Sunday, November 3, 2013

Artist Tip #21 - Good Shapes

In artist tip #9, we introduced the Elements of Design - the elements we have to work with to create our paintings.  The first element we discussed was shape.  Our entire painting is made up of shapes.  But what makes a "good" shape - one that is pleasing, interesting, engaging, and not boring to the viewer?  That's what we'll be talking about in this artist tip.  In the following, I'll take you on a journey from a bad shape to a good shape, based on my personal experience, and what I've learned from some very accomplished artists.

To begin, let's consider a very simple painting of a barn, rendered in only two values and one color, so that it's simply a shape:

Unfortunately, this is a very boring shape.  Any shape that "fits into" an approximate square or circle, as this one does, seems boring.  There is too much sameness for it to be interesting.  So, let's try to make this shape better by moving it from nearly a square to an oblong:

That's a bit better.  This is definitely less boring, but it's not going to hold anyone's interest for too long.  Let's try something else - let's give it a diagonal or oblique "thrust":

Now we're seeing a more interesting shape.  But we're not there yet.  Take a look at this version:

Here, we've added shapes and lines all around the edge of the previous version - a cupola, a weather vane, smoke stacks, shrubs, fence posts, tree limbs, a utility pole with wires, a road - that all connect with the basic barn shape.  They lock the shape into its environment, rather than leaving it looking like a cutout pasted on.  And they add lots of interest - there is plenty for the viewer's eye to wander over in this version.

So I suggest that a "good" shape has the following major characteristics:

  • two different dimensions
  • oblique
  • incidents at the edges

There are many design errors that can lead to a boring painting, but one of the major ones is not paying attention to making good shapes.  Whenever you're working on a painted shape, think about keeping its major dimensions unequal, giving it an oblique character, and adding plenty of small incidents at its edges to lock it into the rest of the painting and to make it interesting to the viewer.  And these characteristics are automatically transferred to the other shapes touching this shape - in this case, to the negative space of the background.

One of the reasons I enjoy painting ships is that they automatically create good shapes - their hulls are unequal, oblique, even curved shapes, and the masts, rigging, and sails produce many edge incidents.

If you'd like to review some of my past artist tips, you can find them all by scrolling down to the search box in the right-hand column and typing in "artist tips".