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The Elements of Art - SHAPE

A Guide for Teachers

Shape! We see them every day, and have learned all about them in school. However, shapes are far more than just things we have to measure and know the names of. Though simple at a first glance, shape is an incredibly important element of art -- possibly one of the most important ones! From different kinds of shapes to silhouettes and shape language, let’s learn all about what shape is and how you can use it to improve your artwork!

Not a fan of reading? Don’t worry. We have a short and sweet video called Shape: Elements of Art Explained that gives you a fun and quick rundown of the element!

What is shape?

An image of a pair of hands arranging varying shapes on a white table.

In simplified terms, shape is a flat area defined by enclosed edges or an outline. The main thing to remember is that shapes are 2D, whereas forms are 3D. Forms are a whole other element of art on their own, but we’ll get to those another day. Artists use shape in all kinds of ways, whether it’s to build up forms or to create shape language. But first, let’s break up shape into two simpler categories to explain -- geometric and organic.

Geometric shapes

Castle and Sun by Paul Klee
"Castle and Sun" by Paul Klee (1928)

Geometric shapes are the shapes you’re most likely more familiar with, since you learn about them in math class as well. They’re considered precise, mathematical and regular -- shapes like circles, rectangles, squares, triangles, and so on are all considered geometric.

Geometric shapes are what make up our man made objects like machines and buildings -- because of their precise nature they’re easier to repeat over and over.

An artist who uses geometric shapes in his work the majority of the time is Paul Klee. His works, such as Castle and Sun, are illustrated using varying geometric shapes like squares, rectangles and triangles. While Klee uses geometric shapes in a very literal way, the majority of artists use shape in less literal ways that we’ll get into later.

Organic shapes

An image of a silhouette drawn by Jessie Chang. The outlines of shapes are drawn directly on top of the silhouette.

Organic shapes (or biomorphic shapes, if you want to get fancy) are shapes that are less regular or mathematical, and none of them really have attributing names. While all geometric names have set formulas and equations, organic shapes are much more challenging to calculate.

While geometric shapes stick with more man made objects, organic shapes make up everything else -- from people to animals to plants, they’re all considered organic shapes. However, just because they’re organic doesn’t mean that they can’t have rigid lines. Many organic shapes do have rigid lines -- take rocks for instance!

In drawing, organic shapes are often simplified and constructed using geometric shapes, with added details and modifications. Confusing? Don’t worry -- I’ll elaborate.

Cubism, its shapes, and their organic geometry

Portrait de Nusch Èluard by Pablo Picasso
"Portrait de Nusch Èluard" by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Cubism, an artistic movement from the early 20th century, can be described as looking at objects through a broken mirror. However, the movement in its entirety appears as organic shapes being built out of geometric shapes -- it depicts humans and natural figures with hard, rigid edges to create a “broken mirror” effect.

Pablo Picasso was one of the most notable figures within the cubism movement, and his piece Portrait de Nusch Èluard showcases the use of geometry perfectly. While we can tell it’s a portrait of a woman, she’s built up using harsh edges and geometry alone. However, with more modern artists, they would take the geometry and add extra details on top to create fully fledged organic figures.

Silhouettes within artwork

A silhouette of a creature drawn by Jessie Chang

Character artists and designers tend to use silhouettes and shape language to create characters and creatures, and understanding geometric shapes are key to using both concepts.

Silhouettes are like shadows, or if you put a light behind someone who was standing behind a curtain. Character and creature concept artists use them to show the overall shape of a character without any details. Designers aim for a more interesting silhouette in order to bring certain elements of characters to life.

Rubin's Vase by Edgar Rubin
Rubin's Vase by Edgar Rubin

Silhouettes are also utilized by illusion artists to create illustrations using positive space and negative space. Space is a whole other element on its own, but positive space is all the figures and objects in a scene, while negative space is the background.

The most common illusion art you may see is Rubin’s Vase, where both the black and white sections of the image form objects -- the white space forms a vase, and the black space forms two faces. These artists take advantage of shapes to create these illusions, where we can recognize two different objects based on the shapes provided.

Shape language

A group of silhouetted figures drawn by Alyssa Wongso. The shapes that make up their body are drawn above them.

Shape language or shape theory is the idea that different shapes give different emotional responses and tell stories without using any words. Thinner, sharper shapes tend to show that a character is more evil or ill-intended, rounder, softer shapes imply that a character is more friendly or approachable, and wider, heftier shapes imply that a character is trustworthy and heroic.

Shapes within the human figure

A character broken down into their shapes, drawn by Jessie Chang. The first figure is drawn with completely geometric shapes, the second is drawn with more stylized shapes and the last is the finished figure.

When starting the sketch for a character, most artists will say to begin with the very basic shapes and forms of the body first. In people, the most notable shapes you’ll see are quadrilaterals and circles, Once all those basic shapes are drawn, you can add extra details on top to get a proper character going.

Over time, the use of these basic geometric shapes slowly become less and less necessary as you develop shortcuts within your own art style. However, this step takes a lot of time and practice -- start off with all your hard basics first before you jump into stylization.

There you have it! Shape is arguably one of the most important elements of art, as it’s a baseline for almost everything that you’ll draw. Understanding it is key to creating artwork that goes from good to great!

Designing with shapes is an easy way to start the creative process. Shape design is a universal visual language that can help kickstart everything from a custom sticker to character design to collage and installation.

Wanna get more in depth with shape? Learn to use shapes to build up drawings for the budding artist in Beginner Drawing, and in Cartooning and Anime we learn to stylize our shapes to create fun, lovable characters. If you want more resources on the elements of art, find them on our art resources for teachers section on our blog!

Art Resources for Teachers:

If you’re a teacher, here are some related resources for your classroom!

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