The Alphabet of Art

The Robert J. McKnight Memorial Web Site

Welcome to the Alphabet of Art. This site explains, in simple terms, the elements of visual design. Once you understand the Alphabet, you'll be able to "read" pictures and other works of visual art and understand why they work the way they do.

Pardon our dust! This site is undergoing a major upgrade: new text, more pictures, and interactive activities to illustrate the Principles. You can preview Alphabet of Art 2.0 at these pages:

If you have any comments or suggestions, let us know..

The Alphabet of Art was developed by the late Robert J. McKnight, a sculptor, designer, and theoretician of art. McKnight believed that the historical development of communication systems paralleled the development of the senses in the individual. Just as a newborn child orients itself to the world first by touch, then hearing, and only later by eyesight, so objective systems of communication developed in that order. First came the numerical system, based on our fingers and the sense of touch. Next came the alphabet, based on our sense of hearing. McKnight saw the evolution of a visual notation system as the next logical step—hence the Alphabet of Art.

McKnight derived many of the ideas in the Alphabet from Maitland Graves and his book, The Art of Color and Design (McGraw-Hill, 1951).

The Alphabet of Art is a service of Guidance Communications, Inc. This site was developed by Jack Massa, based on manuscripts and illustrations by Robert J. McKnight. If you have comments on the Alphabet or this site, please email me. And now...

The Alphabet of Art — A Notation System for Visual Design

The visual notation system known as the Alphabet of Art is made up of Elements and Attributes.

The seven Elements are the things that the artist or designer works with: Line, Line Direction, Shape, Size, Texture, Value, and Color. The system also considers the concept of Composition, which is defined as the total effect of the use of the Elements.

The Attributes are defined as the qualities that the art or design conveys to the observer. The Alphabet discusses three Attributes: Emotional, Esthetic, and Spatial.

In any notation system there must be a method of making comparisons. In the aural alphabet, based on our sense of hearing, comparisons are made by the sound qualities inherent in vowels and consonants. In the Alphabet of Art, the Elements and Attributes are viewed as having a range of contrast, from minimum to maximum. The range of contrast provides the ground for making visual comparisons and judgments.

The following table, shows the Minimum and Maximum Contrast for each Element and Attribute. This table is the basic summarization of the entire Alphabet of Art.

PRINCIPLE Maximum Contrast Minimum Contrast
Line Curved Straight
Line Direction Diagonal Horizontal or Vertical
Shape Naturalistic Geometric
Size Large Small
Texture Rough Smooth
Value Light, Dark Grayed
- Hue
- Chroma
- Value
Light, Dark, Bright
Gray, Dull
COMPOSITION Asymmetrical Symmetrical
Emotional Active Passive
Esthetic Dynamic Decorative
Spatial In Depth Static

Choose a topic to read more about the Alphabet:
Line Line Direction Shape Size
Texture Value Color Composition
The Attributes The Picture Plane

About the Authors
Copyright 1997-2009 by Guidance Communications Inc. The Alphabet of Art and all information on this site may be freely copied and distributed without charge, provided proper acknowledgement is given to the authors and the Copyright Holder, including the URL of this web site.