Welcome fellow artists! Thank you for sharing part of your day with me to talk about art fundamentals 😊.
Since you’re here it means you are looking for answers regarding the fundamentals of art and other art concepts like painting, color, composition, anatomy, value, and many others I’m sure. When we start our art journey, we have tons of questions about art and its elements. I’m happy to share everything I have learned as an artist because I remember the struggle of becoming.
There are almost always pre-established paths, curriculum, video courses, books, and other avenues for getting whatever knowledge we seek. These avenues lay out what the essential or fundamental parts are for any discipline and stress the importance of learning those fundamentals to achieve success—and for good reason, as our work and understanding tend to fall flat without them. Everything there is to learn has fundamentals intended to serve as our foundation.
A foundation is our primary source of essential knowledge and skills, and once completely established it supports us as we grow from it and built on it. Have you ever heard the phrase “We stand on the shoulders of giants”? The artists that came before us, from masters to hobbyists, have already laid the groundwork for us. We don’t need to reinvent anything, all we must do is learn the basics, each art concept, and do the work to make our art.
Yes, it is a process. Yes, it does take years. That’s okay! It’s worth it, and so is your art dream.
What are the Fundamentals of Art?
Search for “art fundamentals” or “what are the fundamentals of art?” online and you quickly get a cornucopia of mish-mashed information about art and design.
There is a difference between a fundamental, a principle, and an element. A fundamental is something you start with and then build on. A principal is similar to a fundamental, but it can also be a set or list of things that make up one encompassing fundamental. I think about it this way: if there are multiple principles, then whatever heading they’re all listed under is the actual fundamental.
Take the Principles of Design, for example. There are at least seven of those, but Design is the fundamental. Make sense? An element is literally a component, one part, of a whole. All fundamentals have elements, but no single element is a fundamental on its own.
Why Learn the Fundamentals of Art?
Because you want to draw and paint awesome stuff without tearing out your hair, that’s why.
Making quality art requires us to understand all the fundamentals of art as well as their elements, including painting, color theory, composition, color mixing, anatomy, perspective, design, etc. Understanding each of the fundamentals, each concept, in depth is a process and an investment in ourselves as artists. You have goals as an artist that you dream of meeting, and your journey is about equipping yourself to get where you want to be and rocking it when you arrive. So let’s gear up by going over this list.
My Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners
To be completely honest and transparent, this list represents the top 5 art fundamentals according to me. Others may disagree, but I have been working at this long enough—and I have classically trained enough—to present this list with confidence. The order I list them in is based off years of study, practice, and wall smacking.
- Structure (Construction)
- Proportion (Illusion of Mass and Dimension)
- The Fundamentals of Light (Tones/Values, includes basic Color Theory & Mixing)
- Drawing from Life
- Gesture Drawing & Anatomy
My key reasoning for the order of this art fundamentals list is quite simple: Historically and to this day, most times when I hit a wall it’s in one or more of these five areas that I find the solutions I need. Had I built a stronger background in these earlier on, I would’ve hit fewer snags. The strength of our foundation plays an important role in how we navigate our way through any challenge, and no matter how experienced we become, problem solving and corrections will always be part of our creation process.
It’s good to get different perspectives on things, so here’s the awesome Bobby Chiu on what the fundamentals of art are:
With all that in mind, let’s start digging into these top five fundamentals and help you on your way.
When we talk about Form in art, we’re referring to an object’s overall shape, volume, and contours which include line, depth, and mass. Seeing and constructing Forms are the first and most vital skills we must develop as artists. Practicing the analysis, understanding, and building of Forms creates a strong foundation for developing and growing all other fundamental art skills. Line, shape, structure, and proportion are essential building blocks for anything you draw or paint.
The process of practicing each of these skills builds our visual library and the muscle memory needed to allow us to create whatever artwork we want. As artists we are in the business of communicating feelings, thoughts, impressions, messages, and stories, so let’s look at how developing our skill with Forms helps us.
Benefits of developing skill with Forms
1. We Learn to See
Practicing seeing and creating Forms helps us become familiar with the physical make-up of all the things that surround us and how all their parts come together to shape part of our experience.
2. We Learn to Analyze, Explore, and Take Risks
We begin to see connections, relationships, repetition, and similarities between and across forms and objects. This readies us to look more closely at each subject and better understand the fundamentals beyond the basics.
When you feel ready for more on Forms, I take a deeper dive into the topic in my Understanding Form post.
2. The Fundamentals of Light: A Few Words on a Massive Topic
The study and practice of The Fundamentals of Light allows us to create Tones/Values in our work. Where Forms add the illusion of volume and dimension, light and shadow give objects a sense of mass, help further clarify surface texture and plane changes, explain the objects’ local tone and color, indicate mood, and show objects’ context within the picture plane.
Studying Light teaches us how it interacts with everything in the real world and helps us reproduce an illusion of its effects in two-dimensions. This practice helps us illustrate the properties, mood, and the character of the objects and people we draw and paint. With these two art fundamentals in our toolbox, we can create the illusion of any type of material, choose any level of detail, and guide the story to wherever it needs to be.
The process of practicing with light and shadow in art begins to bring us into other areas, such as color theory, color mixing, color key, light key, and painting. During this learning process, I recommend you to try to keep color simple. While color theory is relatively simple, a deft use of color takes years of practice and there are several elements involved when dealing with it. I also recommend using digital painting tools in addition to traditional painting to help with the study of color.
Digital tools are much more forgiving and are great for practicing and experimenting with value and color. My favorite thing about playing with color and value in a digital painting app, like ProCreate or Photoshop, is that they allow you to learn all the elements of color without having to mix color.
Mixing is its own thing–not a big thing, but still. Painting traditionally involves understanding the characteristics of each product (whether those are painting colors or mediums) and paint colors can vary wildly within a single color range and from brand to brand. Since traditional color mixing is so involved, it is best practiced separately from these five fundamentals.
Practicing each of these art fundamentals requires us to also practice Drawing from Life, which is the next area of fundamental practice I recommend for beginning artists.
3. Drawing from Life: Growing Your Skills & Visual Library
Every time we make art from life, we are doing something very important for our art and for ourselves as artists. We are taking into ourselves the life around us and engaging with it. Sketching and Drawing from Life are how we have a dialogue with the object we are re-creating. The relationship we have with the world through this process develops and maintains our visual libraries.
To begin, I suggest starting small and simple.
Think of the different types of shapes and find objects from your daily life, and from nature, that include many of those shapes. Then, draw them a lot. Start with the basic shapes you see—i.e., circles, squares, triangles, etc.—to practice seeing the elements that come together to construct the forms, such as cylinders, spheres, cubes, boxes, pyramids, cones. Leave out details like the surface designs, textures, and colors for now, focusing only on the forms, local tone, and basic light and shadows.
Draw the objects from different viewpoints, at different times of day, in different positions, under different lighting conditions, on their own, and grouped with other objects. Some printer paper or a simple sketchbook and pencil are really all you need to get started.
Once you feel comfortable with the simple forms, take yourself to the next level of form complexity and alternate between organic and inorganic forms to help to keep things varied, fun, and to keep expanding your visual library. As you become comfortable with more and more complex forms, you will find yourself ready to begin tackling the most challenging ones: Humans and animals.
4. Gesture Drawing & Anatomy: Massively Challenging, Awesomely Rewarding
For an artist, gesture drawing is essential for infusing a sense of motion, energy, and life into our artwork. As artists, we want to share art that feels alive, and gesture drawing and anatomy help achieve that. Gesture helps us add to the observation skills we build when creating from life by teaching us to see, accentuate, and exaggerate the motion in the poses of our subjects.
Every subject has gesture and motion; they are not exclusive only to humans and animals. Even when an object is static, like the trunk of a tree, it still has a gesture—it just doesn’t convey motion because it is not moving. Gesture is an area of study unto itself because creating the illusion of dynamic motion has its own set of terminology and guiding principles.
However, as with the other art fundamentals, gesture drawing builds on the other skills that were listed before it. Just as we construct our objects from lines and shapes, so too do we build our gestures. In a traditional gesture class (usually called Figure Drawing), we learn to identify the line of action for each pose and then build the forms around it. This also involves much practice in seeing, and accurately placing, the angles, proportions and distances between shapes and forms.
It is another form of drawing from life, with the specific life form being a human model.
Figure Drawing for Gesture Practice
At first, working with the figure feels quite daunting and challenging (and hilarious cuz there’s a naked stranger in front of you). I put it this far down on my list because it is a much more demanding skill. Even so, when you feel ready, I strongly encourage you begin adding gesture/figure drawing to your practice routine. It’s as fun as it is challenging, and it will help your hand and eye mature.
When I first started waaaay, back in 2001—OMG I’m totally aging myself—I was like all the rest of my first-time figure drawing artist classmates: giggly and terrible at drawing naked humans. I had no idea what I was doing, and that was fine. At first it’s quite humbling, but with a good instructor (Thank you, Professor Tacang!) I improved. If I can do it, so can you—with all the art fundamentals.
Remember, this is your journey so make it work for you and your art. I am here to act as a helpful guide and faithfully pass on what I learn.
The last skill in this first round of art fundamentals is one that helps pull everything together and adds an extra kick of believability to our creations.
5. Perspective: Exciting and Technical…mostly.
The first four art fundamentals are all about building the solid drawing foundation we need to support us as we work to communicate through our art. Perspective is another powerful tool for our visual storytelling, and it is a bit different from the others. Whereas the other areas of fundamental study are focused on constructing, lighting and enlivening objects, Perspective focuses on the space the objects occupy.
It deals with how the orientation of each object changes depending on its position within that space, and where our point of view is set (POV). Perspective allows us to understand the spaces our objects and stories occupy, and to examine each from different points of view.
Access to any point of view in the story is the gift we gain by developing our skills with Perspective, and the impact of a story can change dramatically depending on the viewpoint from which it is told.
As with the other fundamentals of art, Perspective is an area of study unto itself and has its own set of terminology, rules, and ways of practicing. It is certainly one of the more technical areas of study in art.
Creating objects in perspective is a more guided way of working that calls for a lot of lines and points: horizon line, vanishing points, and construction lines. I think it can be exciting when it helps an idea come to life—but it can also feel dry and ass numbingly dull (or painfully frustrating) depending on where you are with it. Perspective is important to learn, important to understand, and, unfortunately, is also a skill many artists avoid early on. I know I did.
It made my head hurt, so I said “no, thank you”…to the detriment of my artwork. Eventually, I sucked it up and learned better (plus it really, really helps with composition!).
So…What About the Other Art Fundamentals?
Believe me, there is no rush and the five we’ve just gone over will do the vital work of helping you build the foundation all your work rests on. The other art fundamentals: Color & Light, Principles of Design, Composition, and Line & Brushwork…they’re not going anywhere, and I’ll be here to help you make sense of them.
Thank you for hanging in there with me! I hope you have found this article helpful. If you have any questions, feedback, or if I have confused you at all, please let me know in the comments so I can help.