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"A wonderful painting is made of wonderful shapes." Frank Webb
One of the most difficult things to learn as one begins a journey in painting is to think of the world as a combination of flat shapes rather than realistic objects. Objects and three-dimensional "things" in the real world must be translated into flat, interconnected "shapes" when one designs compositions for paintings on a two-dimensional plain of paper or canvas. This difference in "seeing" is often challenging for amateur artists. Students generally have to draw and paint awhile before this notion sinks in. Understanding shapes is a basic necessity in learning how to compose a good work of art.
What are shapes? Shapes are all of the areas of your painting. They are usually distinguished by contrasts in value, contours of line, or color. All works of art are made up of shapes. Take an old painting or drawing on paper sometime and cut out the major shapes to see how interesting they are. Often this exercise will help you see shapes more easily and will lead to the development of better, more interesting shapes in future work.
"Make each area an interesting shape and show gradation within it." Edgar Whitney
What makes interesting (good) shapes? Interesting (good) shapes are those that are stretched so that one dimension is longer or wider than the other. They typically have interesting edges that interlock much like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They have a slant or movement in or out of the picture plane, but not parallel to it. Shapes should overlap their neighboring shapes to create a sense of depth. No other spatial sensation can countermand that of overlapping shapes. Shapes can be positive or negative. Often we think of the main subject matter as the positive shape and the spaces surrounding it as negative shapes, however the positive / negative roles can be reversed.
The more interesting the edge of the shape, the more interesting the shape, and the more likely it will interlock with other shapes to form a tight composition that is not easily pulled apart. Shapes should also vary in size. Legendary watercolor instructor Edgar Whitney used an easy-to- remember example of the sizes of shapes to use in a painting: they should be papa, momma, and baby sizes.
"When the whole and the parts are seen at once, as mutually producing and explaining each other, as unity in multicity, there results shapeliness." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Integrate Shapes. I had a visiting professor in architecture one semester, Mr. E. Fay Jones, who summed up the quote above more succinctly: "The part is to the whole as the whole is to the part." I believe Frank Lloyd Wright also had some authorship in that saying. It is one that has always stuck with me in both architecture and painting. The key point here is that all of the shapes of the painting must work together to support the entire piece and maintain its integrity, even the smallest shapes and details.
"No kissing please, as this creates a weakly connected shape which will distract the viewer's eye, causing a momentary pause as they puzzle it out." Marion Boddy-Evans
Develop Passages. I love the quote above because it so aptly describes two shapes that barely touch each other. Rather than creating a passage between shapes a "kiss", or weak connection, is a distraction to the eye and actually discourages passage. To keep the eye moving through a work of art solid passages between shapes are required. All shapes should not be totally defined by an outer edge, but must sometimes blend into a neighboring shape to create a visual passage between them. This will allow the eye to move freely between shapes and travel through the painting. An experienced painter can use this technique to lead the eye on a pre-determined path through the painting.
The next time you are about to begin a wonderful work of art think first about how to create wonderful shapes that will Get Your Painting Into Shape!
Until next time - happy painting!