Art Through Ages – The Words Art Historians Use Part 1

As in all fields of study, art history has its own specialized vocabulary consisting of hundreds of words, but certain basic terms are indispensable for describing artworks and buildings of any time and place. They make up the essential vocabulary of formal analysis, the visual analysis of artistic form. definitions and discussions of the most important art historical terms follow.

Form and Composition

Form refers to an object’s shape and structure, either in two dimensions (for example, a figure painted on a canvas) or in three dimensions (such as a statue carved from a marble block). Two forms may take the same shape but differ in their color, texture, and other qualities. Composition refers to how an artist organizes (composes) forms in an artwork, either by placing shapes on a flat surface
or by arranging forms in space.

Material and Technique

To create art forms, artists shape materials (pigment, clay, marble, gold, and many more) with tools (pens, brushes, chisels, and so forth). Each of the materials and tools available has its own potentialities and limitations. Part of all artists’ creative activity is to select the medium and instrument most suitable to the purpose—or to develop new media and tools, such as bronze and concrete in antiquity and cameras and computers in modern times. The processes artists employ, such as applying paint to canvas with a brush, and the distinctive, personal ways they handle materials constitute their technique. Form, material, and technique interrelate and are central to analyzing any work of art.

Line

albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1498.
Woodcut, 1′ 3 1–4 ″ × 11″. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(gift of Junius S. Morgan, 1919).

Among the most important elements defining an artwork’s shape or form is line. A line can be understood as the path of a point moving in space, an invisible line of sight. More commonly, however, artists and architects make a line visible by drawing (or chiseling) it on a plane, a flat surface. A line may be very thin, wirelike, and delicate. It may be thick and heavy. Or it may alternate quickly from broad to narrow, the strokes jagged or the outline broken. When a continuous line defines an object’s outer shape, art historians call it a contour line. All
of these line qualities are present in dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (fig.1). Contour lines define the basic shapes of clouds, human and animal limbs, and weapons. Within the forms, series of short broken lines create shadows and textures. An overall pattern of long parallel strokes suggests the dark sky on the frightening day when the world is about to end.