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Elements of Art: Shape

Author: Lucy Lamp

What is a shape?

What is a shape?

A shape is a closed line. A shape is flat.

Like lines, we see shapes all around us. One of the easiest ways to see the shape of an object is to look at shadows. Shadows flatten a three dimensional object into a flat shape. This enables you to see the object in a different way, without details like color and texture.


Shadow of a snow bank   image: Lucy Lamp



This self portrait uses shadows to create flat shapes and a silhouette image.  Why would the artist choose to use shadows and flat shapes to portray himself? What does this image tell you about him?

André Kertész  Self Portrait, Paris 1926
Gelatin silver print 11 1/16 x 10 3/4 in. (image) 13 15/16 x 11 in. (35.4 x 2...
Minneapolis Institute of Arts  Gift of Fred Scheel



Organic shapes and geometric shapes

Like lines, there are organic shapes and geometric shapes. Geometric shapes are mathematically determined. Organic shapes are the type you see in nature.



                              Organic Shapes  image: Lucy Lamp                                 



 Geometric Shapes image: Lucy Lamp

Although these two photos both have water in them, they feel differently from each other because of the use of organic or geometric shape. The one on the right appears more ordered and controlled.




Positive and negative shapes

Positive shapes are the shape of the actual object (like a window frame). Negative shapes are the spaces in between objects (like the space within the window frame).

In the following two images it is very easy to see the distinction between the positive shapes and negative shapes (the structures are the positive shapes, and the space within the arches are the negative shapes).

Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater) Rome, Italy  72-80 C. E.


Aqueduct, Segovia: detail of arcade, view from west, ca. early 1st-early 2nd century C.E.Segovia, Castile, Spain
Image courtesy of Mary Ann Sullivan, Digital Imaging Project


The next image--the yin yang symbol--is a good example of the contrast and ambiiguity of positive and negative shapes.

Yin and Yang Symbol with white representing Yang and black representing Yin.



Implied Shapes.

Like line, there are implied shapes. These are the spaces between objects that are placed in relationship to each other. We see those spaces as shapes, even though they are not meant to be.

In this image, the shapes are placed in a way that causes us to "see" a circular shape in the center, although it is not actually a shape.



In this gouache and collage work by Henri Matisse, the colored shapes interact with each other according to their size and color. The spaces between them create more shapes, and these interact with the colored shapes, creating a lively, animated composition


Henri Matisse  The Snail, 1953

Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, 287 cm × 288 cm (112 3/4 × 108 inches), Tate Gallery, London




Hard and soft-edged shapes

Like line, shapes have different characteristics.  One characteristic is the hardness or softness of its edges. Hard edged shapes are clearly distinguised from each other and give a sense of order, clarity, and strength.  Soft edged shapes have a tendency to blend with each other or the ground. They convey a sense of fluidity, ambiguousenss, flexibility, and tend to feel lighter in weight.


Hard Edged: Charles Sheeler

Charles Sheeler   Golden Gate, 1955
Oil on canvas           H. 25 1/8 in. (63.8 cm), W. 34 7/8 in. (88.5 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1955 (55.99)

Source: Charles Sheeler: Golden Gate (55.99) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Soft-Edged: Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, Gray weather, Grande Jatte 1888.

Size: 28 by 34 inches (71 by 86 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA.

Source: WebMuseum, Paris, Originally uploaded to en.wikipedia by Arpingstone


Figure Ground Relationship

Figure, Ground and Picture Plane

The two dimensional surface on which the image is made is called the picture plane.  The shape or form placed on it is called the figure. The space around the figure is the ground. An easy way to remember this is to think of a portrait. The person in the portrait is the figure. The space around the person (you might think of it as the background) is the ground. The surface on which it  is made (paper, canvas, etc) is the picture plane.

There is always a relationship between the figure and the ground. Sometimes it is very clear: the figure can easily be recognized as a postive shape, and the ground is easily seen as a negative shape.


Here, the evening gown on the mannequin is the figure, and the space around it is the ground.


Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel  Evening dress, 1938
Black silk net with polychrome sequins

Metropolitan Mueseum of Art   Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 Source: Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel: Evening dress (C.I.46.4.7a-c) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art



Sometimes it is not so easy to distinguish the figure and the ground. In this image, if you look at it long enough what you see as the positive shape becomes the negative shape, and what was the negative shape can also be read as a positive shape.  This called a figure-ground reversal.

Cup or faces paradox

Original image:Cup or faces paradox.jpg uploaded by User:Guam on 28 July 2005, SVG conversion by Bryan Derksen



Artists can have a lot of fun playing with the relationship between figure and ground. M.C. Escher is known for creating ambigous shapes and spaces in his work. In these images you can see the transition between figure and ground, and how one object changes into another.

 M. C. Escher    Metamorphosis II 1   939-1940   woodcut 19.2 cm × 389.5 cm (7.6 in × 153.3 in)


Henri Matisse, Kara Walker, and Pablo Picasso

Henri Matisse, Kara Walker, and Pablo Picasso: Three artists using shape as a very significant aspect of the following artworks. Each uses shape in a different manner and for a different purpose. The result: three very different ways of seeing shape.

Henri Matisse became interested in the idea of flattening the forms in his paintings. He eventually took this to the point of using flat shapes altogether in the artwork. Toward the end of his life, while confined to a wheelchair, he created large paper cutouts that he attached to the wall using a long pole.


In this collage compositon, notice how the shapes--their sizes, shapes, and colors--interact with each other. They become very animated, almost like a dance.  The result is whimsical and playful (in contrast  to the title).

Henri Matisse    Le Lanceur De Couteaux  (The Knife Thrower) 1943     Paper collage

More Henri Matisse:



Compare this to Kara Walker's work. She also uses flat shapes, but she uses them, in relationship to each other, to tell a story. Her work suggests silhouette portaits that were once very popular. However, the large size, placement on the wall itself, and the subject matter stands in stark contrast to the idea of the silhouette portrait.

She refers to the days of slavery in the South, sometimes in very disturbing ways.  She also references stereotypical imagery of African-Americans during that time. Because the use of flat shape deletes unecessary details, the subject matter cannot be avoided or ignored.The result is a strong statement that uses formal elements in an effective and powerful way.

Kara Walker, Cut, , Cut paper and adhesive on wall, Brent Sikkema NYC.


Kara Walker  The Means to an End...A Shadow Drama in Five Acts 1995
etching, aquatint on paper
Walker Art Center  Image Copyright: Courtesy Walker Art Center


For more on Kara Walker go to the Art 21 (PBS) website:



Compare Kara Walker's work with this very famous painting by Pablo Picasso. Picasso also uses a limited color palette--black and white with the addition of gray--and flattened shapes to tell a story.

The painting is a response to the bombing of Guernica, in Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish government commissioned Picasso to create a mural for the 1937 World's Fair in Paris.

The flattened, twisted, grotesque shapes and the sense of confusion effectively portray the tragedy of war. The use of flat shapes and limited details allows us to focus on the agonized posture of the figures and their horrified facial expressions.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas. 349 cm × 776 cm. Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Source page: (

More on Picasso's painting Guernica:



1.  Take some time to look around you and notice all of the shapes you see.  Make a simple sketch of each and record where you found them.

2. Make a scribble drawing like you used to do as a child. Color in the shapes you find and play around with them.

3. Make a shape collage.  Gather several sheets of paper of varying colors. This can be any kind of paper. Cut them into different shapes (without drawing them or planning them ahead of time). Have fun experimenting with the types of shapes that you make. Glue them onto another sheet of paper in any way that you like. Play around with the relationship between them and positive and negative shapes.

4. Look around you and see the negative spaces between or within objects (between the rungs of a chair or table, for example). Just draw the negative shapes. Then play around with what you've drawn if you like. Do whatever comes to mind, like drawing on them or adding other objects.

5. Create your own figure -ground reversal. Draw an object or a pattern of several of them.  Have them change gradually so that the negative spaces become another object, and the figure and ground are reversed.