The Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent van Gogh, September 1888
***This blog post was created as an assignment for a class I took. It is meant to aid students and parents in the process of critique. Fellow teachers, you may use any of this information in a lesson plan or blog post, just please cite me as the original author! Thanks. :)
Van Gogh is know for his style of painting. An impressionist painter, he is famous for his innovative use of line and texture, as well as vivid colors. Let's go over the elements and principles of art, using The Cafe Terrace at Night as an example.
Let's take a look at the elements of art in this particular piece. Without these important aesthetic criteria, this painting could not be called a work of art.
We'll start with color. What colors do you see in this painting?
**Note: color is the actual pigment that we see, while hue is the color's name (i.e. blue and yellow).
Intensity describes how bright or dull the hue looks. In this case, the painting has an overall high intensity.
Next is form. Form means a three-dimensional shape. What forms can you see in this artwork?
Van Gogh is known for his use of line. What words can you use to describe the lines in this piece? Which lines stand out to you the most?
Space is another element of art. Space describes how much of the canvas is being used, or filled up.
**Note: negative space is the absence of form, texture, line, etc.
Texture is the use of line and pattern to create the illusion of roughness or smoothness on a surface. What textures do you see in this particular painting?
The last element of art we will talk about today is value. Value is how light or dark the colors are. Find as many values as you can.
Now let's talk about the principles of art. The principles simply describe how the elements work together in an artwork.
Balance describes how the painting feels in relation to its symmetry. Does one side seem "heavier" than the other? Symmetrical means that if you were to fold the painting in half, both sides would mirror each other. This creates a formal feeling. Asymmetry is the opposite; both sides would not line up to one another. Asymmetrical pieces feel much more informal. Radial symmetry means the focal point is in the center of the piece and everything else revolves around that point.
Keeping these terms in mind, what type of balance do you see in van Gogh's The Cafe Terrace at Night?
Although there is an understood division in the center of the painting, I would describe this piece as asymmetrical. Since the eye is drawn to the left side of the painting, rather than the center, it has more of an informal asymmetrical composition.
Contrast is the use of light and dark, various colors and textures, as well as different sizes and shapes. Contrast helps each part of a painting stand out on its own. The most obvious contrast in van Gogh's painting is the use of color. By using colors of equal intensity, the blue and yellow make one another stand out even more than they would by themselves. He also used a variety of values and textures to create contrast and visual interest.
Emphasis refers to the focal point (or focus) of the painting, where your eye is drawn to at first glance. Walk away from the image for a moment, then come back and note where your eye is immediately drawn. That is the emphasis of the painting.
Movement is how the artist uses the components of the piece to let the viewer's eye move around and back to the focal point. Van Gogh uses movement in this piece through the use of color, line, and texture. In what direction does your eye move when you first look the painting?
Pattern describes repetition of color, line, etc. in a piece. What patterns can you find in this piece?
Rhythm is similar to pattern and refers to the repetition of at least one element of art we talked about earlier.
Lastly, unity describes how all the parts of the artwork work together to create a strong piece. Do you think this particular artwork has unity? If so, what did van Gogh do to make it feel unified?
Congratulations! You have just critiqued a famous artwork. By analyzing the components of van Gogh's painting, we discovered what a critique looks like. Now you are ready to critique other art, and you have all the tools you need right here.
Parents, here is a link to a site designed to help you and your child further understand the elements and principles of art:
And a link to an image of the painting:
University of Phoenix. (n.d.). Elements and principles of art and design. Retrieved from
University of Phoenix, MTE534 - Curriculum Constructs and Assessments: Visual and
Performing Arts website.