Confident Understanding of Form in Art 2022 (Clear & Easy)

Greetings!

Thank you for visiting me at CecelyV.com! ?

I appreciate the opportunity to share what I know with you and contribute to your art journey! Since you’re here it means you want to understand more about form in art, so let’s dig in.

Line, shape, silhouette, and form are just a few elements of The Fundamentals of Art. A firm understanding of how to use and express form in art is essential. The use of form in art is primarily a tool of representational art.

For visual storytelling, our forms need to be on point so the story is felt and understood. Nearly all our sensory experiences connect us to forms and light, and heavily inform our understanding of people and the world around us. Visually expressing form in art helps us connect our stories with our audience.

What is Form in Art?

Simply stated, form is anything whose physical nature includes length, width and depth. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, vehicles, our tech, tools, nature, and more all have a physical form.

Not all of our sensory experiences are visual things, like scent and sound. We don’t “see” the way a pizza smells or the way a bell sounds, but we can draw the source of these sounds and use form in art to connect with our audience’s experiences.

Lines, shapes, and silhouettes help us build and “sculpt” form in art and visually connect us to our audience.

Drawing Comparisons: How I Like to Explain the Elements of Art vs. YouTube or Other Websites You See

In the searches I have done throughout the years, I have encountered a lot of frustration with surface-level information. A general, top-down overview may be enough to get started, but as we dive deeper into our craft, we need more.

Sometimes we need the nuances of our discipline to help us grow past the walls and challenges we encounter. Some of these reveal themselves to us in the doing, which is awesome. Other times, we could use a little more help. Finding awesome-looking YouTube videos that explain nothing, while showing off nice painting skills with pleasant background music, has not been something I’ve ever found terribly helpful.

It’s most helpful to have a window into the process. Understanding aids our practice and helps us build our own processes—which is one of the most challenging aspects of being an artist.

My goal is to share what I have learned with a good balance of the academic and scientific, the practical, the nuanced, and the fun. I want to share the knowledge you can actually use.

Shape and Form in Art

 To understand form in art, it’s important to grasp its building blocks: lines, shape, and silhouette.

Silhouettes are combined solid, monotone shapes (most often in black) whose edges match the outline (outside contour) of the form(s) they represent.

Shapes are simplified, flat versions of form that are created using lines. Shapes are created when lines connect to enclose space. Often the space contained within the line(s) is referred to as “positive” space, while the space outside the shape itself is called “negative” space. “Negative” space can also create shapes and interesting contours.

Lines define the edges. Contour and cross contour lines are useful for giving additional information about the surface volume and plane changes of an object, which guides us when adding light and shadow. Variations of line type and line quality can be used to describe texture and weight.

For our purposes, a line is generally defined as a discernible, one-dimensional path created by a point moving in space. Lines vary in length, width, direction, and texture (smooth, rough, broken, dotted, etc.). They can be solid and visible or implied and invisible. If you can “see” or discern a connection/progression between points or objects, then a line is present.

The Five Main Types of Lines in Art

There are five main types of lines in art:

  • Horizontal Lines
  • Vertical Lines
  • Diagonal Lines
  • Curved Lines
  • Zigzag Lines

A line’s directionality affects the “feel,” impact, and energy of a composition, as well as the language of the shapes you use. Lines are a powerful tool for guiding our viewer’s eye through the story of our image and infusing a sense of movement within our work. I spoke of the versatility of lines earlier, and there are tons of different ways to draw lines and combine line types. It is a fun doodle adventure to see how many combinations you can come up with. Here are a few of my own continuous line doodles:

In these examples, I use a continuous two-dimensional line to see how far I can push the organic and geometric possibilities of a line. I used black on a toned background and focused on creating as many variations of line direction and weight as I could think of at the moment.

As you can see, the variety of the directionality and weight of the lines makes the “feeling” of the lines change: Some feel heavier or darker than others, and some feel more dynamic and energetic. Line quality affects mood and form in art.

Line Type in Art Direction and Weight Shift Shape Examples

Drawing with constant direction changes, as in the zigzagging and wavy lines you can see here, makes these patterns and open shapes feel more energetic and chaotic, or like they are “buzzing.”

By combining the five main types of lines in continuous line drawing, you will see how far you can use lines to explore two-dimensional geometric and organic shapes and patterns in your work. Practice like this also gives you a sense of the kind of shape language and line quality you like, which will inform how you create forms and objects in your drawings.

For another viewpoint on Line in art, here is a video from KQED Art School:

Exploring Shapes: An Important Element of Art

Let’s talk more about shapes. By my count, there are at least 21 distinct basic shapes and dozens of shape combinations classified as mathematical 2D shapes. I didn’t think there were that many until I started researching it, but, helpfully, they each fall into two categories: Polygonal or Curved.

I compiled my own list into the table below and added a sketch of each for visual reference. Having a robust shape library helps us define form in art.

Polygonal ShapesCurved ShapesOther
TriangleCircleMagatama
SquareSemi-circleAsteroid
RectangleOvalSpiral
RhombusHeartFigure eight (lemniscates)
ParallelogramCrescent 
Trapezoid  
Kite  
Pentagon (5 sides)  
Hexagon (6 sides)  
Heptagon (7 sides)  
Octagon (8 sides)  
Star polygons  
2D shapes

Most, if not all, of the shapes above are likely familiar to you. Lines help us make these shapes, and adding depth to each helps us create forms in art. When not being used to construct form in art, shapes are often used for patterns, details, and/or to add or imply texture.

In this next video, KQED Art School does a good job of further illustrating what shape in art is:

I have some visual examples coming up later in this post that should help clarify everything I’ve been discussing, so now let’s dig into a bit of the nuance of form in art.

The Five Basic Forms in Art

There are 5 Basic Forms: The Cube, Sphere, Cylinder, Cone & Pyramid.

 Shapes become forms when depth is added.

  • A circle can become a sphere or a cylinder.
  • A square can become a cube or a pyramid.
  • A triangle can become a cone or a prism.
  • A rectangle can become a cube or a cylinder.

Which form each shape becomes depends on your intent, and its proportions will depend on which perspective you use and where the form sits concerning the horizon line.

Here are a few examples I created in one- and two-point perspective:

Shapes and Forms in Perspective 01

   In two-point perspective, all the forms you create begin with cubes/boxes. In one-point perspective, you can begin with any shape you like.

Shapes and Forms in Perspective 02
Shapes and Forms in Perspective 03-Cylinders

Here’s one more video from KQED Art School that has more great examples of what form in art can look like:

The Five Basic Forms in Nature

The five basic forms are geometric and mathematical, and geometric forms are frequently described as “man-made.” Regarding objects we typically draw as artists, this is probably accurate. However, I don’t want to leave it because it limits our thinking as makers and creators. Geometric forms are found in nature in a variety of areas. So far, I have found that all but one of the five basic forms, the pyramid, frequently occur in nature.

I have only found one example of the pyramid in mineral/gem/crystal formations, and even then, it’s rare. Shapes, silhouettes, and forms are all naturally occurring things observed every day in our world.

Let’s take a look at some examples of the five basic forms as they occur in nature.

Basic Forms in Nature-Grapes
Grapes are naturally occurring spheres.
Basic Forms in Nature-Grapes
Many plants have cone shapes as part of their “fruit” structures.
Basic Forms in Nature-Cubes
Minerals, rocks, and crystals will have cubes, prisms and pyramids as part of their natural structures.
Basic Forms in Nature-Prism & Pyramid
A natural geode can have several prism and pyramid-ish forms.
Basic Forms in Nature-Cylinder
Tree trunks and branches are common examples of cylinders in nature.

Organic Forms and Geometric Forms

Forms in nature are organic and tend to be curvy, free-flowing, and have much more variation in their forms, patterns, and textures. They are also less easily measurable than geometric forms. My own preference is for organic forms. I find organic forms to be the most unique, dynamic, and extremely fun and challenging to draw. Geometric forms can be just as fun and interesting, though I think their mathematically defined natures lend them more to stabilizing and structural uses than dynamism.

Form in art: Breakdowns

First, we need something to draw! I have tried to go about this in an orderly way–going from quite simple to complex forms from one example to the next. I have tried to use easy to find everyday objects for each. For this type of demonstration, I’ve included the unedited reference, then the silhouette, a breakdown of the basic flat shapes, and finally, a form drawing with contour lines.

Form Breakdown-Leaf
A simple leave with its silhouette, basic shapes and contour versions. Most of the leaf’s volume is in its stem. This one of the easiest examples of form in art.
Form Breakdown-Teacup and Saucer
A teacup is a slightly more complex form than a leaf. By breaking out the silhouette, basic shapes, and form shapes, we begin to understand the volume of each part of the cup and saucer. Adding complexity helps us practice form in art.
Form Breakdown-Boots
Breaking out the visual elements works from any angle. Understanding the placement and function of each part of a form helps us to more easily draw the object from any angle.
Form Breakdown-Train
Breaking down forms into simple shapes for the start of your drawing helps you get a better handle on how to draw form in art. Trains have a lot of parts, and each is a form. For the sake of time, I haven’t broken down every single form visible in the reference, but there should be enough be clear.
Form Breakdown-Human Head
It doesn’t get much more complex than the human head. Even so, breaking out the basic shapes first helps give you a foundation to build on. As a complex organic form, the human head has forms on top of forms, and plenty of cross contouring, so it’s a good subject for practicing form in art.

Subjects Without Form: Those Tricky Elements and their Form Changes

Things like water, air, smoke, and fire are not your standard forms. Due to their varied and shifting natures, all the elements are a little more challenging to depict. Being without solid, static forms, they change depending on circumstances and external influences and conditions.

Water, for example, conforms to whatever container it’s in—whether that’s an inorganic glass or a natural container like the Earth (like a lake or a pond). It’s also somewhat self-containing in that it sticks to itself—which is how we get water drops and puddles.

Smoke and gases have volume, but their most defining features are scent and motion. The forms smoke and gases take also depend on what their origins are. Smoke from an explosion or a fireplace has a completely different look compared with smoke from a cigarette or a candle.

Fire also has no static form. The shapes and forms of fire depend very much on whatever is being burned. A wildfire has a much larger, more energetic form than a campfire or a fire from a lighter. All of these are types of fires, but drawing each form in art would require varied handling.

Finally, we have Air. We cannot draw or paint air—it is an invisible messenger. We can only draw its effects and some of what it carries. Air affects how we draw all the other elements and objects present in a scene. For example, we can draw the dust, leaves, and other debris that can be carried on the wind.

How we draw the things carried in the air determines the quality and mood of the atmosphere we are depicting. A scene with a gentle spring breeze has quite a different impact than a howling storm.

Water Splash and Droplets
Water
Without Set Form-Smoke
Smoke
Without Set Form-Fire
Fire
Without Set Form-Air
Air/Wind
Without Set Form-Earth
Earth/Dust

Adding Depth to Create Form in art: A Brief Word on Light & Perspective

Since I just mentioned it, now is a good time to go over some basics of The Fundamentals of Light.

When it comes to the physical world, the only reason our eyes see anything at all is because of light. Until we add the elements of space and light to shapes, they appear flat on our page.

Light and shadow help objects feel “grounded” in the picture plane, so they don’t appear to be “floating in space.”

Adding Depth with Light & Shadow

Lines and shapes serve as early starting points to begin drawing and orienting form in art. In the following step-by-step examples, I show the process of going from a “flat” circle to the illusion of a three-dimensional sphere using light and shadow.

Light and shadow demo
Final lit sphere

This is a completed basic light demo with a sphere. Sometimes it helps to begin at the end, so you know where you want to end up. Next, I’ll break out the steps I used to arrive here.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 01-plain circle

Step One:

Create a solid circle shape.

I used a toned background because it helps me see the contrasts of light and shadow much more easily than a white background.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 02-add light source and light guide

Step Two:

Decide on your light’s source, direction, and angle.

There are several properties involved with light, but I recommend keeping it simple for this exercise.

I’ve chosen a light source similar to the sun but with a more white hue and much less intense.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 03-add center light

Step Three:

Add light to the shape’s surface.

This begins to give the first indication of depth by putting one side in light and the other in the darker mid-tone of the shape’s local tone.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 04-add form shadow-terminus-core shadow

Step Four:

Begin adding the half tone and form shadows.

Form shadows include the terminus/terminator and core shadow. The characteristics of form shadows depend on the number of light sources and their properties.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 05-add cast shadow-occlusion shadow

Step Five:

Add the cast and occlusion shadows.

The cast shadow is the shadow created by the object blocking the light, and the occlusion shadow is the darkest area of shadow where no light can reach.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 06-add highlight-reflected light

Step Six:

Add the highlight and reflected light to your object.

The highlight is a small area on the object that receives the most direct light from the light source, and the reflected light is an area that is receiving a small amount of illumination from the reflection of the light source when it bounces off the ground plane and/or other objects that may be present in your scene.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 07-Sequential

Laid out next to each other, it is easier to see the progression from a flat 2D shape to a 3D sphere with light and depth.

Adding Depth with Space

Another way to begin adding depth to your shapes is to use space and perspective. Drawing into space can add depth to a shape without using “proper” perspective. How you choose to add a sense of depth to your drawings really depends on your goals. For representational art, accurate perspective is a must for your finished product—but not when you’re just sketching to get ideas out.

When you are sketching for fun, or just trying to flesh out your understanding of an object’s forms, perspective is not necessary. These are simple, quick, and sketchy examples.

For these form in art exercises, I focused on turning each shape into a form by extending them out in space, adding planes and contour lines, and adding some simple values.

Shape to Form Using Space-lock and key shape
I started with a random lock and key sort of shape and then extended it down into space. Next, I added some contour lines.
Shape to Form Using Space-lock and key shape-with values
In the last step, I added basic values.
Shape to Form Using Space-Oraganic Land shape-space-planes
Here I went for a random shape with a more organic feel. First, I drew down from its outer contour lines to begin adding depth. Then, I defined the space within the shape by adding some planes. This breaks up the larger space into smaller pieces.
Shape to Form Using Space-Oraganic Land-contour lines-value block in
After defining the planes I added some contour lines and a basic block-in of values.
Shape to Form Using Space-Oraganic Land-contour lines-value range-cast shadows
Lastly, I firmed up the values by including the full range of tones and then added cast shadows.
Ceramic tile shape inspiration
This shape in a ceramic bathroom tile was my inspiration for the next shape. I see a woman’s figure in it, so I tried to recreate that for this next example.
Shape to Form Using Space-Female form-shape-space-planes
Once again I started with a flat shape, then I began adding depth by extending the shape’s contours out into space. Next, I added some simple indications of planes.
Shape to Form Using Space-Female form-shapes-forms-contour lines
The human figure is one of the most complex forms–containing many smaller forms that make up the body–so it was necessary to add additional shapes to create the smaller forms within the body. Each new form adds to the sense of depth. After cleaning up, I added some contour lines to help indicate volume for each form area.

A quick note here: While I kept this simple, dealing with the human figure requires a little familiarity with human anatomy. I included it here to demonstrate that the level of complexity does not really matter because the process remains consistent.

Shape to Form Using Space-Female form-value block-in-value range-cast shadows
After the contour lines were added, I blocked in the values, firmed up the value range, and included the cast shadows.

Adding Depth with Perspective

To turn shapes into forms using perspective, I started with a horizon line, one vanishing point (for 1-Point Perspective), and a few basic shapes. The next steps are essentially the same as in the earlier examples, except that when I extend the corners or contours of the shapes back in space, I am extending them toward the vanishing point.

Shape to Form Using Perspective-Basic Shapes in One Point Perspective
Once the forms are defined, I added some basic lighting.

The process does change a little for 2-Point Perspective in that you do not start with shapes but with simple lines. To achieve depth in perspective, you extend lines from each vertice to each of the two vanishing points.

Shape to Form Using Perspective-Forms in Two-point perspective-Line to Form-Two-Point Perspective
Basic form in art with perspective

Show Yourself Some Love! You Made it!

Okay, so do me a favor, would you? Kiss your hand and touch your forehead. It will feel silly but try it anyway. That is how you kiss your brain! Congratulations, you made it through all that information! It was a lot! I learned the “kiss your brain” thing from my kiddo’s teacher. Isn’t it cute?

In all seriousness, when you hang in there and gain new knowledge, it is super important to acknowledge your effort, work, and growth. It helps boost your morale and confidence. You are awesome, and I am glad you hung in there with me ?

Treat yourself for being awesome!

I hope you found this clear as well as thorough and helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions—or need help if I have confused you—in the comments section below.

Take care and Happy drawing!

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