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.


Along with discussion and illustrations, the site includes interactive “Try It” features to show how the design principles work.

For example, this one shows how an artist uses the Size of objects in a picture to emphasize their relative importance. (Click or swipe to see the different versions).


The Alphabet 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—which he decided to call the Alphabet of Art.

McKnight derived some 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 — 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.

Putting it all together, this table, shows the Minimum and Maximum Contrast for each Element and Attribute. The table summarizes the entire Alphabet of Art.

PrincipleMaximum ContrastMinimum Contrast
Line DirectionDiagonalHorizontal or Vertical
ValueLight, DarkGrayed
– Hue
– Chroma
– Value

Light, Dark, Bright

Gray, Dull
SpatialIn DepthStatic

To see how all of this works, select the links below:

The Elements  
LineLine DirectionShape
Other Topics  
The AttributesCompositionThe Picture Plane
 About the Authors 
 Alphabet Home 

The Alphabet of Art is a service of, the home of fantasy and science fiction author Jack Massa. Jack developed this site based on manuscripts and illustrations by Robert J. McKnight. If you have comments on the Alphabet or this site, please contact us here.

Copyright 1997-2020 by Jack Massa. 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.

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