What Is the Definition of Shape in Art?

Artists Look for the Shape in Everything

Blue Balls and Mirror
Howard George/ Stone/ Getty Images

A shape is one of the seven elements of art. When defining it within the study of art, shape is an enclosed space. Its boundaries are defined by other elements of art such as lines, values, colors, and textures. As an artist or someone who appreciates art, it's important to fully understand how shape is used.

What Creates a Shape?

In its most basic form, a shape is created when a line is enclosed. Line and shape are two elements in art that are nearly always used together.

For example, three lines are used to create a triangle while four lines can make a square.

In other instances, you can use value, color, or texture to define a shape. It can or cannot include a line in order to achieve this.

Shapes are limited to two dimensions: length and width. There are also two types of shapes used in art, geometric and organic.

What Are Geometric Shapes?

Geometric shapes are those that are defined in mathematics and have common names. They have clear edges or boundaries and we use tools to create them. Shapes in this category include circles, rectangles, triangles, polygons, and so on.

What Are Organic Shapes?

While geometric shapes are well-defined, organic shapes are just the opposite. Draw a curving, semi-circular line and connect it where you began and you have an amoeba-like organic, or freeform, shape. 

Organic shapes have no names, no defined angles, and no standards, they are simply organic.

They can often be found in nature, such as a cloud or a leaf, and artists rely endlessly on organic shapes in their work. After all, if all art was created geometrically, it would be quite boring.

Shapes and Space

Shapes are everywhere and all objects have shape. When painting or drawing, you create a shape of that drawing in two dimensions.

You can add value to give it highlights and shadows, making it look more three-dimensional.

However, it is not until form and shape meet, such as in sculpture, that a shape becomes truly three-dimensional. That is because form is defined by including height along with length and width.

Shape also relates to space in art. Another essential element, space can often be used to reference negative and positive space, which can define a shape. For instance, if you draw a solid black coffee cup on white paper, the black is your positive space. The white negative space around it and between the handle and the cup helps define the basic shape of that cup.

Seeing Shape Within Objects

In the first stages of drawing, artists will often break their subjects down into geometric shapes. This is intended to give them a basis on which to create the larger object with more details and in correct proportion. 

If you look at many drawing tutorials, you will often notice this initial step. When drawing a portrait of a wolf, for example, the artist begins with basic geometric shapes to define the animal's ears, snout, eyes, and head. This forms the basic structure from which he will create the final work of art.

You can look at any object in the same way: everything is made up of a series of base shapes. Exploring the work of the Cubist painters is a great way to see how artists play with this elementary concept in art.