An artwork is a living organism. If you visually break down a work of art into its various components and systems, you will begin to understand how each of its elements functions and how those elements work together in harmony, just as you would if you were learning gross anatomy or dissecting a body. In this way, you can begin to see not just what an artwork looks like, but how it’s structured, what its elements and systems do, how they interrelate, and how they contribute to the life of the artwork as a whole.
You can begin to understand that just as cells are the building blocks of an organism’s life, so too an artwork’s elements are the building blocks of its life. Essential to the life of an organism, such as a human body, are the tensions among ligaments and muscles, the circulation of fluids, the strength and density of bone, the functions of organs, the elasticity and porousness of skin, the rhythms of breathing and heartbeat. Those interdependent elements of the body, if they are not purposeful, healthy, and working together, could become useless, if not dangerous, to the organism as a whole. So too an artwork’s unique, interdependent elements (its points, lines, movements, shapes, forms, colors, structures, energies, tensions, light, and rhythms) must be present, healthy, functional, and purposefully fused—working together in harmony, subservient to the greater whole—in order for that work of art to have life.
Paul Klee suggested that a line is a point going for “a walk … a point, shifting its position forward.” In representational works, we often experience a line as designating some particular thing or place: a strand of hair, the horizon, the contour of a form, such as the edge of a cheek or an apple. But a line can also represent abstract ideas about boundary, meeting place, energy, fusion, and fission. A line can be a spine or a vein. It can be lightning, or stress, or striving. When two forms meet and press against each other, they create a new line—a juncture, an offspring—out of the encounter and merging of their two separate boundaries: new life and energy generated out of interface. Each element in a work of art has the potential, through relationships and contact with other elements, to foster new forms and life—to convey a sense of growth and transformation; to convey that the artwork, though its forms might be literally unchanging, is not fixed but continually in motion, interaction, creation. These are the qualities and energies and actions we notice and therefore make happen in an artwork through the acts of looking and experience.