The Alphabet of Art

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Texture refers to the roughness or smoothness of a surface in a work of art. Rough textures have more contrast than smooth textures. As a result, surfaces with rough texture are seen as more dynamic, emotionally active, and as having more depth.

Type Contrast Resulting Attributes
Rough Maximum Emotionally Active
Esthetically dynamic
Spatially in depth
Smooth Minimum Emotionally passive
Esthetically decorative
Spatially static


In Western art, Texture has traditionally been considered more of a three-dimensional than a two-dimensional property. It has therefore been most often used for effects in sculpture and architecture.

The Medici Palace in Florence, Italy is a fine example. The first floor exterior of the building is rough. The second story uses medium-rough textures, and the third story is smooth. In this example, the rough textures closer to the ground suggest strength, and the smoother texture above invoke a sense of lightness.


Photograph - Medici Palace in Florence, Italy
Medici Palace, Florence, Italy

In painting, Vincent Van Gogh was the first great artist to make texture an important element of technique.

In the Bedroom at Arles, Van Gogh enhances the emotional intensity of a mundane interior, in part by dramatically increasing the roughness of the surfaces.

Vincent Van Gogh - Bedroom at Arles
Vincent Van Gogh, Bedroom at Arles

In his masterpiece, Starry Night, Van Gogh went much farther.

Vincent Van Gogh - Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night

The bright color and thickly layered textures make the trees and buildings seem to pulse with life, and the moon and stars to drift and swim. Here, a great painter applies rough texture in an unreal way to make a picture emotionally active and esthethically dynamic in the extreme.  


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Drag the slider to change the texture in Van Gogh's painting. As the roughness decreases, how does the character of the picture change?

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