Shape Basics
A shape is an enclosed area. The boundary may be a line, or it may be implied by a change in color or texture. (Color has three aspects — value, hue and chroma; a change in any of these can create a shape boundary.)
The area that comprises a shape can be defined by a line or a change in value, hue, chroma or texture. The shape boundary may be hard or soft.
Form ~ a three-dimensional shape. A form has height, width and depth and encloses volume.
Like the picture plane, a shape has height and width only. Shading and perspective can make a shape seem like a form.
Three spheres I, by M. C. Escher (wood engraving, 1945).
Escher's Hand with reflecting globe (lithograph, 13 x 9, 1935).
Types of shapes
Shapes can be classified as follows:
Rectilinear shape ~ a shape bounded by straight lines or edges.
Curvilinear shape ~ a shape bounded by curving lines or edges.
Geometric shape ~ a shape that conforms to the principles of Euclidean geometry. Most geometric shapes are simple: triangles, squares, trapezoids, parallelograms, rectangles and other simple polygons (pentagons, hexagons, etc.), as well as circles and ellipses.
Organic shape ~ a shape with a curving boundary that is reminiscent of shapes found in nature. They're usually irregular and often asymmetrical. Organic shapes are also called biomorphic shapes.
All of the quadrilaterals (four-sided polygons) in the op art painting on the left are rectilinear as well as geometric. The eight-pointed star in the center of the origami piece on the right isn't a geometric shape (because it doesn't conform to the principles of Euclidean geometry), but it is rectilinear. Left: Cheyt M, by Victor Vasarely (tempera on canvas, 107 x 106, 1970). Right: Octagonal stellation, step 2, by Eric Gjerde (2006). Both of these works are tessellations (defined below).
Op art utilizes optical illusions. It's one of the 20th-century styles that have been taken up by today's digital artists. Spheroid magnetism, by Artpolygon Studio (a group of 3d graphic design artists). This computer desktop wallpaper pays tribute to the Vasarely painting at left.
These paintings feature curvilinear shapes. The surrealistic head in the upper left is composed almost entirely of geometric shapes (circles). In the painting next to it, the featured shapes look organic because they're based on the pelvic bones of a cow. Top left: Salvador Dali's Galatea of the spheres, (oil, 27 x 21, 1952). Top right: Pelvis with the distance by Georgia O'Keeffe (oil, 1943). Bottom: Pablo Picasso's Guernica (oil, 137 x 306, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid). The curvilinear shapes in Guernica are neither geometric nor organic. In addition, they look flat. Many 20th-century art styles disavowed shading and perspective. Some promoted a personal and idiosyncratic approach to portraying people and objects; others opposed representing reality altogether.
Curvilinear relationships, by digital artist Aquavel (2008).
Tessellation ~ a tiling of the picture plane with shapes. The shapes can't overlap, there can't be any gaps, and all of them must be positive.
M. C. Escher's Metamorphosis II (woodcut, 1940).
Escher's Plane-filling motif with reptiles (woodcut, 1941).
Positive versus negative shapes
In a tessellation, shapes cover the entire picture plane. In fact, every picture plane that displays an image is covered by shapes. We don't pay much attention to some of them because we've assigned them to the background.
Positive shape ~ a shape identified by the viewer as an object or part of an object (a face, a nose, a tree, a car, a cloud, a blue circle, an area of yellow, etc).
Negative shape ~ a shape that shares a boundary with a positive shape and that the viewer assigns to the background. Negative shapes are also known as negative space.
The difference between a tessellation and other compositions is that, in a tessellation, all of the shapes are positive. Using Escher's reptiles as an example, the boundary of one lizard is defined by the boundary of another, and so on and so on.
O'Keeffe's Pelvis III (oil, 1944). Here, the sky in the distance is the positive shape and the pelvic socket is the negative shape.
Two paintings by Picasso. In the cubist still life on the left, we perceive all but one of the shapes as objects — as scraps of painted cardboard, perhaps. (The exception is the outermost shape, which frames the composition.) By foregoing shading and perspective, by reducing the shapes of the guitar and table to abstractions, and by placing them in a universe in which the laws of Newtonian physics don't seem to operate, Picasso has left us little choice but to interpret the shapes on this picture plane as shapes on a picture plane. In the charming painting on the right he has portrayed his little boy accurately and three-dimensionally. As a consequence, we relegate the shapes around the child's head to the background. Left: Guitar on a table (ink and gouache on paper, 5 x 4, 1919, Musee Picasso, Paris). Right: Portrait of Paul Picasso as a child (oil, 11 x 9, 1923, Museo Picasso, Malaga, Spain).
Picasso was an extremely talented, classically trained artist. He was 15 when he painted this portrait of his father, who was also a professional painter as well as an art professor. (Watercolor, 10 x 7, 1896, Museu Picasso, Barcelona).
Figure-ground relationship ~ in a two-dimensional image, the relationship between the the subject (the figure) and the background (the ground).
As the following paintings by surrealist painter Rene Magritte illustrate, which shapes are figure and which are ground is a matter of perception.
The empty space behind the man is certainly in the background. When you focus on the bird, is the man in the background, too? The subject of the painting on the right is the black hole in the door. Can a negative shape be the subject of a painting? Left: The man in the bowler hat by Rene Magritte (oil, 26 x 20, 1964). Right: The unexpected answer, also by Magritte (oil, 32 x 21, 1933).
Magritte's The son of man (oil, 46 x 35, 1964).
Two more paintings by Magritte. What's the subject of the one on the left ~ the bird's nest in the foreground, the mountain in the background, or their relationship? The painting on the right forces us to confront the ambiguity of the figure-ground relationship. Left: The domain of Arnheim (oil, 58 x 45, 1962.) Right: The human condition (oil, 1935, 39 x 32, Simon Spierer Collection, Geneva).
An earlier version of The domain of Arnheim (oil, 1949).
Dali's take on the figure-ground question. Slave market with the disappearing bust of Voltaire (oil, 18 x 26, 1940, on loan to the Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida).
The chalice/kiss figure is the classic example of an ambiguous figure-ground relationship.
Figure-ground is a principle of Gestalt psychology. It refers to our tendency to pick certain pieces of visual information out of a scene and identify them as parts of a whole — parts of a dog, parts of a table, parts of a still life, parts of fireworks grand finale, whatever. Everything that isn't seen as belonging to that whole is pushed into the background.
Gestalt (pronounced "gesh-TALT") means shape or form in German.
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