About 5 years ago I was in a job interview for an elementary art position, and I told the art coordinator of the district that I hate the elements and principles of art. She was visibly shocked, and needless to say, I didn’t get that job.
My website this month has been taken over by my elements and principles series which is in direct conflict to that statement I made to that art coordinator years ago. Why the change? Well, there isn’t that much of a change from my original position. I do still hate the elements and principles of art, but I have tweaked my position on this over the years. Let me explain.
This series has been very popular on my site and is bringing in some great traffic. I knew it would be super useful to a lot of people, but I just got wind from a fabulous art teacher that my elements and principles posts are adding to a bit of controversy on an art teacher group on Facebook (side note: please add me, admin if you are reading this! I requested to join a long time ago, and it is still “pending.”). My response to her was, “I totally agree with them!”
This is a controversial subject with art teachers, so I hope you keep your opinions and comments respectful. You might disagree with me, and I’d love to hear your thoughts either way! 🙂
Why I Hate the Elements and Principles of Art
When you design a curriculum around the elements and principles, I believe you are doing the students a great disservice. Art is WAY MORE than just design. It’s about ideas and feelings and connections and creativity and all those wonderful things that we love. When you take all of that away and just teach zigzag lines, you are taking away all that art is and leaving nothing of value.
Another aspect that bugs me about the elements and principles is that they are a crutch. They are a way that art teachers can prove to math teachers that we too have “real content.” I hate nothing more than hearing an art teacher try to justify the importance of art teaching with an elements and principles argument. No, just no.
“Look! Art is real! You just don’t know! Line, Color, Rhythm! It’s a real thing! My subject is just as important as yours!”
Yes, elements and principles are real teachable content, but they are not why art is valuable. They are tools to make better compositions, but they are also tools to help make meaning. An artist doesn’t just choose to use contrast in order to make something look better. They choose to use contrast to make a statement, to make us think, to make us feel, etc.
Why I Love the Elements and Principles of Art
Well, love is a strong word. I don’t love them. I hate the elements and principles, yes, but I do still teach them. Here’s why.
Take The Starry Night–one of the most famous paintings ever (famous is another thing a hate, but that is a story for another day). It’s amazing and beautiful, and it makes us and our students feel something when we look at it.
But, why does it do those things? What choices did the artist make to us feel the way we do when we see this painting? That’s where the elements and principles come in. The artist used swirling, flowing lines and movement that capture the feeling in my heart when I am very emotional. He used proportion to make that cypress tree grab our eye and flame up and flow back into the sky so we keep looking. He used contrast to make the moon and stars pop out from the sky. Van Gogh used the elements and principles to convey how he felt, and it impacts us in powerful ways.
Our feelings when we look at art are not accidents. They are deliberate choices made by artists.
To me, the elements and principles are about visual literacy.
In our world, images bombard us daily and most of them are advertisements. People use the elements and principles to manipulate us daily, and kids need training in how to see those things. Teaching kids how to notice the choices people make when they make images helps them be more informed and aware of their surroundings.
Knowing the elements and principles also helps us better appreciate and connect with works of art.
The Elements and Principles as a Tool
I really dislike art curricula that divides a year into 6 units with each one focusing on one of the elements or principles. You study line, show some examples of line, and then you do an art project where you use line. Not for me.
But, design is a part of art too. Learning how to make choices in your art that better communicate your meaning is an important element. I do believe if you focus only on line, you could be stifling your student’s creativity, but you also can’t leave it out altogether. The elements and principles need to be taught as a tool that students use in their art just like they need be taught about the tools of paintbrushes, drawing implements, clay tools, etc.
How I Personally Teach the Elements and Principles
I primarily teach art history and art appreciation, so I may be in a different situation than you. I usually cover them all over the course of maybe 3-5 hours of lessons usually nearish to the beginning of the course/semester (depending on how long the classes are and stuff), and then hit them occasionally throughout other lessons (like covering perspective/pyramidal configuration with the Renaissance, diagonal line/value/contrast with Baroque, etc.). I also heavily include art criticism exercises in my lessons, so students are regularly picking apart artwork in my classes. Covering the elements and principles at the beginning gives students a basis for understanding and looking and trains them them to keep looking.
So, there you go. That’s my full opinion on the elements and principles. What do YOU think?
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