Analyzing the Visual Elements of Art

This week we’re going to explore the visual aspects of artwork in its many elements, whether that be line, shape, tone, color, pattern, texture, or form. I was tasked with finding artwork that resonated with me, presenting my opinion of the pieces, and analyzing the elements that appeared throughout the works in an effort to explain what made the pieces so special. So, without stalling any further, let’s get started!

The White Owl (1856)

by William James Webbe

Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits.

Alfred Lord Tennyson
The White Owl (1856)

This oil on board was created by English painter and illustrator William James Webbe. Webbe was born in Redruth, Cornwall, England, but it is not known whether or not he had relocated to London prior to painting this particular work in 1856. It is assumed that the artist sold it to William John Broderip of Three Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn, London, England; the work was then given by Broderip to Professor Richard Own, and then inherited by the present owner. (Christie’s)

The White Owl is particularly appealing—perhaps it’s due to the satisfied expression that can be gleaned from the owl itself, proud of the fat little mouse that it caught. Or perhaps it’s the attention to detail present not only in the mouse, the wooden beam, or the grapevines, but also the owl; the illusion of its silken feathers, the pattern on its wings, and the lifelike detail of the claws and beak create a feeling of witnessing this moment being captured.

Visual Element—Tone as the Contrast of Light and Dark

Truly what I find really striking about The White Owl is the tone with which it was painted, the dramatic black backdrop emphasizes the focal point of the painting. The proud owl is in stark contrast to the background and therefore, its subsequent shading and highlights just create more of an effect of light hitting this nocturnal creature.

Visual Element—Texture

There are multiple textures present within this work, the illusion of the fluffy, yet silky feathers in the owl’s breast and wings are fascinating of course; what is also incredible is the detail that Webbe put into the texture of the wooden beam that the owl is sitting upon. Just looking upon this particular painting, you can almost feel the feathers, or run your fingers across the wooden beam. It transports you to the scene you’re looking upon.

Personal Thoughts

While it’s not a work of art that I would want to own a copy of, or necessarily hang in my home, it brings me an unending amount of joy. I believe it’s simply due to the expression that I see in the face of the owl, it’s an anthropomorphic look of pure satisfaction that makes me so ecstatic. While the close-up images are a bit grainy, I’ve cropped these specific areas to draw attention to the level of attention to detail that was given to this painting. You can see the cracks and insect-caused degradation of the wood and the sheen that is present on the down of it’s chest—it’s lovingly imitating life in this way.

Barn Owl (Unknown)

by Joseph Crawhall
Barn Owl (2013) by Joseph Crawhall

This particular painting is watercolor and gouache on holland laid on board—this lends it a visual and presumably physical texture, but more on that later! Joseph Crawhall’s Barn Owl (Unknown) took inspiration from the stylistic influence of Arthur Melville, as well as Japanese artwork. In this respect, he was able to develop a “fluent, almost calligraphic way of painting where each cursive brushstroke tells as an individual mark. (Crawhall) Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913) was British by birth, is believed to have created this beautiful watercolor while in Glasgow, where he is one of the most celebrated artists in the Glasgow School canon. It can be safely said that this piece was created sometime before his death in 1913, but the actual year of creation is unknown. It was first exhibited in Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition, Fine Arts Section in 1938. (My Bonhams)

Visual Element—Tone as Form

The gouache creates a more opaque look than the watercolor does, so it’s not quite so airy and washed out as a solely watercolor-medium; this contrast in paint mediums gives the illusion of form. Setting the darker tones next to lighter tones gives the illusion of the branch protruding forward, and the owl that takes up space atop it. Even with the eyes of the bird, we see the tone working to create depth, lighter tones create a reflection atop the dark tone of the pupil.

Visual Element—Optical Texture

If you look to the background of this artwork, you’ll see the texture of the watercolor on the board, which takes on the appearance of a crosshatch.

Personal Thoughts

This particular work is something I would definitely own a copy of it, I highly admire the watercolor-gouache style that Crawhall utilized. It feels like perfection to look upon and I am itching to feel the texture of the surface of it.

Cotterstock Church (1940)

by John Piper
Cotterstock Church (1940) by John Piper
Cotterstock Church (1940) by John Piper

John Piper’s portrayal of Cotterstock Church (1940) was made in the Nene Valley Village named Cotterstock; this village was located near Oundle, Northamptonshire. This mixed medium piece of art was created through watercolor, ink, pastel and bodycolorThe name of the particular church it is depicting is St. Andrew’s Church (Christie’s)—where we get to see the detail of the architecture as well as the mildly macabre view of the church’s cemetery. This leads me to believe that the painting was created on the premises, as the close study of this beautiful gothic-style church and its delicate structures could only be replicated with such accuracy while looking upon it.

Visual Element—Line

This particular painting is so in-depth with detail that I blew up some sections of the painting so as to highlight this wonderful inked linework that, from afar, only serves to define the architecture. Here we can see the visual element of the line defining the tracery of the church windows, both imprecise and astonishing in how delicately the line forms the structure of the molding and ribs that define these gothic arches.

Visual Element—Tone as Depth and Distance

Another exceptionally lovely element of this piece of artwork is the tone that is working to define the depth and distance of the church. We can see that the arches and shadows are also formed by tone as well. This can be seen quite spectacularly by this cropped portion of the painting, where the archway sits on the left-hand side of the image.

The archway fades into nothingness where the darker tones meet the muted beiges and tans—it adds a sort of mellow emotion. Another unique way Piper utilized tone, is the scratchy shadows that can be seen where two surfaces meet. These “scratchy” textures were made when the pastel was applied and then partially scratched away to blend it with the color behind it.

Personal Thoughts

I’m not normally a fan of architectural art, but I decided to include this one because it truly captivated me. I’ve never before come across a painting of a building that was so evocative, where melancholia met a soothing calm.

Comparing Work—What do these pieces have in common?

Visual Element—Color

While I was looking through potential works of art to share this week, I came across the three aforementioned paintings, all of them captured my attention and after getting better acquainted with them, I realized it was because of the similar element that all three of them possessed. All three of these paintings showcase a neutral and natural palette. Soft browns, deep browns, beiges, and pastel yellow hues—with these classic colors, all three conveyed something so calm and peaceful, as if they were bringing out the mood of the subject matter. As far as neutral palettes go, they are powerful color choices for architectural elements in paintings, they draw the eye to the detail which in any other color may have gone unnoticed.

Final Thoughts

Throughout this analytical look at these three paintings, I was driven to look at the details of each of these amazing works of art. It prompted me to zoom in as much as possible and focus on the small touches that the painters chose to implement which made a large scale impact on the rest of the works. The beauty in paintings often lies in the details, so next time you’re looking at a piece of art for the first time, I encourage you to take a closer look!

TL;DR? Lucky for you, there’s a video!


Works Cited:

“My Bonhams.” Bonhams, 2020, www.bonhams.com/auctions/20487/lot/7/?category=list.

Cook, E.T., and A. Wedderburn. “William James Webbe (Fl.1853-1878) , The White Owl. ‘Alone and Warming His Five Wits, The White Owl in the Belfry Sits’.” Christie’s, 2020, www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/william-james-webbe-fl1853-1878-the-white-5631455-details.aspx.

“John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992) Cotterstock Church.” Christie’s, 2020, www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/john-piper-ch-1903-1992-cotterstock-church-5088844-details.aspx

Crawhall. Barn Owl. 1938. The Fine Art Society LTD.
The Fine Art Society, 09 Sept. 2020, www.thefineartsociety.com/artists/146-joseph-crawhall-rsw/overview/


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