Experienced artists will continually harp on the importance of the art fundamentals. “Learn the fundamentals!” they say.
But ask them to list what the fundamentals are, and many will have a different list. Many wont even be sure what they all are, naming some of the easier ones but quickly getting lost in trying to recall. I know I struggled to define all of the fundamentals while writing this!
But those artists do have it correct; throughout your art journey, no matter what medium or style you favour, you’ll continually rely on the fundamentals of art to help you create strong artwork. Studying them regularly can only help you.
What Are Art Fundamentals?
The art fundamentals are the basic visual principles and components of art; they are the "rules" artists generally abide by when making their artwork. Each rule or component will contribute to the overall visual impact of your artwork.
While I have tried to seperate them into a discrete and concrete list, in truth they all overlap and influence each other. Some are so linked that you can’t have one without the other.
Why Learn the Fundamentals of Art
Understanding the basics of all the fundamentals will give you a good foundation from which to create and analyse art. Developing your knowledge of them further will help improve your work.
If you have aspirations of becoming a professional artist, then working on your knowledge of the art fundamentals will be necessary to get hired.
More so if you plan on working in the entertainment industry as a freelance artist, a concept artist, a 3D artist, an animator etc, as those are extremely competitive fields and Art Directors know a weakness in a fundamental when they see it!
Now, you don’t need to become a master in all of the fundamentals, just good enough in all of them and strong in a chosen few.
For example, I am primarily a character artist, so while I understand perspective, I usually use very simple perspectives in my work. Instead I have spent more time improving my use of anatomy, form, lighting and composition, since my work relies on those fundamentals more.
I’m also a painter, so my brushwork is much stronger than my line work.
Another artist who mostly makes line drawings of mechs in city environments is going to have much stronger knowledge of linework and perspective than me, but probably weaker anatomy and color knowledge.
Don’t use this as a reason not to practise ones you don’t like though! Incorrect perspective will still ruin my character paintings, and unconvincing anatomy will still ruin a mech drawing!
The 6 Fundamentals of Art (and 4 extra)
These are what I would consider the fundamentals of art.
- Form and Structure
- Lighting and Shadow
- Extras: Shapes/Space, Lines, Brushwork, and Texture
All real world objects are built of three-dimensional forms, not 2D shapes. Cubes, not squares; cylinders, not circles.
Forms in art are the same. They are illusions of three dimensions on the 2D plane of the canvas, to help lend realism to your art; the accurate drawing of cubes, cylinder, cones, spheres etc.
Most forms are made up of many shapes that we call ‘planes’. For example, the cube is made up of 6 square planes.
All objects can be broken down into simplified geometric forms, helping you to understand their basic structure.
Learning to draw geometric forms from different angles and perspectives is helpful for drawing well from observation, and absolutely key to drawing from imagination.
When creating an illustration from imagination, artists will often sketch in simple forms first, spheres and cylinders, to establish the structure, and once they are happy refine them with further details, using the simple forms as a foundation.
Form overlaps with the other fundamentals of value and lighting, as well as perspective. It also informs anatomy.
Anatomy is the study of the structure the human body works, its proportions and joints, etc.
Anatomy includes learning the structure and joints of the skeleton, the placement and insertions of the muscles, placement and expressions of the facial features, surface details on the skin etc.
Learning anatomy is essential for drawing convincing people, animals, armour, or even those aforementioned mechs, and if you have aspirations of working professionally with character art in the entertainment industry, will be a necessity.
The study of anatomy is a fundamental that is very connected to the study of form.
Key to learning anatomy is to first look at anatomy. Figure drawing is the best way I know to observe and properly analyze anatomy.
Here are some more ideas to help you in your anatomy journey:
Keep a sketchbook and pencil on you all the time, and draw the people around you when you have the chance. It’s a free way to really solidify your anatomy knowledge, and general drawing confidence.
To help draw figures from your head, learn a simplified version of the human body, that we call ‘the mannequin.’ There are many different versions of this out there; I personally learnt from the Andrew Loomis and George Bridgman books on how to simplify the human form into mannequins.
Lastly, gesture drawing will make you learn how to communicate the human figure very efficiently, and getting good at it will improve the foundation of all of your figures massively. It is essentially drawing a pose with a very short time limit, from 10 seconds up to 5 minutes. You are trying to ignore details, proportions and accuracy, in an effort to capture the feeling of the pose quickly.
Anatomy is a huge fundamental, and in order to learn it completely it’ll also wrap up all of the other fundamentals into it. There are many methods to improve your anatomy knowledge, and in order to have a well-rounded understanding, you’ll have to engage in all of them. This is a fundamental to slowly learn over decades, not to try to master in a weekend.
Artists use perspective to give two-dimensional images the illusion of being three dimensional.
Using concepts like the horizon line and vanishing points you can create the illusion of distance and space, with closer objects appearing larger than those that are further and recede into the distance.
Perspective can seem complicated at first, but once grasped the principles are simple and easy to remember, and will give all of your work a much deeper sense of realism compared to an artist that doesn’t understand perspective.
The perspective of a scene changes according to the viewer’s eye line. We call this eye line the ‘horizon line’. In a typical scene, the viewer’s eye and the horizon line are both at roughly the same level as the subject of the scene.
When the viewer is looking down on a scene, the horizon line is so far up we can’t see it. We call this ‘birds-eye view’.
‘Worm’s eye view’ is when the viewer is looking up at the scene, and the horizon line is very far down, perhaps also so far down it’s no longer on the canvas.
‘Vanishing points’ are dots on the horizon line that all of the objects in a scene recede towards as they get further from the viewer.
The simplest perspective to learn is one-point perspective. One-point perspective has a single vanishing point, and all of the vanishing lines lead to that single vanishing point. All objects recede to that point.
Two-point perspective is next; this has two vanishing points on the horizon line. You intersect these lines to put your objects in perspective. It is more complicated than one point, but once learned will become a fundamental concept that you’ll use in all of your art going forward.
Can you guess what’s next? Three point! Three-point perspective adds an extra vanishing point either above or below the horizon line. The closer it is, the more dramatic the effect; further away, the extra vanishing point lends realism.
Along with the perspectives named above, four and five point perspectives are also fairly common, adding more vanishing points and lending either another level of realism or of exaggeration depending on how the vanishing points are used, just like with three point perspective.
Lastly artists also use ‘atmospheric perspective’, which is the effect of the further away an object is, the fainter and more desaturated, or even blue, it appears. This is because the further away something is, the more atmosphere there is between the object and the viewer.
Value & Lighting
Value and lighting are two separate concepts that are very closely related and depend upon each other.
Value is simply greyscale, often called ‘black and white’. It is also known as luminosity, lightness and brightness. Every color has a ‘value’ within it; if you were to desaturate the color, turning it greyscale, you would be left with its value.
Value is used to show a form’s material, as well as an objects lighting and shadows.
‘Lighting’ is the artist creating the illusion of an object’s forms being lit by a light source, such as the sun, a candle or a lightbulb.
In the act of lighting a form, shadows are created on the planes on the other side of the object, as well as being cast behind the forms.
Value is an extremely important fundamental. It’s used in establishing realism, in communicating materials, in creating compelling compositions, and much more. A painting without color can still look good, hence all the amazing black and white art out there, but a painting without values is almost unheard of.
Many artists, including myself, will paint first in greyscale, values only, and then colorise the painting after. We want to focus on the values first, and make sure we are happy with them.
Color is a deeper topic than you’d initially expect.
In art, the study of color includes both learning color palettes to produce certain visual harmonies or disharmonies, and also the psychology behind colors.
Certain colors, and combinations of colors, can alter behavior, mood, and emotions in the viewer. Pale blue and pale yellow are calming, for example.
Not all artists need to understand how to use color, as some work only in greyscale (or ‘values’, as we learned earlier). However, this can easily be used as an excuse for amateur artists, who are intimidated by color, and whose work might be elevated if they took the chance and learned more about how to use it.
Traditional artists also need to learn the basics of mixing colors. This includes learning the color wheel, and practising getting the exact color they want for their painting.
Learning color mixing is less important in digital painting, as you can pick from hue palettes. I personally have very little experience in color mixing, but I’m able to paint digitally just fine.
A color can be broken into three main components, one of which is value as we discussed above. The other two are ‘Hue’ and ‘Saturation’.
Hue is where the shade is on the color wheel. Saturation is the level of vibrancy the color has.
Colors can also be said to be cool or warm; some colors are usually associated with cold, like blue and green, and others are generally associated with warmth, like red and yellow.
Composition is how you choose to visually arrange different elements on your canvas. This includes all visual elements, such as lines, shapes, forms, colors, and values.
Composition is how all the visual elements of your art work together—whether they feel balanced or unbalanced, chaotic or harmonious, warm or cool, organic or geometric, realistic or stylized, etc.
Through composition, you can pull the viewers eyes to specific places on the canvas, which we call ‘focal points’.
Composition is a very deep topic with very fuzzy rules. A lot of what seem to be the ‘immutable laws of composition’ are completely ignored by a bunch of fantastic pieces of art. Because of that, composition takes time to learn, and most of your learning will be through looking at other artists' work, and through experimentation.
A fast way to experiment with lots of compositions is with thumbnailing. Make your canvas very small, only an inch or two on the longest side, and create a rough, tiny version of your painting/drawing idea.
When I do this, I usually just do them in greyscale, and usually just spend up to a minute on each one. When I have made some that I like, I’ll develop those ones a bit further, and perhaps then experiment with different color palettes too.
This way you can grow more familiar with the sorts of compositions that you like, and the ones that you don’t, without having to invest dozens of hours in a failing painting or drawing.
That said, here are a few of those fuzzy composition rules to start you off—and remember, these are not hard rules, more like guidelines.
The rules of thirds says to divide your piece into a 3x3 grid. The focal points, where you want the viewer to look, should be placed in some of the places where the lines intersect.
I simplify background elements a lot in my work, transforming them into flattened silhouettes to draw more focus to the more detailed and visually-interesting focal points. This is called simplification.
Lastly, and here’s a funny one, but to our surprisingly irrational minds, groups of odd numbered objects look more realistic than even numbers. A group of three cows in a field is more convincing than a group of four, etc. We could call this the rule of odds.
Shapes and Space
Shapes are the outline of entities on your canvas, whether those entities are blobs of color and value, or literally drawn with line. They can be created purposefully or by accident.
Space is a closely related principle to shape; positive space refers to the area within a shape, and negative space refers to the area outside of a shape.
Learn how to create visual appeal by overlapping shapes, creating variety in size of shapes, and where to place shapes on the canvas and how they balance or influence each other.
Lines are used by artists to divide space and form the outline of shapes, and in some styles of art can also be used to show more things form and action.
Contour lines outline a shape or object to show intricate details.
Implied lines are not explicitly drawn, but occur when an artist arranges objects and other lines in a way that suggests the existence of an invisible line.
Cross-hatch lines are diagonal lines layered over one another, and can be used to add light and shadow to a piece and better represent a form.
Brushwork is the way painters use their brush to create brush marks on their canvas. How an artist chooses to lay down their strokes can really affect the final look of the piece.
Beginner artists often overlook this skill, since it tends to develop with time and confidence. Pay attention to how experienced artists use brushwork in their art to achieve certain looks.
Texture is linked to colour and value. In some ways, texture is merely values and colours organised in a particular pattern on a surface, designed to create the illusion of a specific material.
In traditional painting, you can actually create real texture by layering your paint or using textured materials.
At this point, learning the art fundamentals might seem like a massive undertaking. And the truth is, it is a massive undertaking. It takes years to even begin mastering one of them, let alone all of them. In fact, it is probably impossible to master all of them—each fundamental is such a deep topic.
But the good news is that you don’t need to become a master of the fundamentals to produce great artwork. Such an idea would probably even hold you back from getting to make the work you really want to make.
At the beginning, if you want to be hireable, you just need to get a baseline understanding of all of the fundamentals so that you don’t have any glaring mistakes in your art, and then you can concentrate on exploring deeper into the ones that are most important to your art style, that you find most interesting.
When you become newly aware of a gap in your knowledge of the fundamentals that is holding you back, you can go and study, and start making new art with a stronger foundation again.
Every professional artist still learns new things about the fundamentals with every piece of art they make. It’s the nature of the game. This is a life-long journey of mastery.
Hey, I’m Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, and now I’m able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help other artists make the same journey.