Light and Shadow in Art – The Fundamentals of Light, Part 1: The Science & The Basics Made Clear

light and shadow in art
Table Of Contents

The Science & The Basics

I’m not sure many people fully appreciate the nature of what artists attempt to do each time we set out to render light and shadow in art. I know I haven’t fully understood it, let alone appreciated it, even as I am in the middle of rendering.

As I continue to really dig into what Light is, I am awestruck and so thankful to all the scientists and artists who came before me—the giants upon whose shoulders we stand—because the subject of Light is huge, and I am glad they already figured all this stuff out for us 😅.

It is difficult not to get philosophical here because what we are really doing when we render light is re-creating the properties and behaviors of light in a 2D space—and those behaviors and properties encompass several sub-branches of modern Physics, including: Quantum Physics, Modern Optics, Geometric Optics, and Physical Optics.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that different aspects of light behavior and properties come under several different categories of Physics that are each quite involved areas all their own.

That was my not-so-subtle warning that The Fundamentals of Light gets quite technical.

The understanding we gain for our art is totally worth it, and we need three things for sure: 1) Patience, 2) Plenty of visual examples, and 3) More than one post to go through the massive amounts of information.

For any of you who are much better scientists than I, please forgive any inaccuracies in my scientific understanding or explanation. I endeavor to be an expert artist, not physicist 😋 , but I do try to be as accurate and as clear as possible. If I get something wrong, please let me know in the comments and I will do my best to make corrections.

I hope you will hang in there with me as I break down the technical bits (that’s the patience part), I hope the examples and information I share help your practice, and that you’ll find it useful enough to look forward to the future posts in this series. Since this is the first, let’s start digging into to the science, shall we?

The Science—What is Light?

To understand how to render light and shadow we must grasp the concept of what light is and how it behaves.

Light is a type of energy created by the emission of photons within the electromagnetic spectrum. If that sounded like gobbledygook, fear not, I shall explain.

A photon is a “small bundle” of electromagnetic energy and the basic unit that makes up all light. Thus, photons are the building blocks of light.

Electromagnetic energy describes forms of energy that are reflected or emitted from objects as electrical and magnetic waves that can travel through space. The Electromagnetic Spectrum shown below describes these energies as frequencies and wavelengths.

Electromagnetic Spectrum

The light effects we paint represent a fixed and narrow range of the Electromagnetic Spectrum called the Visible spectrum, which is a narrow group of wavelengths between approximately 380 nm (nanometers) and 730 nm.

As illustrated in the diagram above, The Electromagnetic Spectrum contains several other forms of light, however most of them are at frequencies we can feel but not “see”.

All light has both a frequency and a wavelength, and all light can behave as both a particle and a wave depending on the situation. In fact, both light and matter have particle-wave duality in their properties and behavior. It’s important for artists to understand this duality because it affects our thinking and problem solving regarding light at different stages during rendering.

When we begin to invent our images we must also invent our lighting. When we are mentally calculating the direction of our light source, its reflections, and fall off, it is helpful to think of light as particles, or rays, that travel in straight lines.

This helps us figure out how much of our object will be lit, how to place the form shadows and cast shadows, and where the bounce light will land. When objects are opaque, I have found considering light primarily as rays helps me best determine how to render the light.

When objects are translucent, transparent, or have variable reflectivity, things start to get more complex because light is not simply being absorbed and reflected but also transmitted through the object. Transmission of light through objects gives us more to consider and calculate because it gives us more to paint, like subsurface scattering, refraction, and more reflections.

Let me put your mind at ease and say it is not necessary to do any complex mathematic calculations to paint these effects, just some additional concepts to understand and visual calculations to make.

When we think about reflection, refraction, and absorption, it helps to think of light first as a particle or ray (for determining the light’s intensity, direction, and bounce) and then as a wave—for determining which wavelengths are reflected off, absorbed by, and/or transmitted through the object and the ground.

That was a huge mouthful, I know. I will be going over all of these more nuanced areas in other posts in this series.

Understanding the particle-wave duality of light begins to give us a clear view of how light’s behavior changes as it interacts with different materials. Watching the videos below helped me gain a clearer understanding of this concept, and I hope you find them useful, too.

As we bring together the elements we need to understand, we start to define the contours of The Fundamentals of Light so that we can start filling in details and particulars—and don’t worry, there will be photographic examples and demos so all of this becomes more clear.

Properties of Light & Matter for Artists

I know this has been a little science-heavy so far, and that’s intentional. It is how I make sense of complex topics, and I hope you find it helpful. Now that we’ve covered the basics of what light is, I’ll change things up a bit to keep everything digestible. I’ll cover a little science and do some explaining, and then use photographic examples or demos to clarify how the information helps in creating art.

Next, let’s dig into the properties of light, but first I want to give you a list of all the properties to keep in mind whenever it’s time to render light. This is a list according to me, and they’re based on my experience rendering light in both 2D (Photoshop) and 3D (Maya).

Light PropertiesMatter Properties
Number of SourcesForm/Shape
Type of Light(s)Local Color
Size of Source(s)Material Type
Distance from object/picture planeDensity
Angle/Height of Source(s)Reflectivity
Temperature/ColorTransmission
Exposure/IntensityRefractive Index
Fall OffEmission

Some of these are straightforward, so let’s talk about those briefly. The number of light sources is an important consideration because we need to know how much light information we’re working with. More light sources in a scene makes for a brighter image, but how each source affects the picture plane depends on all the other properties on the list.

The size and angle/height of each source are also straightforward properties and they ask questions like: Is a light source large, small, or medium? Do several small lights make up one larger source because of how closely grouped they are? Do these sources sit high or low on the picture plane? Are they even visible in the image, or are they shining from somewhere out of frame?

Under properties of matter, shape, form, local color, and material type are the most straightforward. We must know what shapes and forms make up the volume of the objects we’re rendering, and we need to know what color and material type they are. After all, there is quite a difference between painting a shiny chrome ball and painting a shiny colored plastic ball. Sure, they’re both shiny; but one is metal and ridiculously reflective while the other is plastic, softer, and much less reflective.

The Two Ways Our World is Lit

Despite all the science, properties, and moving parts involved with understanding how objects are lit, there really are only two ways anything receives light in our world: directly or indirectly.

Objects are either lit directly by a light source or indirectly by reflected light when the rays from the source bounce off some surfaces and objects to illuminate others. This kind of indirect lighting is also called Ambient Light and it is much weaker in comparison to direct light. Most lighting schemes will involve both direct and indirect lighting.

Next, we’ll go over the categories that light sources fall into.

Properties of Light – Types of Light Sources

There are 3 types of light sources:

  1. Key Light
  2. Fill Light
  3. Rim Light

Key Light

A key light is the strongest light source in your scene. It defines the emotional impact of the scene and is the primary descriptor of forms and drama. When you decide how to “key” your scene, you are choosing the overall mood and tonal range that will define it.

Fill Light

A fill light is not as bright as a key light and is often softer and a lot darker. Fill lights support your scene and subjects by adding light and color information in the shadows, which can illuminate an area of interest you wish the viewer to see or just provide added interest or balance to your scene. Fill light can be ambient (reflected) light, as I’ve done in my examples below, or it can come from an additional light source(s).

Rim Light

A rim light travels the outer edges of objects. Rim light helps define shapes, add dramatic appeal, and can be a helpful tool for adding compositional information and/or emotional impact.

No matter what kind of mood a story or scene calls for, any lighting scheme will have at least a key light and, likely, some combination of all three light source types.

Okie dokie, how’re you doing? I know this has been a lot to get through, and I hope you’re still hanging in there with me. Deep breaths, we’ve got this!

Now, it’s time to go over some terminology to help keep things clear as we continue to move through the Fundamentals of Light.

Defining Terminology + Sphere Tests

Think of this as the glossary section of this post. Here I’ll define the frequently used terms that will show up quite often from now on in both my writing and the call-outs in demos and examples.

Light Source

Anything that creates and emits light. Light sources can be natural, like the sun, moon, and fire, or artificial, like lamp posts, flashlights, and device screens.

Light Direction & Angle

The orientation of a light source relative to the picture plane. For example, low and out of frame on the left, or mid-level and in frame on the right.

Exposure

The intensity or strength of a light source. A high exposure light source makes for a brighter, “high key” scene, while a lower exposure light will make a scene appear less bright. I tend to use exposure and intensity interchangeably.

Center Light

The area of a form receiving most of the light; the lit side of a form.

Highlight

The brightest area on a form. This is usually a small area that is receiving the most direct light and reflecting a bit of it back.

Half Tone

The area on a form that has begun to turn away from the light source, resulting in a transition area of light to shadow. This area is receiving some light, but not nearly as much as the parts of the form facing the light source more directly.

Reflected/Bounce Light

Light that bounces off a surface and then lands on another form or surface is Reflected or “bounce” light. Reflected light is much weaker than direct light and can occur on any part of a form, except occluded areas.

Terminus/Terminator

The point at which light cannot land on a surface. This is where the shadow side of the form begins.

Shadow Core

The darkest part of the form shadow. The shadow core on a sphere typically looks like a dark band right next to the terminus, a clear separator between the light and shadow. The core shadow is also the part of the form shadow least affected by reflected light.

Form Shadow

The areas of a form that are in complete shadow and receive no direct light.

Occlusion Shadow

Occlusion shadows are the darkest areas in shadows and on/within forms where absolutely no light can reach. When something is occluded it is completely obstructed or blocked, so when light is occluded you have complete darkness.

We see occlusion most often in narrow areas right beneath forms before the cast shadow begins, and with narrow openings, cracks, and crevices of surfaces/forms. Occluded areas are not sufficiently open enough to the environment to receive any light, so there is only shadow.

Cast Shadow

Cast shadows is created when an object’s form blocks light. Objects block light adjacent to themselves and in the shape of their contours. There are three distinct parts to a cast shadow, the Umbra, Penumbra, and Antumbra. Much of the time, in art, we are only painting an umbra and penumbra. When multiple light sources of different intensity and direction/angle are involved, we begin to see examples of all three parts of a cast shadow.

  1. Umbra: Umbra is Latin for “shadow”. The umbra is the innermost and darkest part of a cast shadow, where the light source is completely blocked by the form creating the shadow. [i]
  2. Penumbra: Penumbra is Latin for “nearly” and “almost”. The penumbra is further from the object and lighter than the umbra. Further away from the object light from the source and the environment can influence and brighten the shadows.
  3. Antumbra: The antumbra is the lightest and softest part of a cast shadow. The technical definition is confusing and unnecessary for our purposes, but if you’re curious click here.

Now, I’m going to show a few sphere test examples to visually illustrate the terms above so we can make practical sense of all you’ve been reading.

Basic Light and Shadow Demo 06-add highlight-reflected light
Basic Light and Shadow Demo 07-Sequential

The Distance of Light Sources & Why It Matters

Each property of light plays a role in affecting the mood of our scene and the light effects we paint, including shadows. The appearance and quality of shadows is determined by the light and forms that cast them. How near or distant a light source is to an object has a significant impact on the appearance of an object’s form shadows and cast shadows, so let’s get into that next.

Distant Light Sources (Sunlight, moonlight, spotlights, etc)

We can group lights into categories based on their characteristics, like size, distance, and how intense they are to get a starting place for how those lights would interact with the objects in our scenes.

Distant light sources are things like sunlight, moonlight, and powerful spotlights like those in stadiums and theaters. Distant lights tend to:

  • Be neutral lights.
  • Cause soft-edged form shadows.
  • Create cast shadows that are the same size and shape as the object because their light rays are parallel.

As one example, we know the sun is a huge, very distant, powerful light source, and from observation we know that light from the sun strongly illuminates everything it reaches. That means light is bouncing around everywhere in our atmosphere and reflecting a lot of light, so we can expect brighter and more colorful shadows when the sun is involved.

Playing with exposure also makes a big difference, so an overcast grey sky lowers the exposure, diffuses the light, and makes the sunlight seem much less energetic than a clear and cloudless sky, and creates lighter, softer, and less colorful shadows.

The Sun is also larger than our Earth, and any object we would light with it, so we must also consider the sun as an “oversized” light, which we’ll get into in a minute.

Nearby Light Sources

Nearby light sources are things like lamps, candles, device screens and monitors, lighters, matches, lanterns, etc. Nearby light sources tend to create:

  • Larger cast shadows because the light rays are no longer parallel.
  • Shorter and sharper (harder edged) cast shadows the closer they are to objects, longer and softer cast shadows the further they are from objects.
  • A higher terminus and a larger form shadow.
  • A more active or energetic feel and added tension to a scene.

When nearby light sources are also quite small (like candlelight or a lighter), they tend to cast hard edged cast shadows. They present an additional composition challenge because they can become distracting if not handled carefully. Nearby light sources tend to become a focal point in a scene, so it’s important to be mindful of that and use it to your advantage for your chosen lighting scheme and compositional design.

Oversized or Diffuse Light Sources

Examples of oversized or diffuse light sources are the entire sky on an overcast day (sky light), light coming through large windows, and any light that is scattered by being translucently covered or blocked (like a paper lantern, a light sheet or cloth, an umbrella, or frosted glass covering for light bulbs). Oversize or diffuse light sources tend to:

  • Cause an object’s terminus to move further away from the light source (the larger the light source is larger relative to the object).
  • Create softer edged shadows.
  • Make environments and characters feel softer, warmer, and more friendly.

In the case of light sources that are larger than the objects they illuminate, the light rays are travelling out in random directions, reflecting off the atmosphere and other objects and surfaces, and filling in the shadows, which softens them. Shadows become softer edged because light does not reach each part of the shadow area equally, and because the object blocks (occludes) part of the light area behind it.

Ambient Light

Ambient light is created when light from a source is reflected off the ground, other objects, and the environment. It is possible for objects to be exclusively lit by ambient light, but a key light (which is usually a direct kind of light) is still needed to emit the light that will be reflected.

Terms like indirect light, reflected light, and bounce light all mean the same thing: they are all ambient light. Ambient light is most noticeable in shadows because of the contrast, but it is present whenever and wherever reflected light lands on an object or surface.

Light rays lose most of their strength and brightness (90%) with each bounce, and they are bouncing around multiple times. This loss of strength is why ambient light is generally weak and cannot reach into occluded areas.

You may have come across the term ambient occlusion, especially as it relates to lighting in 3D modeling apps like Maya and Zbrush. In drawing and painting, if zero light can reach an area, I simply refer to this as an occlusion shadow or an occluded area.

For a bit more on ambient light and ambient occlusion, here’s a video by Marco Bucci (awesome artist!) that I found helpful.

Light Direction & Angle: How They Affect A Scene

In any lighting scheme, cast shadows are a compositional and mood element that should be considered and planned. Choosing the light’s direction and angle is an important step in setting the emotional tone of a scene as well as defining forms and helping viewers to understand how to react to what they are seeing. Cast shadows can add drama and mystery to a scene, particularly when the object or character casting the shadow is off camera.

Different light directions and angles offer a variety of mood options, and I’ve listed a few here:

  1. Direct Overhead Lights:
    • Tend to read as unnatural.
    • Can help create tension and drama, and how much depends on the light’s exposure and temperature.
  2. Angled Light from the side:
    • Defines form.
    • Reads as active and energetic.
    • Adds dramatic tension.
  3. Frontal light (slightly to the side and above, not directly in front):
    • Comfortable way of positioning light.
    • Keeps an object/character from being in too much shadow.
    • Good at defining form.
    • Reads as soft and friendly.
  4. Under Lighting:
    • Is the most unnatural of all the lighting directions.
    • Feels dramatic in spooky, creepy, threatening, and unnatural ways.

How you choose to render your light will always depend on the position and point of view of the audience, and the message that needs to be conveyed.

The Fundamentals of Light—Breaking Down The Parts

Even though we learn in steps and stages, I find it helpful to get the “lay of the land” because it provides a road map, and it’s nice to at least have some idea of what we’re doing, right? With that in mind, I have listed the major headings that are part of studying The Fundamentals of Light and broken out some detail for the area we’ve covered today.

Deep breath…

  1. Properties of Light
    • Light Sources
    • Types of Light
    • Terminology & Sphere Tests
    • Fall Off & Form Changes
    • Exposure
  2. Light & Surface Color
  3. Reflections
  4. Translucence & Transparency (Transmission)
  5. Light & Materials
  6. Atmospheric Effects & Atmospheric Perspective
  7. The Human Experience of Light
  8. Rendering/Visual Styles

Next Time: The Fundamentals of Light, Part 2!

Take a moment to think of your absolute favorite treat for relaxing and pampering yourself. See it, visualize it in your mind’s eye. Now…get yourself that treat! You have just made it through a massive amount of information in a relatively short(ish) amount of time.

Congratulations!

Thank you for hanging in there with me. I’ve tried to keep things clear and concise, but I know this was a lot to take in. I commend you, I thank you, and I am sending you virtual high fives and fist bumps!

We need some forms before we render light, so if you need guidance in that area I have some posts covering Form and The Fundamentals of Art to help.

The next couple of posts in my Fundamentals of Light series will cover exposure and fall off, and then absorption, reflection, and refraction of light wavelengths.

If I’ve confused you, if you have questions, or if I’ve gotten anything wrong, please message me in the comments and I’ll do my best to clear things up.

I hope you’ll join me for those as well.

Take care, and happy drawing everyone!


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umbra,_penumbra_and_antumbra

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

form in art
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 elements of The Fundamentals of Art. As visual artists, our goal is 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 to connect with our audience’s remembered experiences visually.

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, shapes, and silhouettes 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. We must first construct Forms before lighting them.

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 don’t particularly appreciate putting in the time and effort to search for knowledge and 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 form descriptors 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 the surface volume and plane changes, which helps guide us when adding values. Variations of 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 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:

I know some of you may be thinking this all sounds terribly remedial and obvious, but please bear with me. I am a thorough person by nature, and it’s important to me that I not make assumptions about 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 cannot 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 😅. 

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 of shape combinations 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 sufficiently visually distinctive shapes—rather than shape combinations.

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. 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 forms, shapes are 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 is 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 lines, shapes, and colors 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 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. Given how much knowledge and inspiration we have always drawn from the natural world, I’m afraid I have to disagree with the idea that geometric shapes/forms are somehow inherently “man-made.”

If I might briefly digress: Technically, humans cannot create anything entirely on our own because we’re unable to 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 better handle 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. I haven’t broken down every single form visible in the reference for the sake of time, 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 has completely different forms, motion, color, opacity, and value than 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 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 more elemental things 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 is a wide range of effects possible in each area, and they require at least a small mountain’s worth of practice to grasp adequately.

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.

Add more depth 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. The range of values given by light goes 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 orienting the position of the forms they will become with the addition of depth. In the examples I created, I have shown the process of going from two-dimensional shape to the illusion of three-dimensional form and 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 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 (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 to turn shapes 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 human figure requires a little 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 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 to see what I mean. Sketching in perspective makes sense when you are working out a scene, but if you are having fun or getting ideas out, trying to use perspective right away ends up bogging down your efforts. The idea must come first, and then perspective can help bring it together.

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!

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, pleasant, and 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!