In this guide, learn about shape and its role in the world of art. This includes the different types of shapes and how artists use shape to create striking, well composed artworks.
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Shape in art definition
A shape in art, is a space which is closed off on all sides. The edge of the shape may be defined by a line, colour, value or even texture. In art, a shape is regarded as flat, whereas three dimensional shapes are categorised as being ‘forms’.
Because shapes only exist on two dimensional planes, they have lengths and widths. When painting or drawing on a flat surface, like canvas or paper, you can create the appearance of form, by painting highlights or drawing the shape with a third axis.
Types of shape in art
In art, there are two main types of shape: organic and geometric.
Organic shapes are sometimes referred to as biomorphic shapes. These shapes are often complex and irregular, with curved, uneven sides. If you were to create a realistic drawing of a leaf, the outline of that leaf could be considered an organic shape. Organic forms are everywhere in nature and in life and when we represent them in art, they appear as organic shapes. For this reason, this is one of the most common types of shapes seen in landscape, portrait and still life drawing.
These are also called regular shapes and they are the shapes described in mathematics. Examples include circles, squares, rhombuses, hexagons and trapezoids. These types of shapes can be measured. So artists often use tools such as compasses, rulers and protractors to improve the accuracy of their geometric drawings.
Many modern and abstract artists have made use of geometric shapes in their works. The Cubist movement, started by Pablo Picasso inspired a wave of artists to paint using angular and geometric shapes. Often using multiple perspectives to paint a surreal looking scene. The Cubist movement set the stage for non-representational art to take off.
Elements of art: Shape
Shape is an element of art. It’s one of the seven building blocks (or elements) that can make up a painting or drawing. The other building blocks include line, texture, colour, form, value and space. Shapes can be organic, simple, complex or geometric.
Since shapes are building blocks, or elements in art, they can be used to make much more complex images. The way artists arrange shapes, alongside the other elements, will affect the overall effect of the piece. Shapes can be used to draw attention, create contrast and focal points. Or it can be used to create harmony and balance.
Creating focal points with shape
Focal points are an essential part of a composition. A focal point draws the viewer’s eye in and leads them around the painting.
When creating focal points and emphasis in an artwork, there are two methods, that can be used together. First, we use elements with more visual weight. Visual weight describes how certain types of elements have more dominance, or attract more attention than others. For example, bright colours like red stand out against muted colours like grey. This means that bright colours have more visual weight than colours with lower saturation.
When it comes to shapes, larger shapes have more visual weight than smaller shapes. In this painting by van Rysselberghe, the larger and closer barge stands out in front of the more distant smaller barge.
Equally, complex shapes with many sides, or irregular shapes, stand out against simple shapes like squares. Then clusters of shapes will hold more visual weight than a shape seen on its own. The grouped complex shapes of the people and carts stand out against the simple shapes of the building in Pissarro’s oil painting. Use these facets to help you create the composition in your piece, so you can decide the most salient elements.
Another way to create focus, is to contrast elements. For example, if you draw multiple complex shapes next to one another, even though they hold more visual weight than simple shapes, they can appear repetitive without there being a simple shape present. However, by placing a simple shape next to one of the complex shapes, it creates contrast and therefore emphasises the complex shape. This variety will bring even more focus and attention to the shape you intend to be the focal point.
Constructing a drawing with shapes
One approach to drawing, that can be helpful for beginners when they’re first learning, is to break a reference down into simple shapes. These simple shapes act as guides, from which artists can draw more complex and organic shapes on top of.
I use this method when drawing this monarch butterfly, in this video tutorial. I started with a hexagon shape that I measured with a ruler, as the organic shapes of the wings roughly follow this shape. Guides are a great way of ensuring that the wings would be the same height and width.
You can take a more freeform approach to this drawing method if you choose, without using rulers. Look at your reference and try to replicate it just using simple shapes. Then when you’re happy with the proportions of the shapes, use them as guides to make a more accurate representation of your subject.
Implied shapes and negative space
Implied shapes are shapes that we see in a painting or drawing, that are suggested through the space between subjects or objects and they may not necessarily be defined or enclosed. This is often done through the use of negative space and light and dark values to suggest an overall shape.
Form and shape
A form is a three dimensional shape, that has height, width and depth. Sculptures have form, but paintings and drawings do not. Although artists do not create physical forms in their drawings or paintings, when working with media like pen or paint, they can suggest form. They may draw a shape with a third axis, for example, a building that appears to have depth, or that recedes into the distance using linear perspective. Artists also use colour and value to create the appearance of form. For example, they might start with a shape, like a circle, then establish a light source, then shade shadows and highlights on the circle. This gives the impression of form, even through it’s a drawing on a flat piece of paper.