Student Resource

The Elements Exam Help

From facing the elements to the four elements, explore ideas for your art and design exam


Joseph Mallord William Turner
Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London (1841)

This exam resource will help you explore the elements of nature.

When we think of ‘the elements’ we generally think of the four elements that are essential to life. Traditionally in Western culture, these are: earth, air, fire and water. (In other cultures there are sometimes five or more elements). ‘Elements’ as a theme can also include the weather.

Discover the very different ways that artists have explored the elements, from directly facing them to symbolic representations.

Facing the elements

John Constable
Cloud Study (1822)

The weather

Have you ever heard people talking about ‘facing the elements’ or ‘open to the elements’? Often when we think of the elements, we think of the weather – usually bad weather. Not surprisingly, the weather and its effects have interested artists for centuries. Grab your hat and coat …

British artist John Constable painted some of the best-known landscape paintings in the world. But what people don’t always know is that he was fascinated by the weather. Constable often painted out of doors or plein air, very literally facing the elements! He also made lots of cloud studies, carefully recording the place and time of day the studies were made. His painted sketch, Stoke by Nayland c.1810-11, painted outside on location, shows a woman walking towards a village. But what the picture really seems to be about is the elements. Although blue, the vigorously painted sky, with its scuffed and scratched paint, looks blustery. The trees are moving in response to the gusts of wind.

Constable’s sketch of the sea near Brighton was also painted out of doors – in the winter. We can almost feel the icy cold and sympathise with the seabirds being thrown around by the wind. On an earlier visit to Brighton in 1824, Constable had admired ‘the magnificence of the sea’ and ‘the breakers and the sky’. He later wrote how seabirds ‘add to the wildness and to the sentiment of melancholy’.

The impressionists also took the idea of facing the elements very literally. They were interested in capturing the changing effect of light on landscapes in different conditions and at different times of the day. They used quick brush strokes to capture what they saw.

But it is artist J.M.W. Turner who wins the prize for going to the most extreme lengths to face the elements and respond to its effects. In order to paint what the force of a storm really feels like he had himself strapped to the mast of a ship, (so the story goes). The result is Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth 1842. The vortex of the storm and the whipped-up sky and sea look almost abstract but put across a very real sense of its power (and scariness!).

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (exhibited 1842)

To explore more art about the weather, take a look at our Weather Exam Help resource.

Fire, water, air and earth


Fire is essential to keeping us warm and we need it to cook food. But it is also a powerful destructive element.

As well as capturing extreme weather conditions, the artist J.M.W Turner made dramatic paintings (on the spot) of fire. He managed to be quickly on the scene for two huge fires in London: one at the Houses of Parliament in 1834 and the other at the Tower of London in 1841. As we saw with his capturing of the storm, his on-the-spot sketches become an almost abstract mass of frantic gestural marks and colour. Rather than depicting details, he manages to put across the feel, the noise, the choking smoke and the devastating power of the fire.

Roger Hiorns Vauxhall 2003 flames arising from a grate in the floor

Roger Hiorns Vauxhall 2003

Artist Roger Hiorns also responds to fire in his artwork Vauxhall 2003. What looks like an ordinary gutter in the front paved garden area of Tate Britain, spurts a flame of fire. The flame disrupts a safe and ordered institutional space and feels unpredictable and dangerous.

For Hiorns both fire and the gutter are highly symbolic. The fire suggests elemental forces as well as religion, sacred ritual and the eternal flame. While the gutter makes us think of dirt, and things hidden underground.


Water sustains us. Although we probably often moan about the rain, without it people, animals and plants would die. We have all seen pictures on the news of terrible famine in areas of the world where there hasn’t been enough rain.

Rain, rivers, seas waterfalls are all aspects of water that artists often depict or respond to.

To capture the elemental force of water, Ian Mckeever has used mixed media on paper. The work consists of two contrasting images of a waterfall. On one side is a black and white photograph of a frozen waterfall. The large sheets of ice and dark icy water create a still abstract pattern. The other panel is a drawing made with pencil, charcoal and pastel. McKeever has built up the surface of the drawing with gestural and thick dense marks suggesting the movement and power of the waterfall.

Artist Roni Horn explores the theme of water in a very different way, collecting, recording and archiving it. Vatnasafn/Library of Water is a permanent installation in the small town of Sykkishólmur in Iceland. Huge glass columns store water collected from glaciers around Iceland. The locations are shown on her print Water, Selected 2007. In another series of ‘water works’, Horn photographed the surface of the River Thames in different locations. The photographs capture the effects of light and the weather on the river.

Explore more artists’ responses to water


Air is essential to life. People, animals and plants need air to breathe.

In 1978 artist Giuseppe Penone developed a series of drawings and sculptures exploring the idea of a breath of air. The large bulbous pot-like forms are the shape that Penone imagines a breath of air would be.

They become a type of container for his body. If you look closely at the clay sculptures you can see the form of his mouth pinched into the top of the container. An impression along the side of the clay is of the artist’s leg, wearing jeans, as he leans forward. In these works Penone celebrates the importance of air as a life-giving element.

Peter Lanyon
Thermal (1960)

St Ives School artist Peter Lanyon painted bold gestural paintings in response to the powerful forces of nature and the landscape. He was a keen glider. Like birds’ flight, gliding relies on upward warm currents of air called thermals. Lanyon’s experience of flying gave him a strong feeling for the elements.

The air is a very definite world of activity as complex and demanding as the sea ... The thermal itself is a current of hot air rising and eventually condensing into cloud. It is invisible and can only be apprehended by an instrument such as a glider ... The basic source of all soaring flight is the thermal.
Peter Lanyon


Earth is what lies beneath our feet. It symbolises solid matter and the structure of the universe. We also need earth to grow food.

Andy Goldsworthy, like other land artists makes art directly in the landscape – and uses the landscape itself as a material. He has made art using rocks, ice, leaves, flower petals and sticks. The artworks aren’t permanent, but by photographing them he creates permanent records of them.

Holes / Middleton Woods, Yorkshire / 1 February 1981 is a photograph showing three holes, each inside a larger one, that have been made in a forest floor. The effect is one of irregular concentric rings, getting progressively darker towards the centre as the holes get deeper.

Goldsworthy has made lots of holes in the ground throughout his career. In his publication Hand to Earth he explains their significance:

The black of a hole is like the flame of a fire. The flame makes the energy of fire visible. The black is the earth’s flame – its energy. I used to say I will make no more holes. Now I know I will always make them. I am drawn to them with the same urge I have to look over a cliff edge. It is possible the last work I make will be a hole.
Andy Goldsworthy

Have a look at more artists who have explored earth as a theme, or used it directly in their artworks:

Abstracting the elements: patterns and shapes

As well as facing the elements and responding to their power and energy, many artists have been inspired by the shapes and patterns suggested by the elements. Sometimes the artist has simplified the shape of flames or waves, other artworks are decorative responses to the elements.

Explore elemental patterns and shapes

The elements and symbolism

The idea of the elements was developed in ancient times to help explain the nature and complexity of the world. In the West, tradition of the elements was developed in Ancient Greece. (Though there were originally five elements – the fifth being ‘aether’, which was seen as the material that fills the universe, above earth.) Other ancient cultures had similar lists of five essential elements. The Chinese Tao system lists wood and metal as elements along with fire, water and earth.

Often the theories of the elements overlapped with mythology and the elements were represented as gods. As essential aspects of life, they were also linked to the seasons. Artist Joe Tilson made a whole series of artworks exploring the mystical and mythological aspects of the elements. Some of these look like serious diagrammatic charts, while others – such as Four Elements - Mudra (exploring the ancient gestures yoga) and Tools of the Shamen – are more playful.

The Earth is an Angel 1987 a drawing by Shirazeh Houshiary shows a large four-winged form. The wings are roughly drawn in black and gold. On the floor spinning out from underneath the winged form is a Persian poem by the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, Jalalu'ddin Rumi. The rhythmic lines of the poem reflect the imagined beat of wings.

Shirazeh Houshiary
The Earth is an Angel (1987)

For Houshiary the wings of an angel symbolise force and energy. By using them to represent the earth, she is suggesting the earth’s power as well as a link between earth and heaven.

Explore more symbolic responses to the elements


We’ve pulled together some ideas to get you started on researching your exam project:

Make a weather drawing

What do the elements feel like? Turner, Constable and other artists, such as Frank Auerbach have used gestural marks that respond directly to the effects of the weather. Face the elements and create your own language of marks to put across how it makes you feel.

  • Go outside on a blustery day taking with you a soft pencil or charcoal and sketchpad. (You will also need a hat and coat!)
  • Find a spot where you feel really battered by the wind. (Be brave!)
  • In your sketchbook make marks that reflect how the wind makes you feel. These can be as messy as you want. You could also try drawing the effect of the wind on the things you see around you – the trees, swirling leaves or litter, washing on the line, loose aerial wires hanging from buildings etc. (You could also photograph the effects of the weather.)
  • If you’re really brave, you could also try making marks in response to the rain and the snow. How might these be different?
  • Use your drawings and photographs as source material for a gestural painting, collage, or print.

Create a fire and water patterned artwork or design

Gather a range of source material about water and fire.

  • If you have a local park near you with a pond or lake, photograph or sketch the ripples and reflections. If you live by the sea (lucky you!) photograph the waves and surf. Or simply drop a pebble in a bowl of water and photograph the splash and ripples it makes!
  • Use the internet to source photographs of fires and flames.
  • You could also look at artworks depicting water and fire in Tate’s collection.

Look through all your source images. Can you see any shapes you find interesting and would like to use? Copy these shapes on a piece of paper (or cut and paste them if you are working on the computer).

Try simplifying the shapes, repeating them or rotating them. Combine your water and fire shapes to make an elemental patterned artwork or design.

Collaging the elements: myths and symbols

The theory or idea of the elements was developed in ancient cultures. Classical Greece, Japan, Babylon, China, India all had their versions of what the elements were and why they were important. Sometimes the elements were shown as gods. They are sometimes associated with seasons, crops, compass directions and colours.

  • Research the different ways the elements have been seen in different cultures. Use your school library or Wikipedia.
  • Find out about the different myths, symbols and colours that have been associated with elements. Gather a collection of images, ideas and symbols related to each element.
  • Use your research to create a collage that reflects the different aspects associated with each symbol. Use images, colours and text. Look again at artist Joe Tilson’s prints about the four elements for ideas and inspiration.