However, the elements are given order and meaningful structure when arranged according to the principles of organization, which help integrate and organize the elements. These principles include harmony, variety, balance, proportion, dominance, movement, and economy. They help create spatial relationships and effectively convey the artist's intent. The principles of organization are flexible, not dogmatic, and can be combined and applied in numerous ways. Some artist arrange intuitively, and others are more calculating, but with experience, all of them develop an instinctive feeling for organizing their work. So important are these concepts of elements and principles that they are studied separately.
  The emotional or intellectual message of a work of art is its content - a statement, expression, or mood developed by the artist and interpreted by the observer. Of the three components of art, content may be the most difficult to identify, because the audience, without direct communication with the artist, must decipher the artist's thoughts by observing the work's subject and form. For example, in Young Girl in the Lap of Death, the striking emphasis of the left-to-right diagonals, the sharp contrasts of light and dark values, and the aggressive and powerful drawing strokes give us some insight into Kathe Kollwitz's concern for life, though we may not understand the depth of her passion.

Kathe Kollwitz, Young Girl in the Lap of Death, 1934.
Crayon lithograph, 42 x 38 cm.


Ideally, the viewer's interpretation is synchronized with the artist's intentions. However, the viewer's diversity of experiences can affect the communication between artist and viewer. For many people, content is determined by their familiarity with the subject; they are confined to feelings aroused by objects or ideas they know. A much broader and ultimately more meaningful content is not utterly reliant on the image but is reinforced by the form. This is especially so in more abstract works, in which the viewer may not recognize the image as a known object and must, thefore, interpret meaning from shapes and other elements. Images that are hardly recognizable, if representational at all, can still deliver content if the observer knows how to interpert form.

Occasionally, artists may be unaware of what motivates them to make certain choices of image or form. For them, the content of the piece may be subconscious instead of deliberate. For example, an artist who has had a violent confrontation with a neighbor might subconciously need to express anger (content) and is thus compelled to work wit sharp jagged shapes, bitter acrid reds, slashing agitated marks (form), and exploding images (subject).

Sometimes the meaning of nonobjective shapes becomes clear in the artist's mind only after they evolve and mutate on the canvas.

Although it is not a requirement for enjoying artwork, a little research about the artist's life, time period, or culture can help expand viewpoints and lead to a fuller interpretation of content. For example, a deeeper comprehension of Vincent van Gogh's specific and personal use of color may be gained by reading Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo. His letters expressed an evolving belief that color conveyed specific feelings and attitudes and was more that a mere optical experience. He felt that his use of color could emit power like Wagner's music. The letters also revealed a developing personal color iconography, in which red and green symbolized the terrible sinful passions of humanity; black contour lines provided a sense of anguish; cobalt blue signified the vault of heaven, and yellow symbolized love. For Van Gogh, color was not strictly a tool for visual imitation but an instrument to transmit his personal emotions. Color symbolism may not have been used in all his paintings, but an understanding of his intent helps explain some of his choices and the power in his work.

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888. Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 35 in.