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Saturday, January 17, 2009

And Then There Is Shape

What is a shape?

Try this. A shape is an area enclosed with edges, specific or implied. That's my definition.

I could not believe it. I checked the definition in my trusty old 1960 edition of Webster's New World Dictionary and I found garbley-gook. Then I got curious and started Googling for a definition. Same thing. Even dictionary.com has no clear definition for shape.

Aside from the definition, let's try to understand shape as it pertains to us as artists. First of all, important for artists to know is that every shape has two parts: the space occupied by the shape and the space around the shape. You can't have one without the other. Think about it.
Above is the famous "Hare" by Albrecht Durer along side a portrait by Pat Weaver. Both have in common an acute observation of the shape itself as well as the space around the shape. That's what makes both shapes interesting to look at, even in silhouette.
Look at the silhouette images in reverse. Switch your attention to the black shapes. Notice how interesting each black shape is on its own. Beyond being aware of both shape and the space around it, each artist has made these shapes interesting by careful observation of their edges and how the edges relate to both sides--the shape and its surrounding space.

But before we dwell on that, let's explore some nomenclature.

Since the early 20th century, shapes that occupy space have been called positive shapes whereas the space surrounding a shape is called negative space. I've always objected to these labels and I'm not alone: efforts abound to find more definitive labels, but none seem to stick. So, we will let it stay for now and use the historical labeling. (If any of you has a suggestion for how we might rename these shapes, please leave them in Comments. Thanks.)

Okay, that tells us one characteristic of shapes. The other is that they fall into two catagories--geometric shapes and organic shapes. Loosely defined, geometric shapes are those with precise edges such as a circle, square, triangle, rectangle and so on. Organic shapes are all the others, shapes whose edges are more random. In painting we are likely to be dealing with both.

And here is where the discussion gets tricky: we can know all this about shapes, but using shapes dynamically in our painting and drawing is a bit different from just knowing about them. So how can we make that happen?

Use acute observation and sensitive interpretation. Just that. Rather than look at a shape and call it a rock, for example, first look for the underlying geometric shape that forms its structure, then study intensely the variations of the edges because these variations are what create the real character of the shape.

Next, look closely at the value and textural relationship of both sides of a shape's edge. Sometimes the negative will be blending right into the positive, sometimes there is a softness between the two and sometimes there is a distinct division.

In my judgement, Charles Reid is one of the best shape-makers among our 20/21st century artists.
Charles Reid "Claire" Watercolor on paper

Reid begins each of his paintings by doing a careful contour drawing to discover and anchor the shapes and their relationships to one another. When he begins his painting, he is constantly shifting between negative and positive, sometimes causing edges between the two to be lost; other times, creating a softness between them and at others, showing distinct sharpness to the edges. What results is a lively painting that continues to invite the viewer to return to it.

For me personally, Reid's paintings are like Chopin piano works--I want to revisit them over and over again. I think that desire to keep looking at a art work is one of the marks of its strength and success. And when an artist is truly tuned in to the characteristics of each shape, a lot is bound to get translated into the resulting work.

Try this. Visit websites of artists like Reid, Jennifer McChristian, Richard Schmid, Carolyn Anderson, Robert Genn and others whose work is strong. List the ways they handle shapes in light of this discusssion, then try some of those techniques yourself and watch the world open up.


Dave King said...

Always worth a visit your blog, even if there is nothing new since the last one: always something to learn or brush up on.

Casey Klahn said...

Having just finished teaching my first drawing class, I found that I wanted to also differentiate shape from form.

I sit at your feet, Diane! Thanks for offering these lessons. Well illustrated, which is very valuable.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating discussion here. Looking forward to seeing how you treat the remaining 'visual elements'. Cheers.

VickiRossArt said...

Wonderful, especially about our Charles...Love seeing the painting of Claire as well.

Food for thought on renaming negative/positive shapes. Kinda gives them a psychological connotation! Almost like negative space is BAD...maybe that is why it is a hard concept to teach.

Diana Moses Botkin said...

I've been thinking about shapes too with some recent challenges. Especially for my students, it's good to break things down into the basic four geometric (3-D) shapes.

How about alternative labels like foreground and background shapes? or dominant and non-dominant shapes?

Positive and negative space labels seem fine to me. Negative can be like a photographic negative.

pRiyA said...

i needed a blog like this to help me with lessons for my art students. i'm glad i stumbled in.