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How to use shape

Big shapes

When shapes are understood and applied intelligently they have incredible power that can transform an ordinary painter into a great artist so I believe that the best way to learn anything is in small increments. There is too much to consider in painting to get it all right from day one.
This explains why I teach each element separately and then again in relation to the other painting elements and this is very much the case when I approach teaching subjects that are as complex as shape. Many people don’t want to deal with shape: colour and tonal values appear so much more rewarding and offer good results fast.


What is shape?

Shape is any mark or form made on the surface of the painting, including the exterior shape of the painting itself. Shape does not mean ‘objects’: shapes can represent objects, but they can also represent a background and spaces in between objects. Shapes can be big or small; a field can be painted as a large shape as can a small leaf on a tree. Shapes can be simple or complex: an eye is a shape, yet within that shape we find other shapes. A sky can be a large simple shape which contains no other shapes within it. All shapes are equally important in my opinion. It could seem logical to say that a painting’s focal point is of more importance than the surrounding areas, or that the subject is more important than the background. This way of thinking is one of the biggest errors a painter could make. A subject or focal point requires an ideal background to set it off and a background requires a foreground or it will appear ‘lost’. These elements are dependent on each other and all require careful thought. In

understanding this we have just learnt that all shapes, figurative or abstract, large or small, complex or simple, are of equal importance. What differs is their role.


Their role in a painting

Be they abstract, loose and suggested or realistic in rendition, all painting styles require good knowledge of shape as these essential elements have to be eliminated, added, accentuated or subdued in order to strengthen the composition and overall impact of the painting. Figurative or abstract, large or small every shape needs to play a role in the painting, if it doesn’t, it simply shouldn’t be there as it will only needlessly overload the painting and distract the viewer’s eye. Every shape therefore should be of importance, just as every colour and value should be too.


Here are just some of the functions of shapes in a painting:

◆ To understand a subject

◆ To create context

◆ To accentuate another shape

◆ To subdue another shape

◆ To balance another shape within the composition

◆ To attract or guide the eye

It is up to the artist to determine the role of each shape depending on the message he/she wishes to get across. Let’s put this idea into practice to help you understand how it works. Here is a sketch that I did in preparation for a painting. Whether you are painting onsite, with a model or are planning on painting from a photo, there are shapes or objects that are best left out or moved to suit the composition. Others have to be accentuated to give the painting more impact, even when the subject is for example a portrait and seems void of objects. We also need to understand that there are no right or wrong ideas: some will work better than others, but the errors are most often in the method not in the concept. Reshuffling shapes, values and/or colour can fix pretty much any problem.



I was first drawn to this person as a painting model because of her eyes and so this is what I wanted my painting to focus on. As you can see, I was already working along these lines in the preliminary sketch: the eyes were completed in detail, whilst the other areas were simplified to accentuate the strength of the eyes. Understanding where the focal point will be located in a painting pretty much answers all questions that will arise, as everything from that point will be determined with your message

and focal point in mind. It also allows the artist to develop a logical vision, a clear idea that will help to limit hesitation or conflicting ideas within the painting. Shape is an essential element no matter what your subject. In the case of my subject illustrated here, I have a portrait and a background. I had already decided that the focal point would be in my model’s right eye. My next step was to position my portrait and focal point on the paper and in doing so, determine the approximate size and shape of the painting. I decided to place the eyes in the middle of the horizontal axis and in the top half of the painting. The idea was to create a motionless effect and also to elevate the figure creating a feeling of strength and importance.


This circuit must be coherent with your painting’s message. The message here is the figure’s gaze, the focal point being the right eye. From here I had to decide where next to attract the viewer’s eye, again in a way that would strengthen the message rather than distract from it. The idea was to hold the viewer in the gaze, yet at the same time also slowly tell a greater story of age and an expressive face that would contribute to and hopefully strengthen this intense regard.


The surrounding elements within the portrait such as the hair, the ears, the cheeks and the shoulders are all treated according to their position and importance in the painting’s story.

◆ The hair was used to complete the head, to balance the light value of the clothing below and to situate the figure in an era or given period, as hairstyles often do.

◆ The ears are positioned, yet have lost all shape.

◆ The left cheek and shoulder are less defined than those on the right side of the painting. They remain suggested shapes, acting primarily to complete the subject and break up the dark mass of the top half of the painting.

In summary

Shape is used in differing definitions to attract and guide the eye around the composition, placing more or less importance on the various parts of the painting depending on the message the artist wants to convey. Shapes are used in a very graphic manner to establish the painting’s design. Understanding how and when to manipulate shapes, combined with the notion of creating a strong design is a quality that all great artists possess.

The painting’s key points

◆ The focal point in the painting is in the sitter’s right eye

◆ My second key point is placed in the sitter’s left eye to reinforce the regard.

◆ My third key point is in the sitter’s mouth, which contributes to the sitter’s expression and guides the eye down the painting.

◆ My fourth key point shows the signs of aging in the loose skin around the neck.

◆ My fifth key point is in the blue collar on the right of the face.

◆ My sixth key point is a repeat of the colour of the blue collar in the background above the right ear. This directly leads us into the right eye of the sitter once again.


THE MAIN FOCAL POINT: The definition and contrasts of the right eye are accentuated compared to the left eye. The dark features of the right eye are surrounded by light values, almost like a theatre spotlight.

THE SECOND KEY POINT: The slightly less contrasting left eye attracts the viewer’s gaze directly after the focal point. The viewer’s regard is tempted to look at one eye after the other, like a tennis ball being touching the net.

THE THIRD KEY POINT is located in the center of the mouth. The corners of the mouth are painted with subdued or suggested shape, reducing the definition and importance of the mouth within the painting.

THE FOURTH KEY POINT: Below the mouth the majority of lines are vertical, accentuating the aging skin on the throat: a detail that adds to the message of the painting and the character of the person. Here we see only suggested shape.


THE FIFTH KEY POINT: The blue collar has even less definition in shape. We are only attracted to this shape because of its

colour saturation. If you look carefully, you will notice that it is a directional line that leads the eye back up the painting.


THE SIXTH KEY POINT has lost all definition, our eye is only attracted to the more vibrant colour.

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