The Definition of 'Form' in Art

Illustration depicting the definition of "form" in art.

Illustration by Grace Kim. ThoughtCo. 

The term form can mean several different things in art. Form is one of the seven elements of art and connotes a three-dimensional object in space. A formal analysis of a work of art describes how the elements and principles of artwork together independent of their meaning and the feelings or thoughts they may evoke in the viewer. Finally, form is also used to describe the physical nature of the artwork, as in metal sculpture, an oil painting, etc.​

When used in tandem with the word art as in art form, it can also mean a medium of artistic expression recognized as fine art or an unconventional medium done so well, adroitly, or creatively as to elevate it to the level of fine art.

An Element of Art

Form is one of the seven elements of art which are the visual tools that an artist uses to compose a work of art. In addition, to form, they include line, shape, value, color, texture, and space. As an Element of Art, form connotes something that is three-dimensional and encloses volume, having length, width, and height, versus shape, which is two-dimensional, or flat. A form is a shape in three dimensions, and, like shapes, can be geometric or organic.

Geometric forms are forms that are mathematical, precise, and can be named, as in the basic geometric forms: sphere, cube, pyramid, cone, and cylinder. A circle becomes a sphere in three dimensions, a square becomes a cube, a triangle becomes a pyramid or cone.

Geometric forms are most often found in architecture and the built environment, although you can also find them in the spheres of planets and bubbles, and in the crystalline pattern of snowflakes, for example.

Organic forms are those that are free-flowing, curvy, sinewy, and are not symmetrical or easily measurable or named. They most often occur in nature, as in the shapes of flowers, branches, leaves, puddles, clouds, animals, the human figure, etc., but can also be found in the bold and fanciful buildings of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi (1852 to 1926) as well as in many sculptures.

Form in Sculpture

Form is most closely tied to sculpture, since it is a three-dimensional art and has traditionally consisted almost primarily of form, with color and texture being subordinate. Three-dimensional forms can be seen from more than one side. Traditionally forms could be viewed from all sides, called sculpture in-the-round, or in relief, those in which the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background, including bas-relief, haut-relief, and sunken-relief. Historically sculptures were made in the likeness of someone, to honor a hero or god.

The twentieth century broadened the meaning of sculpture, though, heralding the concept of open and closed forms, and the meaning continues to expand today. Sculptures are no longer only representational, static, stationery, forms with a solid opaque mass that has been carved out of stone or modeled out of bronze. Sculpture today may be abstract, assembled from different objects, kinetic, change with time, or made out of unconventional materials like light or holograms, as in the work of renowned artist James Turrell.

Sculptures may be characterized in relative terms as closed or open forms. A closed-form has a similar feeling to the traditional form of a solid opaque mass. Even if spaces exist within the form, they are contained and confined. A closed-form has an inward-directed focus on the form, itself, isolated from ambient space. An open form is transparent, revealing its structure, and therefore has a more fluid and dynamic relationship with the ambient space. Negative space is a major component and activating force of an open form sculpture. Pablo Picasso (1881 to 1973), Alexander Calder (1898 to 1976), and Julio Gonzalez (1876 to 1942) are some artists who created open form sculptures, made from wire and other materials.

Henry Moore (1898 to 1986), the great English artist who, along with his contemporary, Barbara Hepworth (1903 to 1975), were the two most important British sculptors in modern art, both revolutionized sculpture by being the first to pierce the form of their biomorphic (bio=life, morphic=form) sculptures. She did so in 1931, and he did in 1932, noting that “even space can have form” and that “a hole can have as much shape meaning as a solid mass.” 

Form in Drawing and Painting

In drawing and painting, the illusion of three-dimensional form is conveyed through the use of lighting and shadows, and the rendering of value and tone. Shape is defined by the outer contour of an object, which is how we first perceive it and begin to make sense of it, but light, value, and shadow help to give an object form and context in space so that we can fully identify it.

For example, assuming a single light source on a sphere, the highlight is where the light source hits directly; the mid-tone is the middle value on the sphere where the light does not hit directly; the core shadow is the area on the sphere that the light does not hit at all and is the darkest part of the sphere; the cast shadow is the area on surrounding surfaces that is blocked from the light by the object; reflected highlight is light that is reflected back up onto the object from the surrounding objects and surfaces. With these guidelines as to light and shading in mind, any simple shape can be drawn or painted to create the illusion of a three-dimensional form.

The greater the contrast in value, the more pronounced the three-dimensional form becomes. Forms that are rendered with little variation in value appear flatter than those that are rendered with greater variation and contrast.

Historically, painting has progressed from a flat representation of form and space to a three-dimensional representation of form and space, to abstraction. Egyptian painting was flat, with the human form presented frontally but with the head and feet in profile. The realistic illusion of form did not occur until the Renaissance along with the discovery of perspective. Baroque artists such as Caravaggio (1571 to 1610), explored the nature of space, light, and the three-dimensional experience of space further through the use of chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark. The portrayal of the human form became much more dynamic, with chiaroscuro and foreshortening giving the forms a sense of solidity and weight and creating a powerful sense of drama. Modernism freed artists to play with the form more abstractly. Artists such as Picasso, with the invention of Cubism, broke up the form to imply movement through space and time.

Analyzing an Artwork

When analyzing a work of art, a formal analysis is separate from that of its content or context. A formal analysis means applying the elements and principles of art to analyze the work visually. The formal analysis can reveal compositional decisions that help to reinforce content, the work’s essence, meaning, and the artist’s intent, as well as give clues as to historical context.

For example, the feelings of mystery, awe, and transcendence that are evoked from some of the most enduring Renaissance masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci, 1517), The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo, 1512), the Last Supper (Leonardo da Vinci, 1498) are distinct from the formal compositional elements and principles such as line, color, space, shape, contrast, emphasis, etc., the artist used to create the painting and that contribute to its meaning, effect, and timeless quality.

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Marder, Lisa. "The Definition of 'Form' in Art." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Marder, Lisa. (2021, December 6). The Definition of 'Form' in Art. Retrieved from Marder, Lisa. "The Definition of 'Form' in Art." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).