Thanksgiving Gratitude List: Formal Elements

It is the Thanksgiving holiday this week in the US, which means that Americans tend to focus on things for which they are thankful. I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the formal elements in art for which I am grateful. In other words, these are all of the physical (formal) aspects of art which I find aesthetically pleasing. To me, these things make art beautiful:

I am grateful for compositions with strong diagonals.
Athena Battling Alkyoneos, Detail of the Gigantomachy Freize from the Altar of Zeus, c. 175 BC
I am grateful for strong light and dark contrasts.
Caravaggio, Madonna of the Snake, 1606

I am grateful for impasto.
Van Gogh, detail of Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889 (Metropolitan Museum)

I am grateful for volume, particularly when it creates
an illusion of the human figure.

(Look at how Pluto’s fingers press into Proserpina’s body!)
Bernini, detail of Pluto and Proserpina, 1621-22 (Borghese Gallery)

I am grateful for flat planes of solid color.
Gauguin, Self Portrait with Halo, 1889

I am grateful for thick, dark outlines of figures.
Brian Kershisnik, Artist Devoured by a Terrible Beast, n.d.

I am grateful for monochromatic backgrounds.
Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871

I am grateful for the luminescent colors afforded by oil paint.
Robert Campin, detail of the Merode Altarpiece, 1425-28

You can really tell what artistic periods (and centuries) I prefer, huh? What formal elements are YOU grateful for?
  • H Niyazi says:

    Very interesting M!

    I would concure with most of that, though not as much of a fan of monochrome.

    I would add dynamism – a lot if influenced by sculpture in some instances, with contrapposto being the prime example. Then there is someone like Tintoretto's whose bold movement was a precursor to the Baroque. His work looked like a freeze frame in time.

    I would like to add some of the less tangible stuff as well – for me this is the single most fascinating aspect of art!

    *allegory and symbolism as historical and personal identifiers.

    *Ability to inspire through the visual medium, (is there a word that means "insiprationalness"?!)

    *Deliberate ambiguity – to keep art lovers on their toes and a perpetual shroud of mystery around an artist or work(Giorgione comes to mind expecially here)


  • A Super Dilettante says:

    Hi there, I used to read your blog everyday but I haven't been here for awhile. But I'm glad to see the new format of your blog and I shall have to join your excellent blog soon. Thanks for keeping the art history tradition going on the blogsphere. Now, you are on my bloglist, I will keep my eyes open for your future posts.

  • Dr. F says:


    A very nice post. Happy Thanksgiving to you.


  • H Niyazi says:

    Yes, I forgot to add – Happy Thanksgiving M and all your North American readers :)

    Apologies for the typos above, part of the pitfalls of writing lengthy comments on a phone when hiking!


  • Annie says:

    I love these! Thanks and happy thanksgiving.

  • GermyB says:

    My list:

    1947-J, Clyfford Still

    Vertical Lines:
    Passion Flower, Gene Davis

    Empty space:
    Ground 95.6, Uta Barth

    [couldn't find name], Mark Rothko

    Scale (particularly large-scale):
    Marsyas, Anish Kapoor

    Greenbergian flatness (paint is paint, canvas is canvas):
    Mahoning, Franz Kline

    Autumn Rhythm, Jackson Pollock

    Color as subject:
    Homage to the Square (Series), Josef Albers

    So, you can kinda tell what my preferred century is, too…

  • heidenkind says:

    To be honest, I never thought about it before. Strong diagonals do rock. I would also have to give a shout out to Japonisme, patterning, and that thing Raphael did where the figure's eyes follow you around the room.

  • e says:

    I'm thankful for beautiful sculpture. I love looking at paintings, but I find myself so moved and intrigued by sculpture. I love Rodin especially and I love that one piece you talked about once — the one with the veil that seemed so perfectly real.

    I think that Pluto and Proserpina is incredibly beautiful. Thanks for sharing that.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

    It's quite fun to read what other styles/formal elements people prefer in art. I like the Japonisme style, too, heidenkind. :)

    And GermyB, thanks for your list. I'm not surprised by your 20th century preference at all. :)

  • Nelina Kapetsoni says:

    Great idea indeed! Just discovered your blog! Congratulations!

  • pontecommedia says:

    I enjoyed that. Great post. Now I'm grateful to live in a time when I'm able to enjoy each of those elements.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, pontecommedia and Nelina Kapetsoni! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. (And welcome to my blog, Nelina!)

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.