Infographic - What is Shape in Art? 2 Types, Definition, Examples

What is Shape in Art? 2 Types, Definition, Examples

What is Shape in Art, and why should you care? Let’s explore the art element of shape, its definition and look at some examples.

Discover organic and geometric shapes and how they were uniquely used in different art periods.

What is Shape in Art?

Shape is one of the seven elements of art that defines the boundaries and form of objects. It influences an artwork’s overall composition, balance, and visual harmony.

Artists often manipulate shapes to convey specific meanings or emotions, and they can be used to create a sense of depth, movement, or contrast within an artwork.

In simpler terms, shapes are the basic building blocks of art that can be straight and organized or more free-flowing and irregular.

7 Principles of Art

Shape is one of the elements of art, not principles of art. You can learn about each principle of art and element of art in the linked articles below:

  1. Balance
  2. Contrast and Emphasis
  3. Movement and Rhythm
  4. Unity and Variety
  5. Harmony
  6. Pattern 
  7. Proportions and Scale

The 7 Elements of Art

  1. Line
  2. Color
  3. Form
  4. Shape (we are learning about shape now!)
  5. Value
  6. Texture
  7. Space

Types of Shapes

2 Types of Shapes: Shapes can be placed into two categories:geometricandorganic shapes.

Shapes can be placed into two categories: geometric and organic shapes

  • Geometric shapes are precise and regular shapes, such as circles, triangles, and squares, commonly found in structured environments. 
  • Organic shapes, on the other hand, are irregular and free-form, often seen in natural objects like leaves, animals, and clouds.

When creating visual compositions, you’ll find that these shapes can be combined and used in an almost unlimited amount of ways. 

They help artists convey mood, movement, and other artistic concepts. 

As you observe various art pieces, note that shapes do more than define objects; they also guide the viewer’s eye around your piece and sometimes provide symbolism.

Geometric Shapes

In art, geometric shapes are structured and precise forms.

Squaresrectanglescircles, and triangles are easily recognized examples that provide structure in composition.

You can find geometric shapes in both natural and artificial environments. Yet, they are particularly prominent in human-made objects such as buildings and machines. You can identify these shapes by their precise edges and consistent angles.

Using geometric shapes in art can convey specific ideas or emotions. For example, a square can symbolize stability and order, while a circle might represent unity or infinity. Artists use these shapes intentionally to enhance the viewer’s understanding of their work.

Using shapes in Character Design

This idea also applies incredibly well to character design principles! For example, a square body shape can often give your character a sense of stability, and a triangular nose would fit well with a more evil character (like a witch).

Walt Disney has an interesting free shape language resource that you can check out on the subject.

I also really liked Marco Bucci’s lesson on Shape Design in art; check it out if you are interested.

Common Geometric ShapesCharacteristicsPotential Symbolism
Circle Infinite symmetry and no edges Unity, eternity, or the cyclical nature of life
Square Equal sides and right angles Stability, balance, or structure
Triangle Three edges and vertices Conflict, tension, or direction
Rectangle Four sides, with opposite sides equal order, containment, or balance between stability and movement

Balancing different geometric shapes in your artwork can create a sense of harmony or contrast. Their distinct effects can significantly impact the composition and interpretation of a piece.

To really get the hang of what each shape represents, try experimenting with mixing and matching different shapes together and see what kind of feelings they evoke in you!

Organic Shapes

In art, organic shapes are the more free-flowing and irregular forms.

These shapes mimic forms found in nature, displaying fluid and inconsistent contours. 

In contrast to their geometric counterparts, organic shapes don’t follow strict rules. They are free-form and unpredictable, making your artistic compositions feel more relaxed and spontaneous.

Organic shapes are not confined by uniformity, offering a sense of freedom in their asymmetry. Many artists use organic shapes to evoke feelings of movement and aliveness.

These shapes range from a leaf’s subtle curves to a human figure’s complex form. They resonate with viewers on a more instinctual level.

Properties of Shape

Examples of Properties of shape - like shape and form

The element of shape holds a significant influence on the composition and perception of your artwork.

Positive and Negative Space

Positive space refers to the area occupied by the subject matter in artthe shapes you immediately recognize.

On the other hand, negative space is the background or the space around and between the subject(s).

In the example image below, you can see a person – she is representing the positive space, and the highlighted red shapes around her create small recognizable negative shapes.

The entire white background is also a negative shape in this case.

Shape and Form Relationship

The relationship between shape and form is fundamental in translating a two-dimensional concept into a three-dimensional illusion.

While shape is a two-dimensional construct confined to height and width, form extends into the third dimension, including depth.

You perceive form through the interaction of light and shadow on shape, lending a sense of volume and solidity.

2D Shape3D Form
Square Cube
Circle Sphere
Triangle Tetrahedron (Pyramid)
Rectangle Rectangular Prism
Examples of shapes vs their potential 3D forms.

The Psychology of Shape

examples of Cultural Symbolism of shapes

Shapes play a crucial role in how you perceive and understand visual art, influencing emotions and conveying deeper symbolic content.

Cultural Symbolism

In visual art, you constantly face many shapes that are filled with cultural significance.

For instance, in many cultures, circles are associated with unity and eternity due to their continuous line, with no beginning or end.

Triangles are often seen as symbols of stability and strength, especially when positioned on their base, yet can imply conflict or tension when inverted.

There are also shapes grouped together in a specific way:

  • The Yin and Yang Symbol (Taijitu) represents the concept of dualism and balance. Yin represents darkness, and Yang represents light. It signifies the interconnectedness and harmony of opposites.
  • Dreamcatcher: A circular shape with a web-like pattern at the center, dreamcatchers have cultural significance among Native American tribes. They are believed to protect individuals from negative energies and bad dreams.
  • Ankh: The ankh, resembling a cross with a loop at the top, is an ancient Egyptian symbol representing life, immortality, and divine power. It is often seen as a key to eternal life.

I’m sure you can think of many others right now off the top of your head, like Mandala, Cross, Star of David, etc.

By understanding the meaning of shapes in design, you can decode the symbolic language artists often employ.

This insight allows you to grasp not just the aesthetic but also the cultural narratives woven into an artwork.

Emotional Responses

Shapes can evoke innate emotional responses based on their visual characteristics.

Organic shapes, with their natural, free-flowing contours, tend to prompt feelings of comfort and familiarity, mirroring the imperfect forms found in nature.

On the other hand, geometric shapes can communicate stability and reliability due to their regularity and familiar angles.

Your reaction to these forms is not random; it’s rooted in the psychological impact of shapes, which artists leverage to connect with you on an emotional level.

Use of Shape in Various Art Periods

Shape is a fundamental element in art that has defined various art periods through unique ways of representation.

Shape in Abstract Art

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue (1921) by Piet Mondrian. an example of using shape in abstract art

The birth of abstract art played a pivotal role in the departure from realism.

Abstract artists use shapes to distill reality to its essence, often emphasizing the intrinsic value of composition.

Shapes in abstract art manifest as ambiguous forms, capturing feelings or spirituality without depicting real-world subjects.

Shape in Impressionism

Claude Monet - Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through Fog - 1904, as an example of a Tetradic color scheme
Claude Monet – Houses of Parliament, London, Sun Breaking Through Fog – 1904, is an example of using the element of shape in impressionism

Rather than focusing on precise details, Impressionists used shapes as quick, spontaneous brushstrokes to convey the essence of a scene, giving their paintings a sense of immediacy and vibrancy.

Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir employed loose, often broken shapes to capture the fleeting qualities of light and atmosphere.

Role of Shape in Cubism

Pablo Picasso, Girl with a Mandolin, 1910. as an example of using element of shape in art
Pablo Picasso, Girl with a Mandolin, 1910 is an example of using the element of shape in art.

In Cubism, pioneered by artists like Picasso and Braque, shapes are fragmented and reassembled to depict multiple viewpoints simultaneously.

Artists deconstructed objects into geometric shapes and presented them from various angles, challenging the traditional notion of single-point perspective and offering viewers a multidimensional experience of the subject.

Technical Aspects of Shape

Understanding the technical aspects of shape in art is vital as its fundamental in translating a three-dimensional perspective into a two-dimensional medium.

Creating Illusion of Depth

examples of creating an illusion of depth with shapes, and using various edges and contour with shapes

You can create an illusion of depth in your artwork by leveraging shapes’ sizes, hues, values and positioning.

Overlapping shapes and altering their size and placement suggest that some forms are closer or farther away from the viewer.

For example, larger shapes tend to appear closer, while smaller ones seem further away, mimicking depth perception in the real world.

Contour Lines and Edges

Contour lines are your tools to define the edges of shapes. These lines can vary in width, style, and weight, influencing how your shapes interact and stand out.

An edge can be hard or soft: hard edges suggest a clear boundary, while soft edges might indicate a transition or ambiguity in the form.

In the same way, artists vary the weight of a line in their lineart when two shapes overlap or are in front of one another.

Art Element – Shape: Key Takeaways

  • Shape is a fundamental element in art that defines object boundaries, influencing composition, balance, and visual harmony.
  • Shapes can be categorized into two main types: geometric (precise and regular) and organic (free-flowing and irregular).
  • Geometric shapes like circles and squares symbolize stability or unity, while organic shapes evoke movement and spontaneity.
  • Shapes can convey emotions and cultural symbolism, creating a deeper connection with viewers.
  • Different art periods, from abstract to Cubism, have utilized shapes uniquely to challenge perspectives and convey meaning.
  • Understanding the technical aspects of shape, such as size, hue, and contour lines, allows artists to create depth and dimension in their artwork.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different types of shapes used in art compositions?

Art compositions use geometric and organic shapes. Geometric shapes include precise figures like squares and circles, while organic shapes are free-form, resembling natural forms.

How do shapes influence the overall impact of an artwork?

Shapes influence the artwork’s composition, mood and movement. Shapes can guide the viewer’s eye through the artwork and evoke emotional responses. The arrangement and size of shapes significantly affect the artwork’s composition.

What role do shapes play in the creation of visual balance and structure?

Shapes serve as the foundation for balance and structure in artwork. They can achieve symmetry or asymmetry, contributing to a composition’s stability or dynamism.

How do shapes interact with other elements of art to convey meaning?

Shapes integrate with all of the other art elements like color, line, and texture to express concepts. The interaction between shapes and these elements can produce rhythm or highlight focal points, ultimately conveying meaning within the artwork.