The Definition of Shape in Art

Looking for the Basic Shape in Life and Art

Blue Balls and Mirror
Howard George/ Stone/ Getty Images

In the study of art, a shape is an enclosed space, a bounded two-dimensional form that has both length and width. Shapes are one of the seven elements of art, the building blocks that artists use to create images on canvas and in our minds. A shape's boundaries are defined by other elements of art such as lines, values, colors, and textures; and by adding value you can turn a shape into an illusion of its three-dimensional cousin, form. As an artist or someone who appreciates art, it's important to fully understand how shapes are used.

What Makes It a Shape?

Shapes are everywhere and all objects have shape. When painting or drawing, you create a shape in two dimensions: length and width. 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 a third dimension, depth, to the two flat dimensions. Abstract art is the most obvious example of the use of shape, but the element of shape, organic and geometric alike, is central to much if not most artwork.

What Creates a Shape?

At its most basic, a shape is created when a line is enclosed: a line forms the boundary, and the shape is the form circumscribed by that boundary. Line and shape are two elements in art that are nearly always used together. Three lines are used to create a triangle while four lines can make a square.

Shapes can also be defined by the artist using value, color, or texture to differentiate them. Shapes might include a line in order to achieve this, or it might not: for example, shapes created with collages are defined by the edges of contrasting material.

Geometric Shapes

Geometric shapes are those that are defined in mathematics and have common names. They have clear edges or boundaries and artists often use tools such as protractors and compasses to create them, to make them mathematically precise. Shapes in this category include circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, polygons, and so forth.

Canvases are typically rectangular in shape, implicitly defining the clear edges and boundaries of a painting or photograph. Artists such as Reva Urban purposefully break out of the rectangular mold by using non-rectangular canvases or by adding on pieces that protrude out of the frames or by adding three-dimensional swells, dips, and protrusions. In this manner, Urban moves beyond the two-dimensionality of a rectangular confinement but still references the shapes.

Geometric abstract art such as Piet Mondrian's Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930) and Theo van Doesburg's Composition XI (1918) established the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands. American Sarah Morris's Apple (2001) and street artist Maya Hayuk's work are more recent examples of paintings including geometric shapes.

Organic Shapes

While geometric shapes are well-defined, biomorphic or 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 are individual creations of the artists: they have no names, no defined angles, no standards, and no tools that support their creation. They can often be found in nature, where organic shapes can be as amorphous as a cloud or as precise as a leaf. 

Organic shapes are often used by photographers, such as Edward Weston in his remarkably sensual image Pepper No. 30 (1930); and by artists such Georgia O'Keeffe in her Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931). Organic abstract artists include Wassily Kandinsky, Jean Arp, and Joan Miro.

Positive and Negative Space

Shape can also work with the element space to create positive and negative spaces. Space is another of the seven elements, and in some abstract art, it defines shapes. 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.

Negative and positive spaces were used with great imagination by M.C. Escher, in examples such as Sky and Water 1 (1938), in which dark images of a flying goose evolve through progressively lighter and then darker steps into dark swimming fish. Malaysian artist and illustrator Tang Yau Hoong uses negative space to make political commentary on cityscapes, and modern and ancient tattoo artists use positive and negative spaces combining ink and un-tattooed flesh.

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. 

For example, when drawing a portrait of a wolf, an artist might begin 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. Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (1490) used geometric shapes of circles and squares to define and comment on the anatomy of a human male.

Cubism and Shapes

As an acute observer, you can break any object down to its basic shape: 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.

Cubist paintings such as Pablo Picasso's Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No. 3 (1912) use geometric shapes as playful and haunting references to the organic shapes of the human body.

Sources and Further Reading

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Esaak, Shelley. "The Definition of Shape in Art." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Esaak, Shelley. (2020, August 25). The Definition of Shape in Art. Retrieved from Esaak, Shelley. "The Definition of Shape in Art." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).