Are You Using the Elements and Principles as a Crutch?

The Elements and Principles of Art are important, foundational material for any good visual arts curriculum. Many art teachers know this to be true. Some of us base units around concepts like repetition and symmetry. We teach students to recognize the different types of balance and unity. Many art teachers describe them as “essential knowledge” or our “common visual language” while others view them as less important. So, how should the Elements and Principles, E&Ps for short, be used in our classrooms?
Elements and Principles
To decide what to teach, many of us start with reviewing the standards. Unfortunately, that’s not much help because the E&Ps are completely missing from the revised National Arts Standards.

Instead, let’s look at what the standards do ask us to teach.


The Big Picture

Olivia Gude, a member of the standards writing team, said, “The Next Generation Visual Arts standards are focused on student choice and on students making personally meaningful works of art and design.” She went on to add, “Standards in the Respond section affirm that students will use their knowledge about art and images to understand the various perspectives of other people and then to make their own interpretations based on their art knowledge and life experiences.”

The focus of the National Standards isn’t on specifics. Instead, attention is given to big-picture concepts that are essential to the teaching of art, like creating personalized meaning through making work, interpreting art subjectively and applying personal context to make connections. The E&Ps might be important as part of the teaching of art-specific vocabulary, but they are a supporting element of the curriculum, not the focus. If you are basing whole units or even entire lessons to the E&Ps, you may be overemphasizing them and possibly missing out on other important content.

Elements and Principles

So, What Should We Teach?

Here are some general guidelines for teachers interested in incorporating the Elements and Principles as a support to the big ideas of the National Standards.

  • Instead of basing lessons on specific Elements and Principles, base lessons on themes that students can connect to in a personal way.
  • When analyzing works of art, ask students to make personal or cultural connections to the work in addition to addressing the work’s formal qualities. Or, let students decide how to respond by asking them what stands out for them when they see the work.
  • Give students opportunities to respond to artwork by interpreting its meaning through work of their own that provides at least a moderate level of choice. For example, if you show and discuss Starry Night with a group, one student might decide to use thick, linear paint application while another might experiment with arbitrary color and a third could draw a night landscape they remember from experience. All these responses are personal and valid —why pick for them?
  • Consider expanding your definition of the language of art beyond the E&Ps to include Postmodern Principles, theme-based lines of inquiry and personal or emotional response to artwork.


The Takeaway

Basing lessons and art criticism on the E&Ps can be tempting. They are, after all, a known and identifiable quantity. That’s a big strength in the age of assessment and the reason for their inclusion in state and local standards. The problem is that art is not quantitative, it’s personal and subjective. When we try to standardize our responses to artwork we lose opportunity for meaning. The National Standards challenge us to allow students every opportunity to create personal meaning because that’s where the true value of the arts lie.
personal meaning
The Elements and Principles describe art verbally, but what about impressions, personal connections, and emotional responses? The E&Ps only have value if they are used to support the development of personalized responses to work. If they are used in place of this then, yes, they are a crutch. However, including them, if a teacher is so inclined, can be an important part of building art-specific language. The bottom line is that we need to focus on the goal of teaching students to make meaningful art.

 How do you feel about the E&Ps? Do you love them? Hate them? Feel indifferent? 

What are your thoughts about using the E&Ps vs. different strategies to develop lessons?


Melissa Purtee


Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • Cindy Phillippi

    My college days were spent making meaningful art, with a healthy dose of art history classes. Lacking was that more instruction on techniques was needed, before we were in the deeper issues of personal art-making. That being said, I have always taught for meaning, as it is what makes art worthwhile. But, students need language and technique to fortify the experience. A little here, and a little there, with an emphasis on personal expression and meaning. I am speaking as having seen a near full circle of pedagogy in art instruction.

    • Shannon Ashley

      I agree with you Cindy. Language is important. As a student in high school and then college I had NOOO clue what the language was or the techniques. In college when words like emphasis and form were used I had no clue what was being discussed in critiques and I couldn’t contribute to deep meaningful discussions. I made it my passion to teach art so no art desired students would miss out on knowing what the Es&Ps where and how to use and recognize them. I teach vocabulary, techniques and how the techniques can be applied. It’s not until the last project of the year that students grow in making choices based on media and texhniques used for that project. Its all based off of what they have learned all semester long.

  • Andrew McCormick

    Hey Melissa, great article. I couldn’t agree more. Welcome to AOE!

  • Abby Fliehler

    “When we try to standardize our responses to artwork we lose opportunity for meaning.” What a great statement to help art educators advocate for choice and also supports the unique artwork students create when given choice. When art is standardized, meaning is lost and the meaning behind a piece of art, to me, is the whole driving force behind creating.

  • Sue Alexander

    Balance (as a principle for life and art) is the key IMO. I base my students’ understandings of art and art making on the foundation that every work of art is comprised of subject, form and content. Freedom to approach the work through their personal creative hierarchy has served my Middle School artists well.

  • Cherylanne

    I teach middle school art at a Title 1 school, and get students that have never had any “formal” art education. Because of that, I find ways to teach the E&P’s that grab the kids interest and are fun to do. I have a “word wall” that has them all posted for vocabulary, but only refer to them as needed. My main focus is on techniques, getting them used to using different materials properly, choosing projects to do that that also grab the kids. If they stay with art in high school (or even college), they have the basics and can run more with personal expression once they get there. When one student said to me, “I will never see a pencil the same way again!”, I knew I had gotten through. Teach the tools and techniques, the rest will come.

  • ElizTownsend

    Yes! I’m glad to hear some of my own thoughts on standardizing are shared by others. I do teach the basics of the Es & Ps with grades K-6, because they are just beginning in their exposure to them, but I want to avoid creativity being scrunched into the limitation standardization can offer…where the love of art can be squelched at an early age before it even has a chance to bloom. I feel like a major part of my job as an art teacher, is to prepare grade school students to look forward to continuing in art in their middle school and high school years. I want them to be prepared, though, so art isn’t foreign or scary to them (like it was for me when I entered Jr. High). If a student comes in with an attitude of “I don’t like art,” I believe it is my job to win them over, before they leave my influence. I agree with the ideas, that it is a little here and a little there, and it is up to the instructor to get the Es & Ps across in a fun, interesting, and informative way, that does not detract from a student’s sense of creativity and meaningfulness in his own expression.

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