Art Term Tuesday: Shape

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

A few weeks ago, we discussed the design element of line. The next logical step is to talk about shape! Like line, shape is one of those terms that we know when we see, but may have never thought to try (or have trouble) defining. A shape can be defined as an area enclosed by a line (or several lines!). Sometimes, however, that line isn’t actually there in the form of an outline or contour, but is instead implied by the edge of an area of color or value. There are two main types of shape-organic/freeform and geometric-but within these, there are almost limitless artistic possibilities!

Let’s start with the easier-to-name geometric shapes. These, as implied by the name, are all those you learn about in math class and are defined based on their number of sides: a triangle has three sides, a rectangle four, a pentagon five, and so on. When we work with preschoolers, they are so excited to begin recognizing these shapes in artworks, as they are one of the first concepts early learners are taught. We often capitalize on this by giving each student a card with a shape to look for as we explore the museum, and they quickly begin recognizing these not just in artworks but in the architecture of the building. The entire world is made of shapes! Why else are they important? For an artist working realistically, being able to break down complex forms like the human face into their basic shapes is an important skill: being able to start with an oval-shaped head and modifying it as-needed is a much easier approach than starting from scratch (think about those drawing mannequins where each section of the body is basically an oval). Understanding how shapes change when viewed from different points-of-view is essential, too: a circle tilted to the side becomes a flattened ellipse, while a square viewed at an angle is a trapezoid. Notice the baskets in Clare Leighton’s Apple Picking (below). We know they’d probably be perfect circles when viewed from the top, yet from a side point-of-view, they’re ovals (this is called foreshortening, but that’s a term for another day). The circles and rounded shapes also repeat throughout the artwork, even in the shape of the trees, unifying the composition.

A wood engraving on paper of men picking apples. Two stand on their own ladders, picking apples off the tree. In the foreground, men are piling the apples into larger baskets, while other baskets lay empty to the side. The grove of trees extend into the distance under a light sky.
Clare Leighton, American b. England, 1898-1989. Apple Picking. Wood engraving on paper, 1932. Museum purchase, 1942.15. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

For some abstract artists, their subject matter is shape. What shapes do you see in the Paul Reed painting (below)? While paintings are usually on rectangular canvases, Reed, a prominent Washington Color School artist, enjoyed working on nontraditional shaped supports, and the Gilport series shares the same nontraditional shape. Is it two trapezoids or a hexagon cut in half? Did he paint it and then cut the shape from his canvas or vice versa? Either way, the flatness of the shaped canvas is emphasized because it is unstretched; it’s almost one with the wall, emphasizing the flat shape rather than the three-dimensional form that it would have as a stretched canvas (the Gilport works were actually left unstretched because of the challenge of finding adequate framing). Reed favored a soak-staining technique, applying thinned paint to unprimed, unstretched canvas, which further adds to the flatness and is exemplified here by the soft bands of color in the background. The hard-edged rectangle in the center contrasts sharply with the more freeform shapes of the background, and this overlap creates a sense of depth on an otherwise very flat canvas. 

A hexagonal painting cut in half, each side is symmetrical with a teal square in the middle and a blue background.
Paul Reed, American, 1919-2015. Gilport D XXX. Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 1972. Gift of Mrs. Jean Reed Roberts, 1991.30. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

Gilport D XXX utilizes both kinds of shapes, which leads us to our next definition. Organic, freeform, or biomorphic shapes are not so mathematically precise. They might be found in nature, like a leaf or a cloud, or created by paint pooling on a canvas. They’re likely to represent things that grow, move, or change and be more irregular and curved than geometric shapes; basically, if a shape isn’t readily recognizable by the number of sides, it’s freeform! Henri Matisse became well-known for the variety of organic shapes he created by “drawing with scissors” in his later collage works. Steven Sorman’s winding, spine-like shapes in works like tangle (below) are more excellent examples.

An abstract work by Steven Sorman shows swirling lines of color on a red and yellow background. The rectangular bottom shows an x-rayed spine in paint.
Steven Sorman, American, b. 1948. tangle. Gouache, gesso, pumice gel medium, acrylic on paper on panel, 1999. Gift of Steven Sorman in memory of David Shapiro, 2014.179. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

Shapes and how they’re arranged affect the way an artwork feels. Above, the swooping and overlapping shapes in purples and blues are graceful and soothing, while the spiky black shapes add some conflict. A triangle sitting on its wide base feels stable, but turn it upside down on its point and it is the opposite. Take a look at the stone structures in the two photographs by Barry Andersen below:

A photograph of a group of sheep in the foreground and a pyramid in the background with trees in the far background below a cloudy sky.
Barry Andersen, American, b. 1945. Sheep and Pyramid, Ireland. Inkjet print on paper, 2014, Gift of the Artist, 2014.40. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
Sheep rest on grass under a large rock and cloudy sky.
Barry Andersen, American, b. 1945. Sheep and Standing Stone, Avebury, England. Inkjet print on paper, 2014. Gift of the Artist, 2014.39. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The pyramid is man-made and composed of geometric shapes, and with its wide base, lends a sense of stability to the work. The rock, on the other hand, is freeform in shape (found in nature), and balances precariously on a narrow base.

This is just the tip of the iceberg (oooh, an organic shape!). Look around from where you sit right now: what kinds of shapes can you find? My computer and monitor are all rectangles (geometric), but if I look out the window I can see the soft, organic shapes of magnolia blossoms. The next time you’re at the museum, stop by the Learning Center and see what you can create by arranging the shapes on the magnetic drawing wall, then make your way into the galleries and look for the same shapes in the artworks on view. Compare a work made from organic shapes to one that is more geometric: how do the shapes impact the overall feel of the work?

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