form in art

Confident Understanding of Form in Art 2021 (Clear & Easy)

Table Of Contents

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, so let’s dig in.

Line, shape, silhouette and form are just a few of the foundational elements for art of all types. As visual artists it is our goal to tell a story through our work, so a firm understanding of how to use and express forms is essential. The use of form is primarily a tool of representational art. If you are leaving your message up to broad interpretation, you don’t really need to concern yourself with creating the illusion of three-dimensional form.

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 the people and world around us. The ability to express these experiences visually is what helps us connect the stories in our art with our audience.

Right, so…

What is Form in Art?

Simply stated, form is anything whose physical nature includes length, width and depth. Everything we interact with and manipulate in the physical world has, or originates from, form.  The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the vehicles and tech we operate, tools, nature, and more all have physical form.

Some of our sensory experiences, like smell and sound, are not visual things. We don’t “see” the way a pizza smells, or the way a bell sounds. However, we can draw the source of these sounds, and then use our understanding of expressing form visually to connect with our audience’s remembered experiences of them.

Shared sensory experiences connect us all. As artists we can harness the power of our shared experiences to create even more powerful, meaningful, and inclusive connections. Lines, shape, and silhouette help us build and “sculpt” our forms visually, connecting us, through our work, to our audience. Of course, forms also need the application of light to complete the expression and illusion of depth, but let’s tackle one thing at a time. After all, forms must first be constructed before they can be lit.

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

At this point you may have noticed that I have a rather nuanced way of explaining things. That is not only genuinely a reflection of my personality, but also intentional. 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, and that 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.

I do not like putting in the time and effort to search for knowledge, only to come up short on details or come away with information I cannot use in my work. It feels like a waste of time, and who wants that? I like to have a window into the process to help me understand what I am seeing the artist do on screen. 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 here on my site is to share what I have learned with a good balance of the academic, the practical, the nuanced and the fun. I want to share knowledge you can use.

Shape and Form in Art

 To understand form 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. These spaces are referred to as “negative” because they don’t contain any of the information of the forms and shapes, such as value, patterns, texture, etc.

Lines define the edges of shapes and silhouettes, as well as the contours and edges of forms. Contour and cross contour lines are useful for giving additional information about surface volume and plane changes, which helps guide us when adding values. Variations in line type and line quality can be used to describe texture and weight. Lines are extraordinarily versatile vehicles for communication across art, language, mathematics, and science.

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 line 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 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 in the moment.

As you can see, 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 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 art 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:

I know some of you may be thinking this all sounds terribly remedial and obvious, but please bear with me. I am by nature a very thorough person, and it’s important to me that I not make assumptions anyone’s level of knowledge or understanding. Plus, art is HUGE, and I would like to help as many people in their artistic endeavors as I can.

Quick side note: In my Journeys series, I’m documenting my progress toward mastery of line, silhouette and form as I go through Peter Han’s Dynamic Sketching courses & Dynamic Bible.  I am not currently able to actually sign up/enroll in Peter Han’s awesome online Dynamic Sketching courses what with the Coronavirus pandemic, managing virtual learning for my tiny humans, a day job, and carving out studio time. You know, life these days [emoji here]). 

I’ve done the next best thing and cobbled together my own self-guided version by looking at the courses’ syllabuses and examples past students have posted online. Once I can sign up and actually take those courses, I’ll document everything and review the courses here in my blog.

Exploring Shapes: An Important Element of Art

Let’s talk more about shapes. As far as I can tell there are at least 21 distinct basic shapes, and dozens more shape combinations that are classified as mathematical 2D shapes. I did not think there were that many until I started researching it, but, helpfully, they all fall into two categories: Polygonal or Curved. The list below contains the names and examples of shapes that are sufficiently, visually distinctive enough to each be shapes on their own—rather than being composed of shape combinations.

Keep in mind, this list merely represents my opinion. There are multiple lists of different things defined as shapes beyond curves and polygons, including symbols, surfaces, polytopes (what these are, I do not know), mathematical shapes, etc. I compiled my own list into the table below and added a sketch of each for visual reference.

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 pictured above are likely familiar to you. Lines help us make these shapes and adding depth to each helps us create forms. For representational art, I have found shapes—when not being used to construct forms—are more often used for patterns, details and/or to add or imply texture.

For example, the pattern on a character’s costume, or the design of a tattoo or tribal face paint—they are left as “flat”, two-dimensional shapes that are being used to describe the three-dimensional form on whose surface they live.

In contrast, in graphic design shapes seem to be the focus rather than form. When you Google “graphic design” and click on “images”, you’ll see a lot of line, shape and color used in conjunction with the principles of design to create compelling, vivid “graphic” images. I’ve found that when the term “graphic quality” is used in art, it usually means the emphasis is on crisp shapes and line quality.

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.

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 in relation to 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 being “man-made”. Regarding objects we typically draw as artists, this is probably accurate. However, I don’t want to leave it there 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, occur frequently in nature.

I have only found one example of the pyramid in mineral/gem/crystal formations, and even then it’s still rare. Shapes, silhouettes, and forms are all naturally occurring things that can be observed every day in our world. Given how much knowledge and inspiration we have always drawn from the natural world, I disagree with the idea that geometric shapes/forms are somehow inherently “man-made”.

If I might briefly digress: Technically, humans are not capable of creating anything entirely on our own because we cannot create something from nothing. We must always rely upon our Earth’s resources as a springboard for anything we make, and those resources have been here far longer than we have. Just sayin’.

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 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.

If anything seems unclear or confusing, please let me know by messaging me through my Contact page or in the comments section.

Form Breakdown-Leaf
A simple leave with its silhouette, basic shapes and contour versions. Most of the leaf’s volume is in its stem.
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.
Form Breakdown-Boots
Breaking out the visual elements works from any angle. Here we can see one of these boots from a three-quarter view and one from the rear. 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 what you are trying to do—especially when the forms are especially complex. Trains have a lot of parts, and each is a form. Some parts have parts, and those are all forms to break down and understand. For the sake of time, I haven’t broken down every single form visible in the reference, but there should be enough here to be clear.

Breaking down forms into simple shapes for the start of your drawing helps you get a better handle on what you are trying to do—especially when the forms are especially complex. Trains have a lot of parts, and each is a form. Some parts have parts, and those are all forms to break down and understand. For the sake of time, I haven’t broken down every single form visible in the reference, but there should be enough here to 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 your drawing a strong foundation to build upon. Being a complex organic form, the human head has forms on top of forms, and plenty of cross contouring. Breaking down forms for parts of the human body is quite helpful in understanding the structures upon which our character designs and portraits must sit.

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 is also somewhat self-containing in that it sticks to itself—which how we get water drops and puddles.

Smoke or gas (the types we can see), can technically “fit” into containers, but that is not how they usually occur or how we end up seeing them. Smoke and gases have volume (which varies), but their most defining features are scent (which we cannot draw) and motion. The forms smoke and gases take also depend on what their origins are. Smoke from an explosion or a fireplace have completely different forms, motion, color, opacity, and value compared to smoke from a cigarette or a candle.

Fire is another subject we draw that does not have a 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 that of a campfire, or the fire from a lighter. All of these are types of fires, but they would each be drawn a bit differently.

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 when it is present in a scene or design. For example, we can draw the dust, leaves, and other debris that can be carried on, or blown around by the wind.

Air carries scents all the time, but we cannot really draw those so much as indicate them with other techniques—like a green, stinky looking whiff of smoke passing under a character’s upturned and offended nose. 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

Drawing things that are more elemental in nature requires a bit more thought and analysis, plenty of research and reference, a clear understanding of your intent, and a firm grasp of gesture and light.

Adding Depth to Create Form: 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. To successfully draw form does not require color, but it does require a basic understanding of how light and perspective work. The study of light and perspective are both quite involved. There are a wide range of effects that can be achieved in each area, and they require at least a small mountain’s worth of practice to adequately grasp.

The basics are simple enough to explain, which I will do here with light. Having read books and taken classes on perspective, I know it is best explained visually so I will leave that for another time.

When it comes to the physical world, the only reason our eyes see anything at all is because of light. As light interacts with the different forms and elements in our world it creates shadows, reflections and refraction, bounce lights, rim lights and color shifts. Until we add the elements of space and light to shapes, they appear flat on our page. Even without using a horizon line and vanishing points, you can begin to add depth to any shape by extending it further into space, in any direction, and adding contour lines.

Additional depth can then be added by lighting your object, which means adding values (light and shadow). The same process can be applied when you use traditional perspective with horizon lines and vanishing points. While a sense of depth can be achieved without lighting your object, the range of values given by light go much further in describing the forms by giving the object a sense of weight and context within the space it occupies.

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: A Simple Demo

Lines and shapes serve as early starting points to begin drawing, and for orienting the position of the forms they will become with the addition of depth. In the examples I created, I have shown the process for going from two-dimensional shape to the illusion of three-dimensional form, and the process of lighting a circle to transform it into a sphere.

Light and shadow demo

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, and that means quite a few decisions need to be made about your light source that will depend on your image goals.

To keep this simple and digestible, I’ve chosen a light source similar to the sun but much less intense and yellow.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 03-add center light

Step Three:

Add light to the shape’s surface.

This begins to give the shape its first indication of depth by putting one side in light and the other in the darker midtone 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 (bounce) 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 Simple Demo

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, adhering to rules of perspective is not necessary. I shared some form breakdowns earlier, and now I would like to share some examples of how shapes can be turned into forms using space. These are simple, quick, and sketchy examples, that are not highly rendered.

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, with a hill/mountain in mind. 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 my the work of adding new shapes and forms, 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 forms of the human figure does require familiarity with human anatomy. My goal in including a human form for this “shapes to forms” example is 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: Yet Another Simple Demo (last one, I promise!)

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 end of the lines out to each of the two vanishing points.

Shape to Form Using Perspective-Forms in Two-point perspective-Line to Form-Two-Point Perspective
The process doesn’t change much. Once again I added basic lighting after defining the forms.

If you try to begin with shapes in two-point perspective, things go wonky quickly. I encourage you to give it a try just to see what I mean. Sketching in perspective makes sense when you are working out a scene, but if you are just having fun or getting ideas out, trying to use perspective right away ends up bogging down your efforts. The idea must come first. The perspective and other technical bits can be added afterward.

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, right? 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!

My goal here has been to give a thorough and clear overview without confusing anyone or diving too deeply into other related areas. I am also trying to make my posts, and my entire website, reflect my voice. I am an open and expressive person, and I want my posts to feel conversational and pleasant as well as informative. I hope I’ve achieved that here.

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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